It’s not every day that East End audiences have a chance to witness the birth of a musical — one that may go on to be a hit show some day — but that’s exactly what’s happening this week at Bay Street Theatre.
Composer Joe Kinosian and lyricist Kellen Blair arrived in Sag Harbor early in the week and have spent the days since at Bay Street working through their new play “Murder for Two, A Killer Musical.” Rehearsing with them is director Thomas Caruso and actor Adam Overett and on Saturday, musical lovers are invited to come to Bay Street Theatre to see the new show for themselves.
It’s all part of “The Workshops,” a Bay Street Theatre initiative that offers writers, actors and directors the opportunity to spend a week developing projects at the theatre followed by a live performance. Kinosian and Blair, who share book writing credit for “Murder for Two,” have performed their play publicly just three times since they finished writing it last summer. This week at Bay Street represents a chance to take their script to the next level.
“Bay Street has given us the space and the time to get up on our feet and figure things out,” says Kinosian. “I think it’s enormously beneficial. Also at Bay Street it will be the first time we’ll be working with production elements including lights and sound. Lighting is integral to what we do.”
It’s also the first time that Overett will be acting in the two-man play, instead of Blair, who prefers to take it in from the audience’s perspective.
“I feel what makes Joe and I a good team is he’s such a fantastic writer, and up there on stage he’s also an actor,” says Blair. “I represent the writer’s eye during rehearsals. Working with Thomas Caruso, I’ll sit and take extensive notes. After every rehearsal, we make a ton of changes.”
“We’re coming to Bay Street with a brand new song,” he adds. “There’s work to be done as a lyricist. Joe becomes an actor and I’m a set of eyes he trusts.”
“Murder for Two” tells the story of a novelist who is shot at a birthday party. When Detective Marcus arrives on the scene, he hopes to use the investigation as a way to improve his shady reputation. The suspects in this crime? Virtually everyone in town.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or maybe it’s just inspired insight, but with “Murder for Two” Kinosian and Blair have created a study in theatrical moderation and economy of scale (musically speaking).
“It’s a two person murder mystery musical comedy,” explains Blair. “One actor plays the detective, one plays the suspects and both play the piano.”
There’s a lot of switching of characters in this script, note the writers, and a great deal is left to the audience’s imagination — including costuming and sets. Kinosian and Blair intentionally conceived the show in this way, anticipating that a simple production could more easily find a home in a variety of theaters. Without a cast of thousands and the need for a full orchestra, “Murder for Two,” they reason, is the ideal musical — simple, affordable and flexible enough for virtually any venue.
“We originally wrote it as something Kellen and I could take out to very small performance venues, cabaret and concert venues,” explains Kinosian. “We can do it ourselves and carry nothing. That’s the fun. It’s like a vaudeville routine — two actors who took the bus cross country and there’s nothing on stage but the piano.”
“The chief irony is in writing something we thought we could do ourselves, we got interest from people who wanted to do more with it,” he adds. “But we trust that the audience can use their imagination in playing with the conceit that it’s two guys portraying all these people.”
Kinosian and Blair feel they may be on to something with the “less is more” philosophy of “Murder for Two.” Though it seems tailor made to today’s trend of downsizing, they didn’t set out to write a musical based on economics.
“We started writing this project with a thousand person cast, and as we were working we thought this will take years,” says Blair. “Why not, as first time writers, write something we can do in a few months?”
“The first step was saying let’s write something we can do. No production elements and just two actors,” says Kinosian. “I think that’s become a trend. It can either be something audiences think is cheap and ineffective, or we can find a way that’s unique and clever.”
Kinosian, a Milwaukee native and Blair, from Seattle, met at New York’s BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, one of the few places in the country where aspiring composers and lyricists can study their craft.
“In this workshop they pair up composers and lyricists randomly,” explains Kinosian. “After the first year of working randomly, you pick someone to work with the second year. We were working in the second year of class, and started writing this play in the summer to tide us over — not realizing we were on to something.”
“We hit it off and had fun writing,” adds Blair. “We were the first to team up and write a project.”
Blair and Kinosian have found they are not just kindred spirits when it comes to writing musicals.
“We’re both inspired by the classics,” says Kinosian. “We’re bigger fans of anything from the ‘40s and ‘50s than pop Broadway musicals. I hope that in our music, we create a sound that’s fresh and original, but also traditional and inspired by things like ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘How to Succeed in Business.’”
While writing “Murder for Two,” Kinosian and Blair set out to create a cohesive theatrical piece with music and a script that offers just the right tone — this is, a comedy after all.
“We wanted to infuse it with a timeless quality while poking fun at the old time period,” says Blair. “One interesting story that came out of it, we have these wise-acre choir boys that talk like ‘20s newsboys. Nobody really talks like that anymore, so Joe said, ‘Why not point it out and just say they’re from another place?’”
“I think we’ve learned that when it seems off and like it’s not working, instead of taking it out, sometimes the best solution is just pointing it out,” he adds.
The ultimate Sag Harbor test for “Murder for Two” comes on Saturday when it will be the public’s turn to let the writers know if it all works.
“A collective audience doesn’t lie,” says Kinosian.
“Murder for Two, A Killer Music” is at 8 p.m. this Saturday, January 23 at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. A Q&A with Kinosian and Blair follows. Tickets are $15, sold at the door beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Top: Adam Overett (at piano) and Joe Kinosian during a rehearsal of “Murder for Two” at Bay Street Theatre.