Musical Theater Might Be Hard But ‘Comedians Earnestly Singing Musical Theater’ Makes It Look Easy

In a world where algorithms reward a running schtick, pigeonholing plenty of versatile performers into one or two mainstay personas, it was refreshing to see another side of these comedians.

Musical Theater Might Be Hard But ‘Comedians Earnestly Singing Musical Theater’ Makes It Look Easy
Zach Schiffman and Reid Pope, the co-hosts of Comedians Earnestly Singing Musical Theater. Photo: Arin Sang-urai

Hot Mic is a weekly column by Leah Abrams documenting, spotlighting, and reviewing live comedy in NYC. 

I had never heard of the “Jimmy Awards” before I moved to New York City. For the uninitiated, it’s an annual showcase of high school musical theater actors that crowns two winners for their outstanding performances. As the New York Times put it: The Tonys, for teens.

Despite the fact that the Patron Saint of the Jimmy Awards, Our Lady of Unhinged Press Tours, Reneé Rapp, is from my home state of North Carolina, the Jimmys always struck me as an institution meant for people from Connecticut. Not necessarily in a bad way, just, you know, in a way. I love musicals as much as the next Gleek but I remain suspicious of people who make them their whole identity.

But the joke’s on me because this week I went to a show for grown-up theater kids. And it was fucking great.

It feels wrong to call Comedians Earnestly Singing Musical Theater a comedy show—not because it wasn’t funny (spoiler alert: it was!), but because it wasn’t only funny. It was also genuinely impressive. Saturday Night Live’s Chloe Troast sang Cabaret, TikTok star Veronika Slowikowska sang Follies, and from the first act to the last, the audience sat in rapt awe.

This was the show’s third edition at Manhattan’s 54 Below: a two-drink minimum, dinner-and-a-show-type venue tucked into the basement of Studio 54 in Midtown. I don’t know how to describe the venue better than co-host Reid Pope, who aptly dubbed it a “tricked-out Maggiano’s.” 

Despite the fact that it was Midtown on a Thursday, my friend Long bravely accompanied me. Once there, we placed the order you’re legally required to consume while viewing musical cabaret: two dirty gin martinis. We chatted with our assigned tablemates, Carly and Molly, both comedians and friends of a few performers on the lineup. “What color Telfar is that?” they asked; which is Brooklyn creative speak for: “What’s your sign?” We had eggplant, oxblood, and dark olive between the four of us.

Veronika Slowikowska. Photo: Arin Sang-urai.

Veronika Slowikowska. Photo: Arin Sang-urai.

“Sugar, butter, flour,” sang Pope, as they and co-host Zach Schiffman—who both looked dashing in matching black tuxes—took the stage. “The worst pies in London!” interjected Schiffman. (It was Pi Day.) I didn’t know what to expect but my overwhelming takeaway was: “Wait, they’re actually good? Like, really good? At singing?”

I shouldn’t have been that surprised; plenty of comedians were once musical theater kids—it radiates off them like the fingers of jazz hands. But still, I kept having that thought over and over. There were gags, sure: A sketch comedy group called Business Casual (a rough name for SEO, by the way) sang “When I Grow Up” from Matilda, pulling little colorful helicopter hats out from behind their backs and unbuttoning their shirts to reveal baby tees. Jess Henderson sang “One Song Glory” from Rent and “kept forgetting” the lyrics and reading them off their phone, leaning over the piano, which was both hilarious and endearing. Chris Murphy and Tessa Belle did a perfect Warner and Elle, complete with Belle’s head-to-toe pink sequined outfit. There were two ensemble medleys—one Wicked-themed and one simply called the “boys” medley, which I assume is a Jimmys reference that went over my head.

But mostly, even through the laugh lines and well-delivered bits, the show was true to its name: comedians were earnestly singing. In a world where algorithms reward a running schtick, pigeonholing plenty of versatile performers into one or two mainstay personas, it was refreshing to see another side of these comedians, even the ones I’d seen before. Case in point: Veronika Slowikowska, a.k.a. TikTok’s @veronika_iscool, sang a beautiful rendition of “Losing My Mind” from Follies, so stark a turn from her mumbling TikTok sketch character that I almost had to check my eyes. Annabel and Sabina Meschke, the identical twin co-hosts of Union Hall’s Triplet Auditions, harmonized through “I Will Never Leave You” from Sideshow. Aaron Jackson sang “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop, and though I already knew he could sing from his starring role in Dicks: The Musical, he bodied the role of Audrey in a way I couldn’t have predicted. 

Aaron Jackson. Photo: Arin Sang-urai.

Aaron Jackson. Photo: Arin Sang-urai.

Speaking of bodying, watching Troast sing “Cabaret” (after introducing herself as Fraulein Sally Bowles) was like watching Michael Jordan sail across the court to dunk a basketball or watching my friend Long cook a perfect chicken. Which is to say, she did it so flawlessly that it seemed effortless—and so naturally that I couldn’t picture her as anyone but Sally Bowles for days. I (not a joke) think they should cast her in the Broadway revival. It reminds me of all those cubist painters who had to master realism before they broke its rules. As the saying goes: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

Just before Troast took the stage (or maybe just after, my notes got indecipherable), a couple a few tables away sent over another round of drinks. “For us?” Long and I whispered, confused. Yes, they nodded. Well, sort of. They were for Molly, from Troast’s parents, and like the saints that they were, Molly and Carly split the gift. We drained our glasses and took the train home, where I laid in bed, pleasantly drunk, and listened to “Cabaret” one more time.

“What good is sitting, alone in your room?” I thought. “Life is a Cabaret, old chum.” 

“Shut up,” said my boyfriend. “You’re off-key.”

Richard Lowenburg did the musical direction and piano accompaniment for Comedians Earnestly Singing Musical Theater. For more of the hosts, you can subscribe to Reid Pope’s newsletter and follow their Instagram, and keep an eye out for Zach Schiffman’s solo show, Zach Schiffman’s BFA Showcase on Instagram.

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