How Lewberger Harnessed Their Live Performance and Social Media Savvy to Stage ‘The Wizard of Friendship’
Keith Habersberger, Alex Lewis and Hughie Stone Fish talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the (un)conventional ways they delivered a sold-out Off-Broadway musical as New York theater novices.
When it comes to creating buzzy online content for their hundreds of thousands of followers, the Lewberger trio — Keith Habersberger, Alex Lewis and Hughie Stone Fish — are mavericks.
Formed in 2016, the comedy music group has become a poster child for how to be successful in the social media age, and increasingly among fervid musical theater fandoms. Viral Broadway covers, along with earlier career appearances on America’s Got Talent, Bring The Funny and collaborations with Habersberger’s other gig The Try Guys, have helped garner the musicians countless fans.
It’s also helped the band wrack up enough social capital to produce their own shows, including a very short L.A. run of what has since become an Off-Broadway musical, Lewberger & The Wizard of Friendship.
“This show is very much catered to the way that we interact together and catered to the way that our actual friendship is,” Lewis says. “The reason it’s about friendship is because friendship plays a big part of our comedy and a big part of our show.”
It’s a new endeavor for the group, who hope it can elevate them in the already familiar musical comedy space. “When people talk about comedy musicians I want Lewberger to be on their list. I want them to say Flight of the Conchords, Weird Al Yankovic, Lonely Island, Lewberger,” Habersberger tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So this is our opportunity, hopefully, to do something impressive and cool and unique enough that it does that.”
But despite being an established presence with a fan-following, moving from TikTok and L.A. club stages to New York’s theater community was not an easy journey for the artists. In terms of the show itself, the group has had to tackle musical expansions headed up by the Emmy-winning Stone Fish, who says he spent “the first two weeks of online rehearsal with our amazing singers figuring out exactly what those parts are that they’re going to sing” along with other instrumental shifts.
The show has undergone other changes, according to Habersberger. With the ensemble, the trio fiddled with where they live in the production and worked to ensure “everybody gets a moment to show what they can do,” he explains. Additionally, they rethought casting, trying to find “talented people who are all different,” like a tap dancer versus a ballet dancer, to bring a distinct energy to the musical.
Meanwhile, technical elements like projections were expanded after the performers saw shows like Mean Girls, who “do so much with just screens,” Habersberger adds. And perhaps most notably, the show’s titular character has gotten an expanded focus. “The Wizard of Friendship was not actually as big a role as it should have been,” he says. “And we really wanted that role to feel like a starring role, so we added more music and some more scenes for that character.”
It’s also now a show that audience members should expect to see famous special guests some nights and, as Lewis tells THR, to “bring someone up at random and choreograph one of our dances.”
But the shifts as the show moved from one coast to another go beyond creative adjustments. The production has also seen the trio evolve and grow their existing artistic capabilities. “We’ve been spending the last year seeing more shows — more Broadway shows to inspire us to think about how we can stage a musical because I’ve never directed a musical before,” Habersberger said.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Habersberger, Lewis and Stone Fish ahead of The Wizard of Frienship‘s March 1 opening at Theatre Row about adapting their L.A. show into an Off-Broadway musical, their early streaming ambitions and harnessing their fandom and social media expertise to produce a nearly sold-out engagement.
Let’s start with a one-line pitch. For people who aren’t familiar with your band or this show’s earlier West Coast iteration, what is The Wizard of Friendship about?
HABERSBERGER The one-line version would be it’s an absurdist fantasy musical about the power and importance of friendship. If I were to go deeper, it’s basically a really bizarre Wizard of Oz-esque, Labyrinth-esque, mystical journey where three people are trying to fix what’s wrong about themselves and what they bring to friendships, and asks how can we be better friends to one another. But there’s also a giant penis man that’s a hot dog and there’s also a wizard and four equally handsome boys and an equally handsome forest where the trees have abs. So it’s ridiculous. It’s like the smartest dumb thing we could make. Or maybe the dumbest, smart thing that we can make. I’m not sure where those words should live in the sentence. But somewhere in there, I think the word smart and dumb are important.
