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BWW Interview: Kirk Coombs Talks SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL (Studio Cast Recording)

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The family-friendly new musical examines different relationships with lots of charm and wit.

BWW Interview: Kirk Coombs Talks SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL (Studio Cast Recording)
Album art for SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL.

The COVID-19 global pandemic will always be remembered for interrupting the future plans of musicals; however, some scrappy shows and production companies have not let the virus, nor the lockdowns it caused, keep their art in the dark. The charming and witty SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL is a great example of this. We chat with Kirk Coombs, the writer behind the surprisingly relatable tale about laundry items looking for their purpose, love, and more, about how he and his teamed pivoted in order to keep moving forward with their project.


What was the inspiration for SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL?

Well, back in 2007, my old friend Nick and I decided we wanted to try to write a show together. We went through several ideas, once of which was a vague and raunchy AVENUE Q style show that took place in a Laundry Room with humans wearing sock puppets. We never did anything with it.

Fast forward to 2012, I was taking a playwriting class at Texas State my senior year and had a pitch and synopsis due that I had procrastinated on. While getting ready that morning, I was running late because I couldn't find a pair of matching socks. One flashback and two hours later, I was explaining a short children's story about a sock who loses its match to my class. My playwriting professor, John Hood, was also the Artistic Director of Wimberley Players and asked me to have a meeting with the board about developing and commissioning the show, and SOLE MATES was born. That opportunity never went anywhere, as the board wanted something short and rated G, and as I developed and grew to understand what story SOLE MATES was trying to tell, it didn't fit with what they initially imagined for their children's program.

SOLE MATES is, naturally, a charming romance, but it's also a nice allegory/parable too. What do you hope audiences take away from the musical?

At the end of the story, I hope that audiences leave the theatre (or their computer screens) thinking about perspectives, empathy, risk-taking, and what it means to be human. Being an ensemble piece, there are so many stories being told. Similar to RENT, audiences may identify with Osckar's story, they may have experienced the complexities of Kal and Laken's arc, or they may be primarily concerned with what Mark is going through.

Mark's path to "the dark side" is a direct result of his abuse and his being bullied by the other characters for his appearance. The ensemble doesn't realize that the majority of what they end up going through is a product of their own irresponsible actions. Mark's a good guy who's manipulated into doing bad things because he feels society has abandoned him.

Kal and Laken have a deep love for one another but feel like their paths are forking and what they want as individuals may not be compatible with what they want for their relationship. They don't listen to one another and, if they had, they also would not have found themselves in as much trouble as they do at the end of the show. Their relationship is inspired by stories like THE LAST FIVE YEARS. You see where both of these characters are coming from. Neither is the enemy; it's just a huge struggle sometimes balancing your own dreams against those of your family and friends, and it's important to listen, find that balance, and not 'sockrifice' all of one side's dreams or expectations for the benefit of the other. You'll never be truly happy that way.

Osckar doesn't remember much at the top of the show, but even so, decides to risk everything he has for just the chance of finding a happily ever after. Osckar's story, and a large part of the SOLE MATES message, screams "nothing ventured, nothing gained."

These characters are obviously not human, but the things they deal with and their problems and relationships couldn't be more so. It was super important to me to find that line, stay on the right side of it, and write these characters as if they are. When I'm watching Shrek, I think the message is one hundred times more powerful and relevant when the pigs aren't being marginalized because they're pigs, but because they're written as immigrants, and the wolf isn't discriminated against because they're a wolf, but because they're written as an individual of undefined queerness. Making the characters in SOLE MATES as human and as relatable as possible has always been a priority. These are real issues we're dealing with today, and it does nobody any good to leave the theatre thinking "poor wolf" or "poor pigs" when they could instead be thinking of the humans in their lives that live and face this type of discrimination every day and what we can do in our own lives to stand up to Farquaad.

SOLE MATES is family-friendly, but the humor and exuberant heart speaks to adult audiences. How did you strike that special balance?

That's always my favorite question! I have two mostly wonderful little girls, 5 and 6, and I find myself frequently watching movies and TV shows with zero redeemable value, and it can be agonizing to sit through something that was obviously not meant to be viewed by someone older than ten. I live by the idea that I'm only going to write something that I'd personally want to see or hear. I aim to be a fan of my own work. There's a time and place, I suppose, to pander one's art to certain demographics, but I'm still at the place in my writing career where I can write things that excite me on a personal level, and I love that.

