Five years ago, when we started ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com, Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond were already a well established and celebrated writing team. They won the Jonathan Larson Grant (2010) and were on their way to also receiving the Fred Ebb Award (2013). Their shows have been produced by theaters like The Village Theatre, Kennedy Center, and Pittsburgh CLO to name a few. Needless to say, we’ve been thrilled to have them on our site.
In the last couple years, it’s been a pleasure to watch all of their exciting accomplishments from afar (thanks, Facebook!). We recently caught up with Michael and Chris after the premiere of Romantics Anonymous at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and “Vampirina,” an animated musical TV series (they wrote songs), which started airing on Disney this Fall. The following is a transcript of our conversation.
First off, congratulations on all your continued success! We couldn’t be more happy for you both and think it’s so well deserved!
CHRIS: Thanks so much! We’ve been really fortunate to have a number of terrific opportunities over the course of our careers, and really appreciate the support that organizations like Contemporary Musical Theatre have given us along the way.
You’re both graduates from Carnegie Mellon. Did you start writing together there?
MICHAEL: Yes! I (Michael) was an undergraduate music composition major and Chris was a graduate playwriting major. Carnegie Mellon has an amazing theater program, and they happened to have a libretto writing class, which involved a lot of lyric writing. I snuck my way into that class (which was only playwrights) and I was immediately struck by Chris’ lyrics. So funny and heartfelt and wonderful. I asked him if he would be interested in writing some songs together. He said yes. Many songs and many musicals later, we’re still writing together.
Having a musical and a television show premiere within a couple months of each other is a neat trick. We assume both of these projects have been in the works for a while. Can you tell us how and when they began and how they happened to intersect as they have?
CHRIS: One of the things that musicals and animation have in common is that it takes an extremely long time to bring them to fruition. VAMPIRINA and ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS have both been in development for a long time, and it’s crazy that they’ve debuted within a month of one another.
We’ve been working on ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS for about three and a half years now. The show’s producers, Kilburg Reedy and Jason Grossman, found and fell in love with the source material, a 2010 French-Belgian film called Les Emotifs Anonymes, and felt that it would make a great musical. They brought Emma Rice on board to direct and write the book, and asked us if we’d submit some songs on spec as an audition. We have been big fans of Emma’s work ever since seeing BRIEF ENCOUNTER on Broadway, and were utterly charmed by the film, so we jumped at the chance. Emma has since become the Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe, and felt that it would be a great match for the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s indoor theater.
Our work on VAMPIRINA is the result of a relationship that we’ve developed with the folks at Disney Junior over an even longer time. They became familiar with our work based on the recommendation of an actor who we’d worked with who was developing a TV series with them at the time. Over the years, they’ve asked us to audition for a few projects, and liked our submissions, though we never got any of the jobs. When they asked us to submit for VAMPIRINA, we thought it would be a great opportunity to continue to develop that relationship and stay on their radar. Fortunately, they felt that our work was a great fit for the project, and ended up hiring us. We had been working on the show for almost two years before the pilot aired in October.
What do you find to be the main differences between writing for the stage and writing for television, both from a songwriting and logistical prospective?
CHRIS: In some ways, you can say that the fundamentals are the same. A great song is a great song no matter what the medium, and in if the songs are being used to advance the story, which is the type of storytelling that VAMPIRINA employs, then the writing process itself can be really similar. At the heart, it’s always a matter of trying to figure out how to best tell the story or capture the dramatic moment in song.
That being said, logistically speaking, they are very different. The process of writing for television was new for us, and it’s obviously quite a bit different than writing a stage musical. For starters, we’re not only the songwriters for VAMPIRINA, but the music producers as well. So, we’re responsible for writing and producing all of the show’s original songs. We oversee an amazing team of singers, orchestrators, and technicians as we create the demo version of the tracks to be approved by the Disney executives, and then the final versions of the songs that appear on the show. There’s a lot more responsibility in that regard than we were used to.