STONE FISH Either way, I’ll tell you what I told my mother-in-law when she saw her first Lewberger show, which is, “Strap in and get ready for a great time.” (Laughs)
This was first pitched as a streaming special that ultimately didn’t come to pass. How was this different from a traditional comedy special and why did streamers feel like there wasn’t a space for it in this form?
HABERSBERGER The idea that we wanted this to be a streaming special comes, in one way, from that being how a lot of people get to see new things, with like [John Mulaney and the] Sack Lunch Bunch and Bo Burnham’s Inside. There’s a great opportunity for a variety of specials. We’re used to the comedy special being a stand-up act — doing a great hour, hour-and-a-half set that they’ve worked over their touring career. But I think with streaming, it opens it up for different things. We have a more standard special, Lewberger Live in Lincoln Hall in Chicago. It’s on Amazon Prime. It’s fun to watch, but it isn’t breaking new ground in any way. I also don’t think it articulates what is special about us. So when we were thinking about our next special, we thought that nobody’s done a comedy music special that’s an actual musical in that way.
It’s inspired by different things that we loved to watch in our spare time or growing up, whether that be David Bowie’s Labyrinth, or I used to watch this direct-to-VHS series called We Sing. All those things boiled together and we thought we can make something really fun with those inspirations and it would do great on a streaming platform. It would have that look of being on a cheap soundstage, like an old ’90s-produced kids’ hour-long musical program. And we thought the way to do that is to produce it as a stage musical, show it to a lot of people, and then after they’ve seen what we have produced on our own in the live space – which is what we excel at — we can come together and create the perfect version of this being televised or streamed. We didn’t get a lot of interest in it. I think a lot of people had trouble seeing how the stage version could be a streaming version, And perhaps that’s on us. Maybe we didn’t make it clear enough.
But also in doing the live musical, we thought, this is such a unique property to do. We also haven’t heard of a comedy music group deciding “let’s go the musical” route. Let’s take it to New York City, and put it up as an Off-Broadway show. It’s less important, I think, that the special is on a certain platform. It’s more this special is fun and people can see it and participate in it. I think when we tour and when we did our show in L.A., a lot of what made it special is the ability of the audience to participate. They started participating in the way that the voices on Blue’s Clues participate. We found that the audience needed to be a role in the show. So as we furthered the show for New York, there’s a lot more of that as well. That has made it a better show. Also, it sort of requires it to be a live performance, rather than a streaming special.
LEWIS There’s an element of Rocky Horror Picture Show in there, too, with the almost culty way that we interact with our audience. We would love, obviously, to put this into a streaming special and we hope that that happens someday, especially for the sake of being able to show the project to more people. But I think another thing that comes with the type of group we are, which is a comedy music band, is that basically, to this day, when we try to describe what we are, people will say, “OK, so are you like a band? Are you a comedy group?” It’s been a thing for 100 years now, dating back to Alan Sherman. Crazy, hilarious, weird songs were sung during Prohibition. So comedy music has been around forever. But also one place where people don’t ask, “Wait, comedy music?” is musical theater. If you say it’s a comedy musical, people respond, “Got it. I understand Avenue Q, Book of Mormon. I know what a comedy musical is.”
How do you feel like your previous experiences and skills prepared you for producing an Off-Broadway show and how did it expand or challenge your skills as artists?
