BWW Interview: TUTS Undergrounds' MURDER BALLAD Love Triangle Talks About the Show
TUTS Underground's National Regional Premiere of MURDER BALLAD is kicking off its second and final week of performances in the Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. This rocking 80-minute one-act is leaving Houston audiences electrified and exhilarated. In celebration of the amazing performances given so far and the ones still yet to come, we sat down with MURDER BALLAD's sultry and sexy love triangle gone awry (Pat McRoberts, Lauren Molina, and Steel Burkhardt) to further discuss MURDER BALLAD.
BWW: How does it feel to be a part of the National Regional premiere of MURDER BALLAD?
Pat McRoberts: It's always special to be part of a project that's so new to audiences.
Lauren Molina: I am so excited to be part of this show. It's so satisfying to sing this new music that is totally rocking. This show is so fresh, contemporary, and current. I think that it's so important that people outside of New York see this piece and see what musical theatre can be. It's not just your typical ANNIE or OKLAHOMA.
Steel Burkhardt: It feels pretty good. I actually didn't even know it was the Regional Premiere until I got down here, and they said, "It's the Regional Premiere of MURDER BALLAD." I was like, "Okay cool." (Laughs) It feels good though. You know, I always made jokes about the fact that I understudied Will Swenson, and how I'm going to follow him everywhere. I'm just kind of making those jokes true to a little bit.
BWW: Judging from the on-stage chalkboard, the bar has created some specialty cocktails for the show. What do you think your character's favorite drink would be?
Pat McRoberts: Michael drinks a single malt. Probably Macallan 18. I haven't see it in our bar.
Lauren Molina: That's a good question because I have sort of catered her favorite drink to what I would like to drink. (Laughs) Let's see. She probably would be a dirty martini drinker. Yeah, like extra dirty with fat, juicy olives.
Steel Burkhardt: Well I don't think Tom's drink would be anything different. I think it would probably be a Manhattan. He seems like he really enjoys the New York skyline, and he even has a line about it. So, I think that probably a Manhattan would be his drink.
BWW: What has it been like working with this tight-knit cast?
Pat McRoberts: I try not to talk to them very much. As long as they stay out of my way, we'll be fine. (Laughs)
Lauren Molina: I love it. It's such an ensemble piece, and it's important to have a good friendship and working relationship with people that you're getting intimate with. (Laughs) At least it is for me. So, I feel like I am just having so much fun working with people that I think are so talented and good human beings as well. We're sort of cut from the same cloth, I guess. We all have a good sense of humor about it even though it's really dark, intense material.
Steel Burkhardt: I love it. I love doing this kind of stuff because you get to really grow and get to know the people a lot better. When you are on tour, and with a cast of twenty or thirty people, you get to know every single one of them, and you get to find people that you want to hang out with, and people that you don't really want to hang out with. But, with this, you're kind of forced to hang out with all of these people, and I've got to say, luckily Bruce Lumpkin picked out some really great people to do the show. I've really been enjoying my time in and out of the theatre as well.
BWW: You have gotten to put MURDER BALLAD in front of several audiences now. How is Houston responding to the show?
Pat McRoberts: I really love the way our audiences react vocally during the show when they are caught up in the action of the play. "Ooooh... ohhh..." and "Uh-oh!" We can hear you, and we like it!
Lauren Molina: They have been responding more vocally than I ever would have imagined. I can't believe that they are loving it so much. I mean I can believe it, but I was expecting them to be a little more conservative and a little bit quieter. They are very vocal in moments, like when Michael stands up to Sara after he is privy to the fact that she's been cheating. During his song, the audiences are laughing, and "oohing" and "ahhing," or they are like "She's been caught." You can hear awkward giggles and laughs when there are big make-out scenes and things like that. So, I think people are just not used to accepting a show with this sort of subject matter; so, the moments of release for them, whether they laugh at something that is shocking or slightly awkward or because of nervous tension, I think that is when they are really releasing.
Steel Burkhardt: I think they are responding pretty well. I think that everyone that has come to see it is just like, "Wow." Even people who don't know anything about it; they are just coming straight down just to have an experience. There was this guy, the other day, who was on the stage, and he was all about introducing himself right away as soon as he sat down at the table. He just said, "I am a retired Air Force guy. I love this s**t." After the show, you could see him, and he was like, "How f**king awesome!" (Laughs) I mean he was so pumped. You know what I mean? So, I think the fact that it's good music, with good staging, good singing, and with a story line that people can relate to in some sense, especially when it is thrown at them in a one-act, it's great! I think people are definitely responding well to it, and I hope that more people will come.
