BWW Interview: Philip Labes of MORE GUNS! A MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT THE NRA at Z Space Brings a Wickedly Funny Slant to a Deadly Serious Topic
You might not be familiar with the name Philip Labes, but there's a good chance you've seen him in guest roles on buzzy TV shows like "Watchmen" and "GLOW" or co-starring with Anthony Rapp and Cheyenne Jackson in the feature film "Opening Night." Or perhaps you've seen his music videos and sketches online. Mr. Labes is clearly a man with a lot of irons on the fire. He also co-wrote (with Michael O'Konis) and stars in the improbably-named "More Guns! A Musical Comedy about the NRA" which is coming to San Francisco's Z Space in late January after running for 18 months at Second City Hollywood. Labes is the sort of young performing arts polymath who is perhaps just that one key role or project away from becoming something of a household name. BroadwayWorld spoke to him recently from his home base in LA. In conversation, he is remarkably thoughtful and open, both joyful about his work process and sanguine about the challenges of forging a successful career in the performing arts. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the original impetus for you and Michael O'Konis to write "More Guns!"? What led you two to think "Hey, let's write a musical about the NRA?!"
Well, there were a few things swirling around in my mind. I was held up at gun point about six years ago on a train in LA, and it was very scary. At the same time there was a string of pretty constant gun violence, especially happening in schools, and that sort of violence is still a threat today. I had been writing letters to the current president, Obama at the time, and I had been doing letter writing parties. I was thinking about this travesty of American politics that there was this organization, the NRA, that seemed so sort of laughable in the way they behaved and operated. They seemed on the surface, to me as a liberal, just so evil. As a writer I was fascinated by that because something that is evil probably is interesting because there are things to uncover there.
The show really became interesting when me and Michael sort of sat down and said "We think the NRA is deep down a silly organization because the people that run it are just kind of scared of the world." and we thought "What if there was sort of a metaphor for the relationship between a younger generation that's fed up with this kind of gun violence and an older generation that sees it as part of an American idealism?" Then we had the idea to place that in the context of a father-daughter relationship, and that was when we thought "OK, this could be a show."
The show is about a serious topic, but it's also very funny, right?
Yes, the show is absolutely a comedy. It's set against the backdrop of the world of lobbying in Washington, DC, but the story focuses on the dynamic between a conservative dad and a liberal daughter. So in that sense it's a relatable comedy about how parents don't get their kids and kids don't get their parents, and how liberal people can be pretty silly and how conservative people can be pretty silly. Sometimes it's pretty wacky.
How do you and Michael work together as a writing team? What's your process?
Michael and I do everything pretty much in the same room at the same time. We co-wrote the book, all the music and all the lyrics. Michael and I are both musicians and comedians - we met doing sketch comedy - and we applied that same collaborative process to the musical. Every once in a while, we'll break off and I'll do a rewrite on something while he does a rewrite on something else if we're in a crunch. We disagree a lot and those are the sparks that fuel the fire of the show.
The show has had quite a successful run at Second City Hollywood, which is known for improv. Is this show improvised at all?
No, it's a tightly scripted show and in some ways is a bit of a black sheep at Second City Hollywood because a lot of their work is developed through their training program. This show was developed and written independently and then brought to Second City. Second City is particularly interested in musical revue that has a political or satirical bent. We found them once we'd written the show, and our mission statements kind of lined up.
You perform in "More Guns!" What's your own favorite part of the show?
There's a really fun, sexy sort of "Cabaret"-style number from - I don't want to ruin too much - a character that you're not expecting, someone pretty tight-laced, and it's really fun to see the audience's surprise and delight as they learn this shocking new fact about a character they weren't expecting to hear it from.
How did you connect with Z Space to bring it to San Francisco?
Z Space reached out to us because they saw some of our promotional materials and videos. They are a really interesting and wonderful space that can support new work through a grant program that they have. They originally reached out to us basically wondering if we just wanted to rent out their theater, but then as we talked to them more we realized that's not really what we want to do, just rent out a theater. But - we were interested in partnering and working together, especially because we think this show could be such a special experience for a San Francisco audience because the show is making fun of the kind of liberal experience in 2020, and we thought San Francisco was a good city to sort of poke some fun.