HABERSBERGER We’ve been able to do lots and lots of shows for lots of different people together. So our comedy has been able to be tested against lots of different audiences — 200 people in Iowa, an audience of 200 people in Brooklyn. Those are different people. And we have found what bits of ours and what comedy of ours is the most universally enjoyable by both of those sets of people. That just comes from us playing together for six or seven years. We’ve had that ability to workshop jokes in front of an audience, workshop songs here and then play them and let them change. Musically, all of us have totally different backgrounds, but Lewberger has basically for me reinvigorated my passion for playing instruments again. It gave me a reason to play instruments and gave me a stage to play an instrument on. So I got better again at playing instruments. I play four different horns in the show. I learned two of them when we started doing the show. In that way, the show has made me more musically ambitious and excited.
LEWIS I have been doing musical comedies since I was a child, basically. I’ve been doing musical theater since I was five, and I began taking musical improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre over a decade ago at this point. Then I’ve been working with Keith and Hughie for almost a decade. I think writing and creating the show almost didn’t take that much of our talents’ efforts because we were just putting together what we’d already been doing. Luckily, we have videos and all sorts of things that we can watch of our choreographer Nico DeJesus, and practice them every single day, as frequently as we try to get better at dancing. It’s been a process. I’m going to the gym to try to get my cardio up, which is what I’ve been doing for the past three or four months now because we all get winded during our show, and we can’t fucking get winded during the show.
You’ve got an online following that you obviously know how to produce for. Creatively is there anything about the online space that’s informed your approach to the physical in-person theatrical stage experience?
HABERSBERGER All of us are live performers first. We were live performers who had to adapt to the time that we live in, where if you want to reach an audience, you’ve got to put yourself on people’s phones. It’s just the way to do it. Every musician, artist, stand-up comedian is doing their best to get an audience online and then get butts in seats to see them in person. Because there’s nothing like a live show. We have done a really good job with our TikTok series of really moving into the Broadway fandom space. It’s just been very fun for us being Broadway fans ourselves to work with Alex Brightman, other Broadway stars and Off-Broadway stars to make 30-second silly things. And we get to do videos online that can have anywhere from 10,000 to 10 million views. But we never get to see those people write their names, their usernames, their likes, their comments. When we do a live show, even though our shows are only going to have 99 people at a time, we get to see all those people. We’ll get to see 2,300 people seeing The Wizard of Friendship and that will feel in some ways more gratifying than seeing a huge number on a video that you post.
STONE FISH We do so much stuff online and when we are online, we try so hard to engage with people commenting, people messaging, people tweeting and retweeting. We can’t always respond to every single comment though, but we certainly do our best because we’re so grateful to every single person that watches a video. So one way that that translates is that when we do get onstage, we make sure that every single person in that audience feels like they are having a personal experience with us. I don’t care if it’s an 800-seat theater or 100-seat theater, we’re bringing people on stage; we’re talking to people; we’re handing them stuff; we’re making sure they all get up and dance; we’re running into the audience and acting like giant birds and picking up their food and eating it. (Laughs) Whatever the case may be, we’re doing that and I think in some way that is because we spend so much time interacting with people where we can’t touch them or talk to them. When we get on stage, especially even at a show like The Wizard of Friendship, where sometimes we hear, “Theater? Great, I’m just gonna sit there and watch an entire show” — that’s mostly what the audience is doing, but they’re also going to be involved with the show as well.
LEWIS We want people in the audience to be filming us, and then using their phones to post pictures. We don’t want flash or anything like that. That’s going to distract us. And we don’t want them to film the whole show and post it online. But unlike most shows that you’ll go see on Broadway or Off-Broadway, we want people to be taking pictures of their favorite moments and posting clips of hilarious moments.
You released a video ahead of the opening that chronicled how you got this production on its feet as Off-Broadway novices, from rehearsals to getting crew. Can you talk about being so unconventionally transparent about that while also tapping into the existing, conventional theater community to help you?