BWW: What has been your favorite aspect of performing in Houston?
Pat McRoberts: Is it wrong to say the Galveston beaches? We've had such a long winter in New York this year, I couldn't wait to pretend that it's summer.
Lauren Molina: I really love the weather down here in the spring. It's so nice. (Laughs) Everyone is so kind; there's definitely that southern hospitality. The theatre is so state of the art and beautiful. It's so accommodating to our needs. It's a really great company to work for. Let's see what else... (Pauses) the food down here is awesome. I have been literally eating my weight in food. The seafood, I have just been poisoning myself with mercury every day. (Laughs) I've definitely been enjoying and ingesting tons of food down here. And, you know, Houston is really bumpin'! There are so many cool bars, and very hipster, as it were (Laughs), creative places and restaurants, and there are all of these pockets that feel like Brooklyn. I really like Houston. It's so funny because last night I went to Austin, and I just feel like in the big cities of Texas, there's so much to see and do. I understand why people are proud to be Texans.
Steel Burkhardt: Well, I am really enjoying the people. Especially because it feels like Houston has this pulse to it, about bringing the nation towards the city. People are interested in putting up good artistic theatre, opera, music, and also creating good culinary options, bars, and restaurants. They are making Houston a little more of a community. The more I talk to people, the more I hear about that as well through entertainment, through restaurants, and even businesses, like other businesses helping businesses creating plans for other business to grow. That's exciting to hear, especially coming out of the economic downfall that we had all around America. Houston is trying to build it up. That's what I like the most.
BWW: What is your favorite song in the show?
Pat McRoberts: "You Belong To Me (Reprise)." I love the harmonies, and how it helps tell the story.
Lauren Molina: I really think that "Coffee's On" is a beautiful song, and I love the acting moments in it as well. It's not one of those tour de force songs where I am belting my brains out. It's not like "Mouth Tattoo," which I also love because it's so fun to sing. It's not like the "You Belong to Me (Reprise)," another one I love singing because my head feels like it's going to explode because it's so intense. It is so exciting and thrilling to sing that in the moment where I am convincing myself that I am going to kill this dude, you know? But, I think, actually what I love is "Coffee's On." I just love the story it's telling, and I love the melody. It really is emotional, and I think it's relatable. So, I would say that's the song I love singing the most.
Steel Burkhardt: I don't know. There are several really good ones. I do really like "Sara" a lot. I remember when I saw it in New York, that was a song that I really, really, enjoyed. But, I can't pick my own song to be my favorite song. (Laughs) I would say, I really... (Pauses) there's a couple of spots that I just love listening to over and over again. There are a couple of reprises... (Pauses) Okay, I'll tell you this instead. One of my favorite parts to sing is when Michael is trying to get Sara to stay home with him, and going through hell saying that he'll call off work. It's right before "Built For Longing," and I come in and sing harmony with Pat, and we sing, "Come on, come on you and me, Sara, Sara." I love that part, I love that line, and I love that both of us are just pleading for her time and pleading for her to be with us. That's one of my favorite lines to sing.
BWW: Because it is a demanding four person show, what has it been like preparing for your role in MURDER BALLAD?
Pat McRoberts: It was a short rehearsal process so it was important to learn the material quickly so that we could figure out the best way to tell the story. The character work came together quickly as well, using costume pieces in rehearsal and all the information the text provides. I truly enjoyed the process.
Lauren Molina: Since we had a short rehearsal process, I pretty much came into the rehearsal process with most of the music memorized. I listened to the album and looked at the music. A lot of the original cast members are my friends, and it was fun to listen to them. Rebecca Naomi Jones, who I adore, Will Swenson, who I adore, John Ellison Conlee, and Karen Olivo, who I am not as close with but I just think her voice is stunning. Also, Caissie Levy [Karen Olivo's replacement] is a dear, dear friend of mine. We actually share the same birthday and birth year. So, I saw the show with both casts, with Karen and with Caissie, and I feel like that was preparation without knowing. (Laughs) Then, I got the album, and I fell in love with it. I feel like the orchestrations by Justin Levine are so spot on, and he did such a badass job putting together the album. The sonic qualities are just so delicious.
