Interview: Khiyon Hursey on Going From HAMILTON to SPIRITED & More

Spirited is scheduled to be released on Apple TV+ this holiday season.

By: Apr. 05, 2022
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Interview: Khiyon Hursey on Going From HAMILTON to SPIRITED & More

Khiyon Hursey is a writer and composer primarily working to push musical theater into the contemporary world of popular music.

Upon graduating from college, Hursey began working as the music assistant on the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Hamilton. Since then, he has worked with Pharrell on a Netflix Movie musical, also co-penning songs with Grammy Winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for Spirited, the upcoming movie musical starring Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer. He is currently co-writing Love In America, a movie musical to be produced by Issa Rae at Universal.

BroadwayWorld caught up with Hursey to discuss his journey from Hamilton to Spirited and beyond. He touched on his experiences working on musical movies, stage musicals, and what audiences can expect from him next.

I'd love to start with when you were a music assistant for Hamilton. What did you learn from that experience and how did it prepare you for the future of your career?

Yeah. I always think of my time at Hamilton as grad school, because I went to Berkeley College of Music, graduated with a degree in songwriting and literally like three months later, I was working on the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton. So it really felt like a seamless transition from going from school to grad school, literally seeing how a musical gets built by some of the greatest musical theater artists of our time. So that experience was incredible, in terms of watching Lin [Manuel Miranda] write in real time, watching Tommy [Kail] and Andy [Blankenbuehler] choreograph and direct in real time and stage in real time. And also seeing Alex Lacamoire, who was my direct boss, orchestrate that entire show from scratch, it really was magnetic and pretty incredible to witness.

Was there anything specific that you kind of learned from Lin-Manuel or from Alex Lacamoire during the process that you've held on to throughout your career?

Yeah, I definitely feel like their discipline and their drive to just make it the best thing possible is something I've held onto. After we transferred to Broadway, they went back in and were still doing changes. This was after there was a lot of hype from the off-Broadway production and, even after that, they still wanted to make changes and tweak and Lin was tweaking all the way up until a few days before we opened on Broadway. So just that discipline I've held onto. So doing your best always.

Well, you've done so many amazing things since then and you have so many exciting projects coming up. I want to start with Spirited, the movie musical that you worked on with Pasek and Paul. What was that whole experience like and what can audiences expect from this film?

Yeah, Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul], they're definitely some of my musical theater songwriting heroes, so it was such an honor to get to work with them on this incredible project with Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer. I'm just really excited for people to see it. It's a classic spin on a Christmas Carol, which we all know and love, but with some like mega-movie stars in it. I'm just really excited for everyone to hear the stuff we wrote and also to hear Ryan sing and Will sing and then dance. So it really was such a cool process to work with Ben and Justin. They're just the best of the best.

You're also, co-writing a new movie musical, Love In America. How did that come about and how's that going?

So Love In America really started with me and my writing partner meeting with the woman who used to run Issa Rae's production company. She's a big lover of musicals and she had this idea for a musical. We eventually started working with Amy Aniobi, who was a writer and executive producer of Insecure. From there, we shaped that even further and it's set up at Universal and I'm just excited to be working on a movie musical that centers people of color. I think those are very far and few between in the musical landscape specifically in film and television. So it's been a lot of fun. We're still in the weeds with it, but I'm excited for people to eventually see it.

You said that you're really excited to make that for a community that isn't represented enough in movie musicals. I love that you're working to make musicals so accessible to so many people around the world. Were there any movie musical soundtracks growing up that you were your favorites and inspired you?

I grew up, I want to say at the tail end of the Disney age, so I definitely was super into Mulan, super into Hercules. But I feel like I didn't really start getting into musicals until High School Musical, which was a very big turning point for me. I was old enough to like understand what a musical was, but I was like, "Whoa, this is super cool." I really like consumed the High School Musical one and two and three pretty intensely. So I think I hold onto those soundtracks specifically, specifically one and two, because I had the physical copies. I had like three versions of the film, the one with the sing-along and dance-along. There were some really fantastic songs in both of those films. So those specifically I've held onto but like earlier in life, Mulan, Hercules, the ones that I feel like everyone knows and loves from the tail end of that Disney era.

Since you do have experience working in theater and film, what are some of the differences between the two that you like? What do you like about working on music for a film that you wouldn't necessarily get in theater?

Most of the time, my process in film tends to be collaborative. I really enjoyed the collaboration aspect of both experiences that I've had so far and the TV and film landscape have never been solely just me. So I really enjoyed that part of it. I also think I enjoy the ability to look at a story and just think about what you can't do onstage necessarily. Stage musicals, at least the ones that we mostly see deal with a very heightened world, very heightened stakes. Whereas I feel TV and films, you know, very, very grounded just to connect to the viewer immediately. So I find the situations of songs in TV and film very different than what we observe on stage mostly. So that's really cool in terms of getting to do more grounded musical theater writing for TV and film.

I know you can't say a lot about it yet, but does that apply in any way to Love In America?

Yeah. Tremendously.

Well you've accomplished so many impressive things already, but do you have any other bucket list items or any collaborators that you'd love to work with in the future?

I would love to work with Jack Antonoff, I think he would make a really cool musical and I think we would make a cool musical together. He's amazing. He's obviously a pop icon and a legend. I'd also love to work with Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange. I think he would make a really cool musical. I think those are my dream collaborators. I think everything that I'm doing right now is kind of in line with the things that I want to be doing. I just want to be creating more stories, more inclusive stories, more stories that we haven't seen before, but also just generally bringing musicals to bigger and broader audiences. So more TV and film musicals, but also more stage musicals that are getting the audiences that typically don't go to the theater, but also like acknowledging the audiences who do love going to the theater and creating for them as well.

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