Interview with Book Writer/Lyricist Kait Kerrigan

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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This week I chatted with Kait Kerrigan, the award-winning lyricist who collaborates with the equally talented Brain Lowdermilk.  In addition to maintaining successful careers as musical theatre writers, they both teach, and have launched the first writer-based sheet music website: www.newmusicaltheatre.com.

How long have you and Brian been working together?

We started writing together when we were both still in college, so it’ll be 10 years in August.  But we knew each other as kids from a summer camp at the Young People’s Theatre Workshop.  Brian was Seymour and I was Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.  We also met our good friend Josh Young there.  Josh is getting ready to make his Broadway debut as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Brian did the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop as a composer/lyricist.  After he finished, he suggested I go when I started writing lyrics for us.  I went separately, then we worked together in the Advanced Workshop.  Those first two years with moderators Pat Cook and Rick Freyer were awesome.  It’s such a great primer.

What has been your greatest musical/artistic success as a collaborative team?

To some extent, you’re always the proudest of the thing you’re doing right now, which I’ll talk about in a moment.  But we’ve been most successful with The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown.  There are several songs that have gone on to do some pretty surprising things for a musical that hasn’t yet had a full production.  “Say the Word” was sung by one of the Miss America contestants and “Run Away with Me” has had hundreds of thousands of hits on youtube.

We’ve tapped into an audience that’s pretty young because our musical sensibility and because the kinds of moments we’re interested in writing really appeal to teenagers and young 20-somethings.  And that audience is very tech savvy – they know how to find things online.  Most writers don’t get to connect with that audience, and if they do, it’s after they’ve had a couple successes.  Through our use of technology, we sort of jettisoned that step and have remained very connected with the younger audiences.

What experience have you learned the most from as writers?

How to collaborate and develop communication skills: learning how to better ask for what you want and hear what someone else is offering.  We spend a lot of time in the same room trying to make sure we have the same sensibility and idea for a song so we can go away from each other and do the slower writing process that takes place afterward.

Can you talk a bit more about your writing process?

Generally we figure out the structure of something first.  We try to find the hook and what structure that hook might suggest.  We don’t write any music or lyrics until we have that clearly defined.  Then one of us goes first – we’re both very comfortable with either lyrics first or music first.  It depends on whether or not the song feels like it’s driven by the story or the emotion.

Has that process changed over the course of your ten years together?

Absolutely.  When we started, I didn’t know anything about lyric writing – I consider myself a book writer first.  I think my lyrics tell the story really well and I understand music very well – that’s what I lean on as a lyricist.  Brian gets songwriting in a way that I don’t.  It’s been a huge learning curve for me.  Brian started out as composer/lyricist, slowly shifting over to being a composer, so sometimes he’ll dabble in lyrics.  I have a background in music, so we can go back and forth a little bit.  But beyond this, we both consider ourselves dramatists first.

As we get older, our first drafts move forward more slowly and carefully.  Personally, I had to have a little “come to Jesus” about that, because I thought I was becoming less of a good writer.  But I realized that my first drafts aren’t as bad now as they used to be.  Our first drafts take a really long time and are very painful, but when we get to the end, I think “Oh – OK.  This is going to be alright.  And maybe the edits won’t take as long as the first draft did.”

Your writing process does change.  You have to adjust to it and realize the changes aren’t even growing pains – they’re just changes.

Why did you launch the newmusicaltheatre.com website?

We started selling our own sheet music on our website about eight years ago.  Four years ago we decided to automate the process.  As we were doing that, we realized there were a lot of other writers who were trying to figure out how to do the same thing.  We’re really big fans of collaboration and the community, and realized we had something to offer these other writers.  We decided that if we built this platform for ourselves in a way that was scaleable, we could add other writers in.

Around the same time, Georgia Stitt sent around an e-mail to all the writers she knew about sheet music piracy.  That moved us along more quickly, and we became involved with the Dramatist Guild Anti-Piracy Committee, which was forming at the time.  We thought the website could solve some of these problems by making the writer’s work more available.

What’s the benefit/danger of making scores available online?  

Sadly, there are many sites where you can find tons of free sheet music and scores.  We’re trying to build awareness in the theatre community that using these sites is not OK.

It’s very complicated – I teach a libretto-writing course and it’s really hard to find librettos.  My students want to read things, and I’m always looking for legal physical copies.  You can’t get any of them on your iPad and most the time you can’t even find them in stores.  So, of course you’re going to go online and see whether or not an illegal copy exists.

