Broadway's Next Generation: An Interview with Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan

By: Oct. 19, 2004
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The Woman Upstairs had its world premiere this fall as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival. Receiving positive reviews amongst the best of the festival, was this contemporary new story with music and lyrics by 21-year old Brian Lowdermilk, and book and original concept (plus additional lyrics) by the 23-year-old Kait Kerrigan. I recently sat down with them both to find out where the show came from, their personal histories, and what's next for the pair.

Brian and Kait first met one another during their early high school years, when they both attended theater camp. "I remember being there for a week" said Brian, "and we did a small production of Little Shop of Horrors. I was obviously Seymour, and she was obviously Audrey, and Josh (Young) who was just in The Woman Upstairs was the dentist. All I remember about the experience is that Kait was a foot taller, so I spent the show staring at her chest."

 

Fast forward a few years, and the two met again thanks to some motherly contact. "Kait's step-mother is my mom's masseuse, and said 'you should get your son in touch with Kait, she's doing great stuff, writing plays and they should work together.' I thought 'hey, maybe I can get a date out of this!' so I emailed Kait"

"Brian called me and said 'I've got these CDs to send you, why don't you send me a script" reminisced Kait. "No date though!" chimed in Brian. "Two weeks later he called me, and said it's great, we should work together. So I started trying to come up with thoughts, racking my brain on what I ca do, and I was wondering how I would write a musical, and why anyone would write a musical? I like them a lot, but just had no idea someone would just start singing on stage dramatically."

"I called Brian and said 'ok, I have this idea… There's this woman, who's outside of the city, and she's coming out of the subway, or she's walking down the street and there's all these other people who are connected in some way, and she's not into it, she's totally against them, and all this noise. She studies physics, and hates music.' For the first half an hour, Brian was totally unconvinced, he just didn't get it, but then suddenly it all clicked, and we've been working on the show from that moment forward."

 

The journey that any show takes from concept to stage is always a tough process, and The Woman Upstairs was no exception. "It was a lot of work!" remembers Kait, "I came up in the first couple of months with a plot structure that we've basically stuck to. There were some changes early on, but since then we've pretty much stuck to it, adding things along the way. All the people in the streets just kind of developed a voice of their own, and made this city environment, which is something that's come together throughout the whole process."

Putting the show on stage for the first time in the Festival proved to be a challenge for the two young writers, who had gotten used to daily edits, and now needed to step back and freeze the show. According to Kait "We wrote the last song just days before we opened, and we were doing rewrites up until the last minute. I think that it's been really good for us, because our tendency if something doesn't work is to rewrite it, rather than letting the actors take their time to try to make it work. Having it frozen, and having the actors say to keep something there, because they like it and they want to work through, it has just been so helpful."

"Also, having these people who are just so focused on their own characters, like Kate (Shindle) or Alison (Frasier) or Deb (Heinig) really helps because during the creative process, you're focused on the show as a whole, as opposed to on each individual character, but once actors come in for the first time, it's a whole new world." Both have high praise for the cast of the show noting that they "feel so lucky to work with such talents this early on in their careers."  

The music in the show runs the gamut from folk, rock/pop, traditional theater songs, and even a rap all of which aid in making it a truly contemporary story. Brian said "We started with certain truths, and with the idea to include all the different musical styles that you might actually hear in a city. It's really hard to write a contemporary musical, because you don't have a world that's already been established. When you write a musical that's set in the 50s, or the 60s, or the 80s, there's a musical language you can reach for, but it's very hard to write a contemporary show."

 

Throughout the run, audiences reacted quite positively to the story, which was quite satisfying as the show defied some of its initial skeptics. Brian remembers "When you start writing musical theater, everyone tells you about the formulas, like the lead character needs to have an 'I Want' song, and that sort of thing, so when Kait came to me and said 'well, the lead character hates music, so she can't sing in the story' I totally attacked her for it at first."

"But she can't sing!" says Kait, "and that's something I've been adamant about, and astonished by since day one, because when talking conceptually, we got yelled at for that. People would look at me like I was insane, but it seems so perfectly rational to me because she doesn't like music, and although it's a musical, that's why she's in it, and that's what she's figuring out."

 

When asked where they see the show going next, Brian jokes that "I keep saying a barn in Alabama is where we're headed!" but Kait chimes in with the actual answer which is that "we'd like to be able to take it out of town and to really workshop it. Sitting through all the performances I learned so much about the show, things that were working, things that weren't and we really want to take it to a regional theater, to really workshop it and to make it crystal clear."


Kait and Brian at Rehearsal

"That's why we haven't rushed to attach a director" adds Brian, "we're waiting for someone to come at us, and to fix the show at a more leisurely pace, and really go back to just being writers."

 

We then went back in time a bit, discussing some of their early influences. Brian taught himself to play the piano when he was 13 years old, having received the score to Closer Than Ever as a Bar Mitzvah gift, and learned to play using that. Since then, he's been quite prolific, having written 5 full length musicals, including Red which premiered 4 years after he wrote it at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He also wrote the alma matter for his high school, and a Jewish musical CD that's sold about 1000 copies country wide (in stores now!). In 2003, as a New YorkUniversity junior, Brian won the 2003 Alan Menken Award as well.

Kait on the other hand, who just started in the BMI workshop, got her start writing fiction at an early age with what she describes as "terrible, full-length awful soap opera-like" novels at age 13, and as time went on did a lot of theater acting and directing in high school. It was teachers in school that first encouraged her to write dialogue, and plays, something she resisted until she got to college. "I was supposed to be directing this production of Talking With, and we lost the rights to it a week before auditions, and was freaking out. I called a friend of mine up, asking 'what am I going to do?' and he told me to just cast the show, and then write it. I said 'what! I can't do that, I don't write shows!' and his response was 'you're a writer, you can write it.' So I ended up writing this show by accident, and it was one of the best experiences of my life, and totally changed what I wanted to do."

 

"I've been around musical theater for years, playing the violin since I was three, and having all this musical training that I figured I'd never use again. Everything suddenly made sense though when I started working with Brian. All these things that as a book writer you might not know how to do, but as a violinist, or a singer, it was a perfect backwards fit. The structure of it is really fun because it's your job to keep trying to take things out, and to convey all this information without actually using any of it because you give all of your best moments to musicalize. It's so collaborative."

The two share many of the same influences, both from the worlds of musical theater referencing works by David Zippel, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty. They'd listen to shows like Goodbye Girl, Once On This Islandand Ragtime whenever they were at their most freaked out moments of the writing process, and that gave them the push to continue.

 

Working together, the pair has developed a sense of trust, and faith in one another which they both cite as a crucial ingredient to success. Brian said "Working with such a person that I trust so implicitly has been so great, that I can't imagine working with someone I didn't trust that much. So many writing teams out there, successful and not successful are trying to write shows with people that they don't like, and don't trust, and they're just miserable."

Kait adds "We're just very lucky to have met each other when we did, and it's so rare that everything just coalesces so well, all the ingredients, that it's serendipitous because it shouldn't work ever, and yet – it does."

 

Up next for the pair, aside from that planned continued developmental work on The Woman Upstairs, includes looking for the rights to a larger project, with both eager to work on adapting an existing work instead of starting from scratch.

Any future dreams collaborators for both? Kait immediately came up with "We both love the West Wing, and one day we'd love to work with Aaron Sorkin, so if anyone knows him and could put him in touch with us, or vice versa, we'd love that. Whatever's easiest for him!"

 



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