'It seems like everything is a musical these days," said Jennifer Childs, taking a break from rehearsal in the sunny South Philadelphia studio of 1812 Productions, Philly's only professional comedy theater company.
"Rocky is a musical. Spider-Man is a musical. The Bridges of Madison County is a musical. So we thought, 'What if there was Budget Crisis: The Musical! Or Congressional Infighting: The Musical!'?"
Take that line of thought to its illogical conclusion and you get the latest rendition of 1812's annual news-driven, politics-focused holiday production This Is the Week That Is - rebooted as a news-driven, politics-focused spring musical. The production is in previews at Plays & Players Theatre.
That transformation was powered in large part by Alex Bechtel, 28, who serves as musical director - and composer, performer, and accompanist - for the ensemble performance.
"We used to have a piano player actually hidden by a wall, and they were very much there just to provide accompaniment," said Childs, who is the company's cofounder and the show's head writer. "Alex came along, and he's such a gifted performer that, little by little, I tried to get him out from behind the piano."
Bechtel shows up as Vladimir Putin, belting out a parody of the Oscar-winning song "Let It Go" from Disney's Frozen - in a thick Russian accent.
He sits in as a piano-playing Al Gore, backing Childs' boozy Hillary Rodham Clinton for a Sondheim-based cabaret number, in which she recruits a running mate from the audience and tosses out barbs about Monica Lewinsky (that "has-beensky").
And he joins the whole ensemble, which includes Aime Donna Kelly, Dave Jadico, and Scott Greer wielding wide-eyed, candy-colored puppets, in "Avenue O," a song about life today - from the iPhone arms race to the Affordable Care Act - all in the style of Avenue Q.
That song is one of several original pieces by Bechtel. It swipes the musical vocabulary of contemporary Broadway, including synthesizer-backing and lots of bright, pop-inspired chord progressions.
Working within that limiting framework enabled Bechtel to write quickly, he said. "And this demands of you to be able to write quickly, because we only have three weeks to write the show, soup to nuts."
Writing a musical in that time frame may seem like a tall order. But, Childs said, the zeitgeist just seemed to call for an outsize Broadway treatment.
"In certain years, having it be a musical would not have been appropriate," she said - such as the depths of the Iraq war, or the worst of the recession.
But, she said, the troupe is increasingly cognizant that anyone who just wants to hear one-liners can watch Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" or catch The Daily Show.
"We're always thinking about: When there's such good stuff on TV, what makes ours different?" she said. "Which also plays into the musical-theater idea - with ridiculous, huge costumes and people coming into the audience and making you run for vice president. It's important to spend more time with those issues and get past the first joke."
Music became a means to achieve that. "It's a great satirical tool because it can take something really mundane and make it epic and operatic," she said. "It can also take something really serious and simplify it."
This Is the Week That Is has always incorporated a song or two. (Those cast members who don't know how to play an instrument learn on the fly. Fortunately, Childs said, "comedy is so much about rhythm and timing that a lot of comedians are great musicians.")
But this year, the show includes 17 musical numbers, across a broad range of styles.
As hectic as the pace is in rehearsals, it becomes even more frenzied after the show opens. The cast and crew all share in writing the show - and in updating the scripts daily, through a flurry of e-mails and an hour and a half of rewrites before each performance.
"As the political landscape shifts," Bechtel said, "the show shifts as well."
In the past, that's thrown tough curveballs - as when Donald Rumsfeld retired in 2006, or when Herman Cain pulled out of the Republican presidential primary race in 2012, rendering some of the group's funniest material irrelevant.
A 10-minute musical number amplifies that risk - leaving a big hole to fill in the case of an unexpected headline.
"That's what's wonderful about this show, and maddening as well," Childs said. "It can only happen right now: Two weeks or a month from now, it's going to be irrelevant. ... And if anything big happens and we have to cut a whole number? Well, we can write fast."
One thing she doesn't have to worry about is a shortage of material.
"We always think we're going to run out of jokes," she said, "but the government just keeps providing."
This Is the Week That Is
Presented by 1812 Productions through June 1
at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Pl.