LEWIS We’re gonna continue to show everything, but especially throughout that rehearsal process. I think that’s something that’s really interesting, especially because these are Broadway fans. It’s going to be cool for them to see us learning dances and learning things that we don’t necessarily have training at. Putting the whole thing together, what it kind of reminds me of, honestly, is being in high school and connecting with other theater nerds. We’re getting to talk to people that are part of the cast of Beetlejuice and people that are part of the casts of these major Broadway shows. I feel like they look at us as just three theater nerds and they’re super into it. When we talk to these people, it reminds me of trying to put up shows back in the day when I was first getting into improv comedy or something like that. We’re doing things very unorthodoxly, but I feel like the way that we’re being accepted is pretty acceptable. (Laughs) Even though what we’re doing is very nontraditional and the way that we’re putting up the show is very non-traditional. And the way we’re showing every step of the process is very nontraditional. But everyone’s been positive about.
HABERSBERGER I think, in any profession, but especially one that’s so theatrical, if you want to work with people, you have to be someone people want to work with. And you have to network constantly. The people we’re interviewing, even Rachel [Bauder] — she’s the stage manager of Beetlejuice — who wasn’t super featured in The Try Guys video, we spent a lot of time when we were shooting. She was just so knowledgeable that I just had to keep this contact close. She has the answers to all of my questions but also has the answers to who we need. When you befriend somebody, in this world, and network, you start to befriend all of their friends, and then someone is more likely to want to help you succeed. I think we have something to offer them that they want too, which is a bigger audience online. We are trying to get a bigger audience in a theater. So it’s mutually beneficial.
You also added things to ticketing like lower-cost meet and greets to help raise funding for the show. It feels slightly different from the way theater has historically approached this.
HABERSBERGER Broadway’s giving this away for free. They literally have a little stanchion outside the stage door and people are coming out and the cast members are going and signing Playbills. In terms of business, they’re giving it away for free, and they’re giving away one of the most prized parts of an experience at a concert or if you’re going to a convention like VidCon. The whole convention is really built on the fact that somebody that you see on your phone will be real to you now. Especially in an industry that has such a hard time and you have these amazing shows close, that’s another way to bring in about 25- to 50 percent more money. There are people who are going to want to spend that to be able to have that 60-second interaction where it’s just them and their favorite cast member or a few favorite cast members. It’s a real thing that the rest of the entertainment industry does all the time. You charge the highest ticket price for it or you have it as an add-on.
LEWIS It also puts the meet and greet more on the artists’ terms. The only thing separating them from a big crowd of people is just some stanchions like Keith said. They don’t have somebody that’s helping facilitate the actual line go through. And it can oftentimes be a really uncomfortable experience, whereas we’ve got this nice and organized. It’ll be a lot quicker.
STONE FISH Adding that meet-and-greet component is great business, it’s great economics, but — and this, obviously, is very true for Broadway shows as well — we’ve found through all of our touring we’ve been doing over so many years now that because of the nature of what we do, there are a lot of people who turn to our songs and it means something to them. It helps them through something. There’s a lot of people who come to our shows and they’ve been waiting to see us in person, they have something they want to tell us. And it’s important for them to share it with us. In this online versus in-person pros and cons — this meet and greet is really a place where it can be molded together because it’s an opportunity. Especially with how we have ours organized where there is a certain amount of time and you know what’s going to happen.
In your video, you discuss the funding process and realizing the cost of having to produce a show like this. Why did you want to be transparent about the financial element of your journey to staging this — something that’s not often openly talked about in this way within theater?
STONE FISH We all come from believing in ourselves backgrounds and creating our own destinies as artists. I’m a freelance musician. I’m a music producer. I’m a songwriter. I was teaching at Second City Music, directing there, and putting on my own shows. So investing in myself is all I’ve ever known how to do. As it relates to wanting to be on a streaming service, that really is the hope that someone else will invest in you. That’s really the big thing that you get when you get a streaming deal. As we didn’t get that, it’s like, “Well, let’s just continue doing all we’ve ever known which is believing in ourselves.” We’ve been touring, we’ve been saving. We’ve been trying to use our money wisely and make money. So we just invested it back and created something, as Keith says in the video, that is so powerful and so real. So we have to believe in ourselves. We have to create the thing that we want. Part of that is showing people this is how much it actually costs. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of money, and we truly do need the support of our fans.