Any further plans for "More Guns!" following the San Francisco run?
We plan to continue running in Hollywood and we hope to take the show to other places, but there's a lot of unknowns right now because we need to leap to the next stage of funding our show. So, if there are any aspiring off-Broadway producers reading this, they can feel free to reach out!
You also have a thriving career as a screen actor, including guest roles on some high-profile shows like "Watchmen" and "GLOW." When you go in for something like "Watchmen" in its first season, do you know the show's going to be a big deal or are you just happy to book the job?
Well, there are certain shows that you have a sense about because of the profile of the work. "Watchmen" for example was a highly regarded source material being produced by an extremely talented head writer, Damon Lindelof, who's had a lot of other hits on HBO. So there was a sense once I knew what the project was that I was getting a chance to be a part of a show that could be really excellent. But, like most things, there's really no way to know until it's done. I felt very lucky to get to be involved with that production.
You've also played leading roles in some independent films like "Opening Night" which takes place on opening night of a high school production of "Midsummer Night's Dream." Were you a drama kid in high school?
I was absolutely a drama kid in high school. A lot of lunches in black box theater, a lot of late nights building sets or rehearsing choreography. I went to a performing arts "Fame"-style high school in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Dreyfoos School of the Arts. It was a really excellent school and a huge part of my growth as a young person. And I was such a theater nerd!
Thinking back to your high school experience, is there anything in particular that prepared you for the career you're having now?
I guess being rejected a lot, and by that I mean I was short and acne-ridden and a musical theater nerd, and now I live in a city where you get a hundred no's for every yes, so certainly a sense of fortitude in the face of rejection is something that I picked up in high school. But I would also be remiss if I didn't say that I actually did receive training and a sense of excellence from that school that I wouldn't have gotten at a high school without the strong funding for the arts that school had.
When you look back, what was a favorite role you played in high school given the fact that you're not necessarily the tall, leading man kind of stereotype?
Well, actually in high school, I did play a leading man. I played Bobby in our production of "Crazy for You." I love that show. I love Gershwin. I learned to tap dance and really got into the spirit of all those old standards. Gershwin is such a beautiful songwriter, and you know, the show is so much better with all the racist bits taken out. (laughs)
Yes, there's that!
Yeah, I guess the original was "Girl Crazy"? But "Crazy for You" is a delightful farcical romp and that was such a blast. You know it's funny, I've learned that there is a certain amount of typecasting out in the world, that people expect you to be a certain thing, but I've also learned that the things you think have to define you can be a strength to lean into sometimes. Sometimes you CAN just define yourself. If you feel like a leading woman or like a leading man in your life, then you can be a leading man. Then if you have a little imp on your shoulder that makes you want to tease and pick at the world a little bit, be more of a character actor. It can all happen.
I've been very lucky to have opportunities to play roles as both central figures and supporting characters, and I hope I'm able to continue to do both. Generally, I try to bring my most authentic (weirdest) self to everything. I try to fill the needs of the script while also bringing my perspective, which usually means what I find funny or bizarre or remarkable. But also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that in film and TV casting, not being white or male has historically often meant that you didn't receive the same opportunities to showcase more than one aspect of who you are. I've been privileged in that way. I believe casting directors and creatives are more committed to diversity than ever before, so that's exciting.
Something that struck me from watching your music videos is that you seem to have a really strong sense of yourself. Do you know how you came to that? Because there so much self-doubt out there in the world and you're working in a profession where rejection is the norm. So how do you reach that sense of "Yeah, I know who I am"?
Well, first I would hate anyone reading this to think that there are people out there who are so sure of who they are and they should feel bad about not being sure - because there are tons of days when I have self-doubt or I'm unsure about which way my career's going. I talk about this all the time with friends of mine who are very successful, who write for television, who have movies that they've written produced, who've acted on and off-Broadway. There's a sense that you have to keep ringing your bell, tuning into your frequency of what fascinates and excites you, and the only way you can do that and not feel like a burnout if you're not getting rewarded for it is to enjoy the process of doing it, to treat process as product in a certain sense. And it's a balance, too, because of course you need a certain amount of external validation from the world to let you know that the world values what you do, at least in terms of balancing commerce with art. You make these judgment calls all the time about is this the worthwhile way to spend the precious, beautiful time I have on earth?
