When Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair first started writing Murder for Two way back in 2009, they probably couldn’t have imaged the life it would have. Originally created with the idea it could be something they could just put up themselves, the show requires two piano playing actors who play 13 characters with minimal props and costumes (Originally Joe did double duty as both creator and performer).
After several workshops and developmental productions, the wacky musical had its world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2011. After that it came to New York in 2013 and played at the McGinn/Cazale Theater as part of Second Stage Theater’s season and then transferred to New World Stages. Since then it has played in dozens of US cities and had international productions in Canada, London, Australia, Chile, Shanghai, South Korea, and Japan.
We are used to golden age musicals being re-imagined, but the success of Murder for Two got me thinking about how new musicals get re-imagined. What’s that like for the writers, performers and directors who get to work on the show just a little down the road?
I am lucky enough to get to find out firsthand, since I am now directing this madcap show in Fayetteville, North Carolina (home of Fort Bragg) at Cape Fear Regional Theatre helmed by its fabulous Artistic Director, Mary Kate Burke.
As a director it is always a challenge to direct a show I have seen and enjoyed onstage. Scott Schwartz directed the very memorable Second Stage production with the exceptional performers, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback. Luckily for me, CFRT wanted to present their production in a thrust configuration by putting their audience on stage so they’d be up close and personal. Since Second Stage was a proscenium, that right away forced me to rethink the staging possibilities.
My next challenge was deciding whether to hire performers who had done the roles before. In the show, one actor plays Detective Marcus, and the other plays all the Suspects. Both must be strong comedic performers AND strong pianists — able to accompany themselves on piano. My first instinct was to cast people who hadn’t done the roles before so they would have no prior productions to unlearn. But with a score that must be memorized, and just three weeks of rehearsal, I quickly changed my thinking. At CFRT I am blessed with the talented cast of Trace Pool and Ben Miller who were actually in a production of the show together last summer at Stages in Houston.
I asked Trace and Ben what it’s like as a performer to get to re-imagine their roles. And I asked Joe and Kellen what it’s been like to see the show in so many incarnations these past few years.
CMT: Joe & Kellen, you have made some adjustments to the script and score since it was at Second Stage. Can you talk about how the show has evolved since its first production?
Kellen Blair: The very first production was at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in early 2010. Since then, the show has evolved quite a lot — including swapping out a couple of songs, and streamlining Marcus’s journey a bit (the show still has a “scattered” sensibility, since the character of The Suspects is trying to distract Marcus throughout the show. But ten years ago that scattered quality may have gone a little too far). Since our Second Stage production in 2013, we’ve only made a few changes to the script. Notably, there was a joke about Hepatitis that got cut. We were advised to lose the joke when we were in London. The director there said, “People in the UK don’t really get Hepatitis.” To this day, I’m not sure if he meant that they literally don’t contract the disease, or that they just don’t understand it. Regardless, there is no longer any mention of Hepatitis, and I think the show is better for it.
CMT: What have you learned by seeing the show in the hands of so many different performers?
Joe Kinosian: It’s been amazing to see what different actors bring to these roles. Both tracks allow to really let the actors put their individual stamp on them, and that’s always so cool to see. Marcus has been played neurotic, suave, awkward-suave, incredibly panicked and un-suave, and obviously The Suspects role allows an actor to really interpret as they see fit. Dahlia has been incredibly southern, incredibly east coast, goofy and tragic and everything in between.
CMT: Joe, you have had the unique perspective of seeing multiple incarnations of the show both as a performer, and as a creator. What has that experience been like?
Joe: As a writer who’s on stage, you’re getting a different insight into how your role flows from one moment into the next, whereas the writer who’s not playing a role is keeping track of many, many different moments and pieces. Luckily with Kellen on the “outside” and me on the “inside,” we could compare notes on how different moments were feeling and tracking from one section to the next, and that was a fun way to get different perspectives and try to do what was best on both ends.
CMT: The show has been performed in other languages (Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Portuguese) What was it like seeing your work translated?
Kellen: It was surreal! Especially getting to experience the different traditions of theatre etiquette around the world. For instance, in Tokyo, in the middle of an applause, the actors would make a sudden rapid hand gesture, prompting the entire audience to clap quickly three times, and then stop. It was a strange but efficient way for the story to move along. In Shanghai, the cast and crew found moments of seriousness and silence that we never thought were possible in the show. It was incredibly beautiful and moving to see such a different (yet equally compelling) take on the material. If interested, you can see our experiences in Japan and China at http://www.youtube.com/kinosianandblair
CMT: Trace & Ben, you’ve both done the show before (together once at Stages, and Trace you recently did a stint in the Holiday version of the show at Cape May Stage). Why would you want to do it again?
Trace Pool: I really wanted to do this show with Ben again, and I think it’s clear why once you’ve met him. We did the show together for four months in Houston, and I’m so grateful that the show has given me that friendship. Obviously there was no guarantee that he’d be cast with me again, but I’m glad that it worked out that way. He’s my foil in every way, and I’m better for having his levity and kindness.
Besides wanting to do the show with Ben, I think Murder For Two is one of the most fun and empowering things I’ve ever gotten to perform. It’s easy as an actor/writer to feel a lack of control in the product we get to put out to the world. The nature of this show and the skills it requires make it very difficult to pull off, and because of that, it’s easier for me to remember that I’m vital to the process. I’m grateful for the spirit of collaboration, and I try to carry that kind of consciousness to other projects.
(Also, shoutout to Joe and Kellen for the insurance weeks. I got a dental cleaning last month and thought of y’all while my gums were bleeding!)
Ben: I wanted to do Murder For Two again because, first of all, I like the show. Second, practicing the prerequisite skills for performing in the show (distinct characterizations in voice, show-offish piano playing, and silly walking) is eerily similar to what my brothers and I attempted everyday to amuse ourselves as small children. I guess I’m trying to say doing this show is like playing pretend as a kid. It’s fun!
This is my first out of town (and out of state) acting gig. I wanted to do this show because Trace was also doing it. In fact, I wouldn’t have auditioned at all if Trace hadn’t called me two or three times to convince me! I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime-solving.
CMT: What are the challenges of re-imagining this show in a new space with a new director? What are the perks?
Trace: It can be hard, especially in the first days of a rehearsal process. There are a lot of layers to the show which can be interpreted any number of ways, and I’ve never done two shows with the same interpretation. So for my brain, sometimes it’s like trying to re-solve the longest, most difficult math equation in the world, but several times and using different methods each time. At first it takes some mental gymnastics, and swallowing enough ego to see the show through new eyes. But the good news is ultimately the answer to the equation is always the same, a funny show that audiences care about. There’s a trust there that I’m learning to love. When something works it works. And, I get to fall in love with a brand new show every time.
Ben: I am having a lot of fun doing “version 2” of this show! I’m excited for my family from Texas to come see it so they can see all the slight changes. My fiancée Kelsey will especially have a blast picking them all out!
[Note: Ben met his fiancée during the run of Murder of Two in Houston. She came to see the show several times, was invited onstage for a little audience participation one night, and the rest is history. A Murder for Two love story!]
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Murder for Two runs March 5-22, 2020 at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, North Carolina. For tickets and more information, go to CFRT.org.
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