HABERSBERGER It’s not something people talk about a lot. I think part of that is there are investors and I don’t think everyone always knows how much things cost. When I was talking to Rachel from Beetlejuice, she was like, “Well, I know it costs a lot but we don’t really know how much the show makes.” Even the stage manager, one of the top people on that show every night, doesn’t know how many seats you actually need to sell every single night on average, at what price, to make the show keep going. But the investors do because they have the bill. I don’t know why there’s not more transparency. Maybe it’s because people don’t want other people to know how much money they have to invest in something. But $200,000 is probably what I think it will cost to do this show before we make any money back. It’s one of those sad realities that the ceiling of the cost kept going up, but the ceiling of how much you can make didn’t change.
But there’s other ways that we can help that and help ourselves not lose money. There’s meet-and-greets, doing merchandise. I think we won’t lose money on this. I have to believe that. I really do. I think it’s a show worth that $80 ticket price. That’s no small fee for a technically Off-Off-Broadway show. Which is why as the director, I want to make sure nobody has even the slightest thought of “I didn’t get my money’s worth at this show.” Has that made me allow the budget to go up? Yeah. I’m gonna make less at the end of the day, but I want to make sure that it’s a really amazing experience. Also, as someone who has been underpaid in their life, I don’t want the people we’re hiring to feel that way. I hated feeling undervalued.
I don’t know how many times we can even do something like this. As someone who works on the internet, the internet is a treadmill. You get on the treadmill, you set a speed, you can’t turn the speed down. So what I’m doing right now is hopping off the treadmill for a month and a half to do something completely different. Then I’m gonna have to hop right back on the treadmill and have to go at that same pace I used to go. But I have to believe that the show will make its money back and we can be OK with the $200,000 cost.
An ongoing conversation about how to market shows has gotten particular attention this season for various reasons. You’ve had a very online presence around this show. How has that translated to help you market it?
HABERSBERGER I have a lot of experience with online marketing and I think what we sometimes forget about in all entertainment is the story. Even the marketing is a story. The video we put out is our story about how much this means to us, about how hard it is. So now you’re not just seeing our show, you’re finishing that story when you come. It’s sort of like you become a character in the show. I’ve been able to see this. I made a hot sauce, I made a video about the hot sauce and I thought it was going to be a very small thing, but people are really engaged because getting the hot sauce was completing the story. Seeing Wizard of Friendship is completing the story that we’re telling online about all of our work going into it. I think if you’re trying to put up a new show, the biggest social presence you can have will show not only the things that are going well, but things that are not going well.
Get people to be invested in each individual person and invested in the director and invested in the musicians working on it. We go to see a show like Annie, a classic, and we’re like, “Wow, that was so impressive. Those people are all amazing.” But I’d probably be more impressed if I could have seen a month before one of them struggling with a specific part of that show, then seeing them not struggling. I would go on her socials and say, “I saw you struggling and you crushed it tonight” because I’m engaged. We use engagement in social terms and how people are interacting, but truly being engaged is needing to be a part of the show. With Wizard of Friendship, you become a part of it. You’re actually in the show, but also if you’re following our story online, it really has a bigger impact on you.
You can’t pretend that the Internet doesn’t exist, so it’s got to be something we utilize. And if you know how to use it, it’s a gigantic free marketing platform. I mean, look at the amount of YouTubers who now make products. They don’t just make shows. They make products.
There’s a virality in the video space or just a presence in the online world that is not quite there with New York theater in the same way as other mediums beyond the very passionate fandoms.