But man, when I think about your readers about what must compel them, I think probably so many of them have these really big dreams and a lot of them are further from those dreams than they'd like. If in any way I am a helpful voice for that, I would just say you can't be looking toward some period of time when things are gonna be good; you have to find the good things right now and enjoy your life, cause it's happening now. I know that wasn't quite the answer to your question, but it does kind of get at the philosophy of what I think about when I think about the idea of "success," which is both a very exciting and a very dangerous idea.
I feel like very often the messages are about what you CAN'T be. And so I'm kind of fascinated by the way you present yourself. You seem not to have internalized those messages.
In a personal sense of trying not to internalize that I can only be whatever it is - the lovelorn high schooler or the best friend who can't get laid - you know there's so many sort of tired tropes, and some of them are really fun, you know. It's fun to participate in the language that we've created in film, stage and TV a little bit. To be like "Oh, isn't it fun I get to be this type of thing?" Certain types of that are delightful and then the other bits are just giving yourself permission to be your weirdest, biggest self. I know nothing I'm saying is groundbreaking, but I think those messages are valuable and oft-repeated because they're true.
From your music videos, I get the sense you're someone who is absolutely living in the contemporary world, but also has an appreciation for older musical styles. Do I have that right?
Well, I mean I was just [always] very into the old jazz masters. I'm not some kind of jazzhead, but I certainly like listening to music beyond the contemporary. Like most modern musicians I think, having a sizable knowledge of what's going on in the world is a prerequisite. Are you saying that my music is reminiscent of older styles? I think I've internalized some of that crooner stuff, no doubt, I like a lot of those old standards.
I hear a lot of different influences. Like the crooner thing, and I hear echoes of 70's singer-songwriters...
Right. Yeah, most music now is pulling from everywhere and becoming less genre-ed, and that's true on Broadway as well, most musical theater - obviously there are notable genre changes like "In the Heights" and "Hamilton" - but everything is becoming a little bit more fluid, which is great. I mean, that's where things happen.
Another thing that I noticed from your videos is that you move really well. Do you have much dance training?
No, not a ton, but I love to dance. I think I took a year and a half of ballet because a girl that I liked was in the ballet class, and like a fool I thought that the best way to get close to her was to join her ballet class. (laughs) Turns out that's not a move; that is just taking ballet. But, yeah, I've always loved tap and percussive dance, and my grandmother was a dancer in a very serious troupe and then instructed in dance later in life, so she always encouraged me to pursue dance.
You're still relatively young and yet your work already covers so many bases - actor, writer, singer, musician, producer, stage, screen, comedy, drama. Which of those is your most authentic self?
Man, it's funny - I think it would be less authentic if I tried to just do one. I think there is a fear in a social media age of putting out something that isn't in line with a brand, something that people have created and idealized as a version of themselves. There's a certain amount of validity to that, to be honest, about trying to present yourself as the person that you want to be. But if an actor wants to sing, they should sing, and if a musician wants to write a musical even though it's not what they normally do, as long as it's good is the thing. It's such a balance. People want to do what they're good at, but no one's good at something right away so it takes making some bad work to make good work.
Michael O'Konis, the co-writer of "More Guns" is a very similar kind of person where he is trained as a classical musician, but he's also an actor and a musical theater writer and an improviser and a comedian, and he also produces original music under the name Lookalike which he produces on Spotify and Apple iTunes. I think that's in a way why we're drawn together for this production. It's like holistic artistry, right? One thing influences another thing, because it's all storytelling at the end of the day.
What are you working on next?
I have few different projects in the air. I'm mostly writing some film and TV projects. One's a co-write and then I just finished up a fantasy project for film, and like everyone else in this crazy city I'm still auditioning and looking out for new opportunities. And then we're trying to get "More Guns!" to larger theaters and more opportunities, trying to create access to people who believe in our show and will invest in it.
More Guns! A Musical Comedy about the NRA runs from Thursday, January 30 through Saturday, February 1, 2020 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. Tickets and information can be found at zspace.org or by phone at 415-626-0453.