I think the best art is the kind of art you need to see or hear a second time. My favorite songwriters are Tim Minchin and Bo Burnham because it's impossible to catch every joke, every pun, and every word the first half dozen times you listen to it. The moment you laugh is the moment you've just missed the next two jokes. These guys are wordy and have a style that I think is simply wonderful, and I wrote SOLE MATES as my best effort to emulate that. I do believe it's unlikely to get every joke or pun in this show the first time around, and, with so many stories going on, it gives one a lot to focus on with subsequent views and listens.

It was also important to me to stay as close to a PG rating here as possible and have most of the adult jokes rely on wordplay. Some of the lyrics may be pushing it, like "most of these clothes are britches and hose," the entirety of the song "Sockblocked," or in "Match Like You" the lyrics "the facts are lax in value packs, but obviously some percent of socks are meant for polygamy;" however, depending on the subtlety of the delivery, I also believe that the wordplay goes over the younger kids' heads and parents won't be fielding questions on the drive home. [Laughs]

At the end of the day, I think SOLE MATES can be interpreted and delivered as trivially or as progressively as a director wants to deliver it. It'd be easy to lean into the puns and make this just a fluffy clothing romp. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to explore some important issues. From the bullying and abuse Mark endures that causes him to retaliate on his peers, to the religious undertones and commentary on the worshiping of the Washer and Dryer gods, to even something as simple as Osckar's match deliberately written as non-gender specific. The cast recording did cast another male as Osckar's match in a short fantasy sequence in "The Wrong Hands," but it's never stated or written one way or the other, and is open to interpretation.

You were in the process of filming SOLE MATES for a YouTube event, when COVID-19 hit. Are there plans to resume filming?

There are! Growing up, I really liked an online theatre company named Starkid and how they made all of their original musicals free and accessible on YouTube. I think when Starkid went viral, they created a generation of new theatre kids that live and breathe original musicals.

Wave Works is our new production company and team that is modeled after Starkid's success, and I hope this is the first of many artistic endeavors with this group. As soon as it's safe to do so, I can't wait to get the cast back together to make this film and release it on YouTube. We've got a great development and film team attached in the meantime, including Kevin Cahoon and David C.P. Chan, who did visual effects for the Star Trek and Fast and the Furious movies.

What was it like recording, mixing, and producing a studio cast album during the pandemic?

I won't sugarcoat it. It was long. I spent nine months and probably 300 hours on the cast recording. Some of the band was able to get into my studio before the pandemic hit, but the entire cast and some of the instrumentalists did have to meet with me one on one or they had to record from their houses and send me files to import. Most of these tracks have upwards of twenty things going on between all the different instruments and the ten-person cast on every song, and it was a ton of editing and recording for one person. Normally, the entire cast would record all of their stuff at once, but since I didn't get that luxury, every member had to start at the top and work through every song in the show. Rinse. Repeat.

However, it was worth it because it also gave me an intimate level of control over the product.

When audiences can congregate and enjoy live theater again, are there plans to launch SOLE MATES as a live theatrical experience?

I've thought a lot about that, and the answer is...I'm not sure. In a perfect world, I think a regional theatre would want to produce or co-produce, and include it in their season or something. Retaining the ability for a company to be the "World Premiere" may be important or valuable in the future marketing of the piece. That being said, it'll be awfully tempting to open the show to the public if we have the set already up, the lights programmed, and actors who know the show after filming. If that ends up being the case, stay tuned for upcoming fundraisers! [Laughs]

What advice would you offer to other creatives struggling with getting their work seen during our current situation?

I don't consider myself an expert, but the advice I saw that pushed me was: We have a once in a lifetime opportunity right now to learn and change how we present art and everything we knew about producing theatre. The theatre companies that are surviving were super quick to figure out new ways to get content out and engage an online and socially distant audience. I don't think the things they've created will ever go away, and even when we're back to normal, these extra projects that engage people all over the world will do nothing but strengthen them. Theatre and art should be accessible. It should change. It should be innovative.

As Osckar sings in "Ready to Go":

If I want to know how the next part goes / this chapter has to close
We can't be scared of losing / of falling down or bruising
A leap of faith, an act of trust / it's all or nothing, we live or bust

Don't let anything hold you back, create something original, art - and life for that matter - may adapt, and it's up to us to adapt with it.

SOLE MATES: THE MUSICAL (Studio Cast Recording) is available on Apple Music. For more information about the musical and to order physical copies of the album, please visit SoleMatesMusical.com.


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