HABERSBERGER I think that’s something that most older institutions don’t want to do and in some ways legally can’t. But playing with this huge amount of IP — that’s why Disney+ has had so much success with Marvel and the Extended Universe. They’re playing with their IP. They’re like, “Yeah, let’s make the What If… series.”‘” They’re allowing the audience to participate in it more and I think we need to look at older Broadway shows the same way and allow it to be fun and participatory. It doesn’t have to be in the theater. I don’t need people to stand up and scream during Wicked, but maybe if there were viral videos with the cast of Wicked doing stuff that was fun and showing their perspective … and not that Wicked is suffering at all. It’s doing great, but other shows. (Laughs)
If we can take those properties and have more fun with them, you’re gonna get more people interested in them. And if you share the story more, people are gonna feel connected to it. The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t relate to anyone anymore. We relate to it because it’s nostalgic, for me at least. It was one of the first shows I ever saw. So I will always go see it. It was my introduction to musical theater, so it’s special to me. But if I had to choose between Phantom and Book of Mormon, at this point, I would choose Book of Mormon. That’s because there’s nothing about Phantom that’s new and exciting to me. So we have to just think about Broadway in the same way we think about other IP and have a little more fun with it.
Earlier you spoke about fan and audience engagement and it sounds like something that’s not just happening as a way to get people to the show but that’s also built into the show. How does that play out performance-wise and how important is that interactivity to your musical?
STONE FISH Our fans typically scream and stand up anyway. It’s just what happens. And because we do so much performing at comedy clubs across the country, it’s built into what we do. So as we were creating this show, we were anticipating a similar crowd experience. Even in terms of the music, there are certain moments where we’re building tracks and it’s like, “Well, we might need to add an extra measure here because if the people coming to see our show are anything like the people that usually come to see our show, they’re going to be applauding now.” So as far as the music, that’s how we built it. We’re just anticipating an excited crowd experience.
HABERSBERGER We also physically go into the audience in parts of the show. We physically insist on the audience standing up and participating in some parts of the show by quite literally speaking directly to the audience that they need to get up right now. We also are writing solos and moments into songs where there’s just no way you’re not going to scream “Woo!” after you hear is that because it’s going to elicit a woo. When the wizard turns around and finally sings her solo, you’re gonna be like, “Oh, yeah, here we go!”
I think in some of Hughie’s great work in being able to write in multiple genres, if you have a KPOP-type moment, you want to stand up and scream. So we know that when we write this bit in, it’s going to get screams. Now, if I want the audience to be quiet and tearful during the song entitled “I’m a Dick,” that’s a very sweet lament, they’re hopefully going to be moved to tears but at the same time, they’re gonna be like, “This is ridiculous. Why am I even emotionally upset about this at all?” So in those ways, the music is going to inspire people to be participating.
We also have some celebrity cameos appearing playing my dad, so there will always be someone in the audience that everyone is like, “They’re famous, so are they going to be up on stage later?” There’s gonna be that buzz. And even just the silly joke of saying that J5 is an important seat in the audience, that makes that seat important. That makes J6 important. So you’ve already participated in the show by choosing your seat and its proximity to J5.
This is a limited run. Knowing what you know now about getting this thing mounted and ready for a stage, would you consider extending the run? Or even taking it on the road?
HABERSBERGER I think I’d definitely entertain any offer to do something that I love and have it be profitable. I don’t know if how long we could extend it and it would be profitable. I just don’t know. I would think that touring it would probably be the best option because we can go to another state and city and be there for a weekend or two. I think that would be the best, making sure everyone in that area can come see our show and not overstaying our welcome and losing money thinking that we have six weeks worth of people here instead of really strategizing out how can I get everyone who wants to see this show to have the opportunity to see it and also not lose money doing it.
LEWIS Piggybacking on what Keith just said, you know, we want everybody that loves us on Tiktok and Instagram to be able to see this show. So whether that means maybe touring it someday — which we’d all love to do — or getting some deal with a streaming service or figuring out a way to distribute it, that is definitely something that’s in the cards and in the hopes for the future.
Interview edited for length and clarity.