You asked me what I did to prepare for the role, I just kind of listened to it over and over again, and once it was in my body, I was able to make it my own. You know, not sing it exactly like Karen or Caissie. You know, I feel like I've just pulled from my own crazy experiences. Obviously, I've never been married and cheated, or anything like that, now have I been in a serious situation that is as dramatic as what Sara goes through. (Laughs) But, when you're playing something that's based in reality, like this show is, you sort of have to ground it in your own truth. It's definitely an intense show.
Steel Burkhardt: I would say that the hardest part is that you literally are on stage the whole time, it's so short, and it kind of shoots you out of a cannon right away. So, you're going through all of these emotions, and all of these feelings within the first twenty minutes, you know. In the first ten minutes of the show, you go through three years of the show already. Early in the show, there are lines saying after three years they were together, they were in love, and he realized that he wasn't ready for compromise or commitment and he leaves. Then she comes back to him like fifteen minutes later, after you have her getting married, and all of a sudden ten years have past. So, it's kind of hard getting your mind set in that, where it was ten years ago that you two were last together, but in actuality it was really like ten minutes. Then, of course, you fall back in love with her, and then you have to go a little nuts because she doesn't want to be with you. (Laughs)
Also, keeping your mind focused, because Pat who is playing Michael, and I have a lot of downtime when she is going back and forth between both of our relationships. We have a lot of downtime where we are not offstage. In these moments I find I move my body to the music, and I am like, "Wait. I shouldn't be rocking out too much. They'll be on to me." At the beginning I am sitting down at a table stage right, in the audience, and I just kind of rock my head a little to the music because, in my head, this is a song that he's [Tom's] listening to at the bar. This is the song that he's listening to while he's just sitting there. Then, it also takes a little bit away from the mundaneness of just sitting there and not being able to move.
BWW: What advice do you have for those hoping to make a career on the stage?
Pat McRoberts: Knowledge is power. Learn everything you can about the business. Be a sponge. See everything you can, and do all the theatre you are able to do. Don't just perform. Work crew, sell tickets, write plays, teach dance, produce you friend's cabaret. The more you know about everything, the better performer you will be.
Lauren Molina: Turn back now! (Laughs) You know, I'm literally asked this question all the time. It is such a hard business, but I also love it. I've had, knock on wood, the best time creating roles, meeting amazingly talented people, and being inspired every day by the people who I come into contact with, who I get to work with, and who I am surrounded by. So, it's a double-edged sword. You just have to be prepared for rejection, and develop a thick skin. I would say constantly challenge yourself to do as much as possible. Don't just say, "Oh I am just a dancer" or "I am just a singer." Try to really explore all of your full potential, educate yourself, and travel. I think the most well-rounded people are the ones who really stand out as something special when somebody's casting a show. But seriously, turn back! (Laughs)
Steel Burkhardt: I would say do as much theatre as you possibly can. Do community theatre, high school productions, and middle school productions. You know, I was at the point of that. I did it since I was nine years old, and I just kept doing it. I was doing it more for just joy. Then, all of a sudden, later on, when I was about to graduate from high school, I thought, "Well, I think I could make a living doing this." That just readied me and made me feel more comfortable on the stage. It helped me to put in those hours of work that every person needs to put in if they want to become, whatever you want to call it, an expert or a professional. You need to put that time in, and that might be included in taking voice lessons. If you really enjoy it, find a good voice teacher and take lessons. One thing that I really wish that I would have probably done more was to take more piano lessons. You always see your friends who are extremely proficient on piano, and you're always a little jealous. (Laughs)
BWW: Have fun with this one. "We're like two ___________ in a __________."
Pat McRoberts: Ah, very funny. Well, how about "We're like two TESTICLES in a ONE ACT."
Lauren Molina: Okay, I've got it! "We're like two CLUMPS in a MILK JUG."
Steel Burkhardt: Well I've got to stand by my original. "We are two PIKACHUS in a BINDER." Even though that's where Pikachu should be because it's a card. (Pauses) Oh, my girlfriend said, "We are two GERBILS in a HEN HOUSE." Oh, and "We are BULLS in a CHINA SHOP." Well, and this one probably won't be appropriate for the interview, but "We are two STRAIGHTS in a BATHHOUSE."
From the interview, anyone can see this is one fun cast, and their performances in MURDER BALLAD are the kind that all audiences really enjoy. However, Houstonians and visitors to Houston don't have many chances left to see the show. The National Regional Premiere of MURDER BALLAD, produced by TUTS Underground, runs at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through April 27, 2014. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. For more information, and tickets, visit www.tutsunderground.com or call (713) 558-TUTS (8887).
Photos by Christian Brown. Courtesy of TUTS Underground.