A lot of people don’t have the resources available to them that we do living in New York City.  When I was growing up, the only way I could get sheet music was if it was published by Hal Leonard.  They’re a great publishing company and support a lot of contemporary writers, but they make very specific decisions of what they’re going to sell.  Of course, that’s totally reasonable, but anything that Hal Leonard doesn’t publish isn’t sold through anyone else.

Because the climate has changed and because these websites exist where you can get cut songs from Ragtime or whatever else, there’s now an expectation that you can get anything.  We can’t change that expectation, because it’s true.  But if that’s the case, the writers should be able to make money on what’s being distributed online.

In some ways, Brian and I feel very lucky to be young writers who didn’t have a publishing deal when all this started happening.  The thing we’ve had going for us is that we’re not making a ton of money while we’re waiting for our first Broadway success.  Our fans know their support is directly connected to our ability to keep writing for a living.  We’re very open about that.

When we created newmusicaltheatre.com, we made sure that the songs purchased and downloaded (as a PDF) from the site would be encrypted with the customer’s credit card as the password.  They can open it and print it as many times as they want, but in order to share it with others, the consumer would have to give away their credit card number.  This is something that’s also being done with e-books and in other industries.

While I understand there are exceptions, it seems many of the selections available on your website have a considerable pop/rock influence.  Is that by design, or do you think that’s the trend of writers today?

A lot of it’s a trend.  For Brian and me, our music has those influences because we believe musical theatre shouldn’t have to be that far away from the rest of pop culture, as it often is.  I think a lot of other writers are also on the train with us.  The other thing is that’s what our audience listens to.  It’s not connected to our taste, but the tastes of our customers.

Do you find your website is attracting a certain type of clientele?  Are voice teachers finding this resource as well? 

We do have a lot of younger people who go to the website and that’s what we’re marketing to more than anything else.  In part, because it’s a website, and younger people are more comfortable on the web. Naturally, most of the writers who have been selling their songs on the internet for a long time are younger too so that creates an inevitable demographic.

We do get get a lot of e-mails from teachers who use the website as well, though.   A lot of times they come to us through a student, and get very excited about what’s available to them.

What percentage of the funds go back to the writers?

As of right now, we charge a percentage-based fee on the writer’s sales right now and we keep it as low as we possibly can.

How are you marketing the website?

Right now we’re doing very little traditional marketing and we rely a lot on word of mouth.  Mostly the writers market themselves.  Consumers aren’t as interested in the site as they are in the writers on the site, so knowing that will govern us as we move forward.

We have done two different concerts featuring writers from the website and both of those were very exciting and drew attention in a very positive way.  We also try to do as much advocacy as we can for writers and anti-piracy issues, which helps too.

What are your future goals with the website?

We’re at a bit of crossroads and are making a lot of decisions.  We have a pretty long waiting list of writers who want to be on the website. We’re very interested in growing the customer base and figuring out how to include as many writers as we can while also making sure the site doesn’t collapse under the weight of that.  It’s not a not-for-profit, which isn’t say we’re out to make a buck, but we have to sustain a certain level of growth.

We’re looking to hire someone part time in the next several months to help us develop new projects for the site (i.e. – social networks, concert series, creating a board).  Right now, we’re at a place where the website is doing what it needs to do.  Now we’re looking to see what our options are.

These decisions are being made in a very careful and transparent way because we want to be as inclusive as possible.

I noticed the website doesn’t list you as the creators.  Was that by design, and why?

We don’t advertise it because that’s not the point of the site.  We just didn’t think it was particularly noteworthy.  We did something we thought needed to be done.  We didn’t ever want it to look as if it was self-serving, because it’s not.  It seemed like it would muddy the story.

What are you and Brian are currently working on?

A new musical based on Henry IV set in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s called “REPUBLIC.”  It’s about 85% sung through, which is new for us.    We came up with the basic idea of the show at a writer’s retreat about two years ago, but we really started working on it in the last year.

We’re in the process of demoing six songs from the first act right now.

What do you want to tell young musical theatre artists about this business? 

I think there’s a huge chasm between what teenagers experience in high school and community theatre versus the work they’ll do as an adult in professional theatre.  That difference is connected to the fact that writers are alive.  The music, score, lyrics and book are changing and so are, in essence, also alive.  There’s a reverence that’s very cool in community theatre for the book and score, but it’s not particularly valid in our work environment because we’re constantly trying to make it better.  It ends up being more of a collaboration between the singer and writer because you need each other in a different way.