Additionally, the TV process is lightning fast, and involves creating a lot more content that a typical stage show. We wrote over 50 songs for the show’s first season, oftentimes writing a recording two in a week. You’re also getting notes and feedback from producers and executives that have to be implemented almost immediately, which can be a challenge. That sort of pace can be grueling, but it also forces you to really hone your craft as a songwriter. You learn to work efficiently, you learn how to take notes, and you learn how to really stretch yourself in terms of creating a vast amount of content without repeating yourself.
One of the really nice things about writing songs for animation is that it can open you up to enormous possibilities that may not be technically possible to pull off in a stage show. Almost anything is possible in animation. We can switch locations immediately, go into flashbacks or fantasy sequences within a song, and rely on visuals to enhance the song in ways that may be tricky to do on stage. Having such a talented team of artists who bring the song to life really allows you to expand your imagination in ways that can be really expand the way you envision a song working on screen or on stage.
In what ways have your previous writing projects prepared your for these challenges?
MICHAEL: I think the thing that has best prepared us for these projects is that fact that we’ve had a good number of our works produced and workshopped up to this point. It really was about 10 years of doing this that led us to where we are. It took an awfully long time to learn to truly let go of work that you love, rework it, cut it, rip it apart, and putting it back together to make the overall piece better. Working on our musical in London with director Emma Rice, who comes from a devised theater background, she really challenged us to respond to the actors and the creative team in the room. We did an immense amount of reshaping based on all of our intuition. For Disney, we were are the right state of mind and right place in our careers to respond to the notes and shaping of the TV creatives. We also (thankfully) were in a place where we could handle the intense amount of work/production that TV shows require. We’re not just composers on this, we’re the music producers, so we rose to the astonishing amount of work required of us. Producing recording sessions, managing a music team, hiring orchestrators, managing the audio mixing, handling the notes in each part of the music team, etc. It was a lot, but it came at a time in our lives, personally and professionally, when we could handle it.
Have you found any major differences in the rehearsal process working in the UK versus the US?
Michael: The rehearsal periods are longer, and the breaks aren’t as frequent (as per British Actors Equity). Both obviously tiny things. Also, the writers aren’t usually as big of a part of the process of new works over there. Something that (forgive me wonderful British theatre people!) I think Americans really get winning marks for. Our American producers really pushed for us to be there for the entire process and I’m glad they did. If we hadn’t been there each day, I’m not sure we would have been able to achieve such a cohesive piece. Emma Rice’s style is to make everything as seamless as possible, and it just woundn’t have happened if we weren’t there to cut, alter, change, and follow each persons instincts at any given moment.
Have there been times when you’ve felt like a fish out of water?
MICHAEL: Mainly at the pub after rehearsal, where our tolerance for pints is much smaller than the average Brit. Also, why do Brits think it’s ok to eat beans for breakfast. Seriously….that’s messed up… 🙂
CHRIS: One of the challenges of this industry that you don’t hear people talk about a whole lot is how taxing it can be to be away from home for a long period of time, especially when you’re working as intensely as you need to be when you’re birthing a new musical. It can definitely be challenging. Thankfully, we had a really supportive, friendly, funny team of artists working on this project, and they made us feel incredibly welcome the whole time.
That being said, I almost got hit by a car every time I crossed a street. They paint the instructions on the ground in the crosswalks, but I’m still too American to know which way to look.
You both have collaborated for a healthy amount of time. Can you name a couple hallmarks of a good collaboration as you’ve experienced them working together?
MICHAEL: I think the most important thing is that we have a (mostly) similar taste in theater, and a similar aesthetic when it comes to creating. We both love anything that’s well written, and we both strive for the best in ourselves. We both respect each other and also tend to be brutally honest, which helps us each write better and keeps our writing relationship healthy.
CHRIS: One of the things that I think we’ve learned over the course of our collaboration is that you need to be consistently learning and improving as writers. We’re incredibly supportive of one another and proud of the work that we’ve done, but we also try to be self-critical enough to make sure that we’re always growing as a team. Hopefully that desire to continually challenge ourselves will keep our both our work and our collaboration exciting as we move forward in our careers.
For more information, or to buy Kooman & Dimond’s albums and songs, see the below links:
www.koomandimond.com – website
twitter.com/koomandimond – twitter
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