Dallas — The AT&T Performing Arts Center's second Off-Broadway on Flora series kicks off this weekend with the two-man musical Murder for Two, the first musical by the team of composer Joe Kinosian and lyricist Kellen Blair. Both of them wrote the book, a spoof of the murder mystery genre. The show opened Thursday at Dallas City Performance Hall and continues with performances Friday night, Saturday matinee and Saturday night.
We chatted with Blair about the show, his background and working with Kinosian.
TheaterJones: What's your background in theater and writing? How did you meet Joe and decide you'd want to write a show together?
Kellen Blair: I've always loved musical theatre, but in high school it didn't seem like a realistic career choice. Instead, I opted for the much-more-realistic choice of trying to be a famous movie director. Four years of film school and a couple years working in Hollywood convinced me that it might be worth giving theatre a shot. I moved to New York in 2008 to take part in the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, and that's where I met Joe. We were paired to write a “charm song” for the movie It's a Wonderful Life and we just kind of never stopped writing songs. We decided to write a show together—but usually, at least for me anyway, just deciding something like that doesn't really accomplish anything. So we convinced a producer-friend of ours to tell us to write a show, and suddenly we were being held accountable! We did our first reading of Murder For Two about three months later.
What were the significant milestones in the development of it?
Here's what we knew: we knew we wanted to cultivate inspiration from limitation, hence two actors and very few props and costumes. We knew we both loved murder mysteries, and it seemed to be a great genre for two writers working together for the first time (having some inherent structural qualities that we could use as guideposts).
We knew we loved the absurdist humor of the Marx Brothers and we wanted to capture that spirit in a very theatrical way. And we knew we had Joe in our back pocket, a fabulous piano-playing actor, to showcase the piece as we tried to build momentum. Given those ingredients, the idea just sort of seemed obvious the moment we said it out loud.
The core of the show has been there from the beginning; the significant milestones along the way were mostly about beefing up the story. The first reading was basically just 45 minutes of loosely connected jokes. But we had to make the audience care about the detective. The biggest “aha” moment I remember came just before our first full production...deciding that maybe our hero wasn't a detective at all, but a relatively green officer hoping to make detective. The book is incredibly silly, and we embrace that, but we also wanted to make sure the show had a heart. It was really validating when Joe and I were nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Book of a Musical; that was the moment we realized that agonizing over those little story details had paid off.
Who's the big murder mystery fan between the two of you? How far does that love of mysteries go back? Who are your favorite writers and characters in the genre?
I think it's safe to say we're pretty even in this regard, and in fact it's one of the things we bonded over. We watched And Then There Were None together within a few months of meeting, not to mention a number of the Thin Man movies. Agatha Christie is definitely one of my favorite writers, but we also drew a lot of inspiration from more recent, quirkier murder mysteries (à la Twin Peaks). And you'd think I'd want a break from mysteries now, but I'm still discovering new mysteries I love all the time. I just read The Dead Mountaineer's Inn and highly recommend it!
Talk about the challenges of creating music and songs for an actor playing multiple roles. I assume you want characters to have music that stands out, but you're writing for one voice with a specific range.
There are definitely some challenges when you're only working with a maximum of two voices. We actually got a review once where someone said they wished there had been more group songs, and I was like, you and me both! Actually, we took it as a compliment that we had successfully created the illusion of a crowded room. So that's one thing, you are sort of forced to lose the chorus, which is a big part of musical theatre. As a lyricist, however, it wasn't a challenge distinguishing between characters. We always wrote as if they were all truly different people...and then just passed along the challenge of making it work to the actor and director!
The show was a hit in NYC ... but getting a national tour for a small show is another feat. How often is the show on the road? Sounds like it's easily adaptable for various sizes of theaters.
Well, this is our first show, so I can only assume this is all very standard. Just kidding. We realize how incredibly fortunate we are...not only that theaters around the country seem to be embracing the material, but that we have such a smart team of producers and colleagues that are out there actually making this happen everyday. From what I gather, it's rare for a smaller show like this to have built up so much momentum. Before the tour, we'd never seen it performed in an audience bigger than 200 people. Suddenly we were sitting in houses with 600 other people and it was incredibly surreal. The show really does adapt quite well to different houses.
You guys are working on another musical. Sounds like you have developed a shorthand with each other. In what ways has that grown/changed during the process of Murder, and does this mean your next one will be super-easy?
We are indeed working on several new projects together! I think the biggest difference between when we started writing Murder For Two and now is that we don't feel the need to tiptoe around each other's feelings as much. We're a little more blunt, almost like brothers, or (it's impossible to avoid the comparison) an old married a couple. A certain trust develops. But writing new, good, original shows will never be easy. When we wrote Murder For Two we were paying rent by doing one godawful survival job after the next. Hunger does breed a certain amount of creativity. At the very least it gives you a kick in the pants. The challenge now is to stay hungry.