What I always wish for performers is that they’re able to step outside themselves and care more about the story than they do their own performance.   My favorite performers do that, and that’s the type of person I want as we’re developing our show or in a first run.  For me, Jenni Barber is the gold star of what I believe a contemporary musical theatre artist should be.  She’s so present and ready to try anything.  And yet, she’s also very analytical and emotionally aware.  She’s a great collaborator.  That’s the type of talent and commitment that allows us to see what’s working in a piece.  That level of trust is invigorating.

What do you think musical theatre writers need to remember?

We need to know more about our own industry.  It’d be ideal if we didn’t have to do the business side anymore, but there’s something about having to do it that hopefully makes the writing more pleasurable.  Whatever it is you “have to do” becomes a bit of a chore.  If writing becomes the thing you “have to do”, you end up not wanting to write very much.  There’s something nice about putting it back into its rightful place of being the thing you wish you could eke out more time for.

I also think it’s really important to be your own advocate and learn what’s happening around you.  This has never been an industry where you can put your blinders on and sit in your room by yourself.  That’s not what theatre is anyway.  It’s a commercial art form in a way other art forms are not.  It’s about trying to relate to people who are sitting in those seats.  And so, in my mind you want to make sure you have as many people in those seats as you possibly can.  As a result of that, you owe it to yourself to connect with them as much, and as early as you can.

We’re in a different era where there’s an expectation of engagement – where anyone can connect with you in a number of different ways.  So, if you embrace that, you have an opportunity to build up a fan base that isn’t your show’s, or producer’s, but yours.  As a result of that, when you have a show, you have all these people who are excited about it.  And then you have a situation that’s a lot more like the Tin Pan Alley era, where some people come to your show knowing some of the songs.  That hasn’t been true in decades, but now it can be true again.  That’s cool to me, and very worth while.

Also, the idea of an agent getting you work is idealistic.  There are lots of great advocates out there.  Sometimes they’re agents.  Sometimes they’re not.  You have to be connecting to all the different people around you to find out who those people are going to be for you.  I’ve had lots of projects come from totally strange angles and others come in very direct ways.  You never know what will actually stick.  You just have to have a wide net in place.

We owe it to ourselves to understand our own business, read our contracts and be able to talk with producers so we don’t end up getting taken out of the conversation.

Any words of wisdom for voice teachers who might have some hesitancy around contemporary musical theatre repertoire?

My grandmother is a great piano teacher in part because she’s engaging her students in things that they’re excited about.  There’s a place for classical training.  It’s important and, as a violinist who studied for over fifteen years, I believe in it.  But as you’re teaching classical technique, you have to make sure to remind students of why they’re studying it.

There was a point when someone should have realized I was getting burned out on Bach and Mozart.  And rather than giving me Rachmaninoff – which is what they gave me – someone should have given me some Irish music or, frankly, shown me some rocks songs and said, “Make up a violin part.”  There was a moment where I was at capacity and needed an outlet, and I think my grandmother always does that with her students.  It could be jazz or musical theatre, but it has to be something the student can really engage with.

That’s what’s exciting to me about musical theatre – it’s so emotionally engaging. Allowing students to fool around in that world – even if it’s not the main thing they’re doing – is very important.

Kait Kerrigan (words) and Brian Lowdermilk (music) made their Off-Broadway debut with their adaptation of Henry and Mudge for TheatreworksUSA in 2006, now touring nationally. This year, they released their first album Our First Mistake, which charted at #1 on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart. Other musicals include The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, Tales from the Bad Years, The Woman Upstairs, Wrong Number, and The Freshman Experiment (www.freshmanexperiment.com). Their work has been developed at theaters and festivals across the country including the La Jolla Playhouse, Perry-Mansfield New Works Festival, ASCAP/Disney Workshop, Manhattan Theatre Club, York Theatre, NAMT, Penn State New Musical Festival, and Primary Stages. They are the recipients of a 2006 Jonathan Larson Award and a 2004-2005 Dramatists Guild Fellowship. Kerrigan received the 2009 Kleban Award for libretto-writing and has authored plays Imaginary Love (Hapgood Theatre 2011) and Transit (Lark Playwrights Week 2010). Lowdermilk received the Alan Menken Award and composed the music for Red(2005 Richard Rodgers Award) and The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog (Kennedy Center 2011).  Both are alumni of the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, co-founders of the digital sheet music company NewMusicalTheatre.com, and proud members of the Dramatists Guild and ASCAP. www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com

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