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Interview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk

The composer on The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!), her collaborators and more.

Interview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk
Bree Lowdermilk

Today's subject Bree Lowdermilk is one of the most talented modern-day composers working in the musical theatre. You might know her work from her long association with book writer/lyricist Kait Kerrigan.

Currently her work can be heard at Keegan Theatre with their current PLAY-RAH-KA production of The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!). On this particular project Lowdermilk's collaborator is the esteemed playwright, Lauren Gunderson who is making her musical theatre debut with this piece. The show runs through July 24th.

Some of Lowdermilk's past credits with Kerrigan include The Bad Years Henry & Mudge, The Mad Ones, Republic Rosie Revere, Engineer & Friends, and Earthrise. The latter premiered at Kennedy Center a few years ago. For those of you that want to hear some really amazing work from this team, check out the recordings of Our First Mistake and Kerrigan-Lowdermilk: Live.

Bree received the Alan Menken Award and the Richard Rodgers Award for Red written with librettist Marcus Stevens.

She is an alumna of the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, co-founder of the start-up NewMusicalTheatre.com, and a member of the Dramatist Guild and ASCAP.

For those looking to introduce their kids to a musical featuring a great cast, direction, and wonderful writing please consider buying tickets to The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!) at Keegan Theatre.

Bree Lowdermilk's music is always a highlight of any production and paired with Lauren Gunderson doing both book and lyrics, it's a combination of two top class writers creating art in perfect harmony. That my friends, is living your theatre life to its fullest.

Growing up, had you always been interested in music?
I was a little queer kid who had a knack for finding patterns in music. When I found musical theatre, it felt like I had a place where I fit in. But while I definitely had a lot of interest in music and songwriting, I wouldn't say I had a lot of innate talent. (Honestly, neither would many people who were around me back then!)

At what age did it become clear that you were going to be a composer?
I went to Interlochen Arts Camp when I was 17, and it changed the course of my life. I was on my way to Harvard (ostensibly to study math). The people I met at Interlochen, and the changes in my writing there, are what gave me the totally-unreasonably-confidence that led me to drop out of school and move to NYC to be a musical theatre writer. (I am in no way advocating that anyone else do this...!)

Interview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk
L-R Kait Kerrigan and Bree Lowdermilk.

How did you meet your longtime writing partner Kait Kerrigan?
Kait and I sang duets together in a middle school theatre program. (I could belt higher in "Suddenly, Seymour.") We've been friends since we were kids, which led to a comfortable, easy shared aesthetic once we started writing together in our early 20s. And now we're both moms, and one day our kids can sing some duets together and make our hearts completely explode with joy.

Interview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk
L-R Christopher Rios, Ruth Elizabeth Diaz, and Delante Dates in
Keegan Theatre's production of
The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!).
Photo by Cameron Whitman Photgraphy.

Can you please tell us how you got involved with The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!)?
It was an agent setup! Lauren and I met cold over some Israeli food in Hell's Kitchen and became fast friends and writing buddies. Instant affinity for each other and long-lasting writing chemistry. A total dream.

Can you please tell us a little something about the show?
It's super-fun to collaborate with a playwright on her first musical, and get to see how an established voice pivots and swerves in a different medium. And, as someone who has been working in musicals for a while, it also feels like a responsibility. It would be easy for me to come in and just tell my new writing partner "this is how you write a musical," "this is how you build a scansion and structure a song." But in doing that, I would also be potentially cutting off the unexpected decisions and less-conventional choices that playwright might have made - which are the most exciting elements of that voice arriving in musical theater in the first place!

So certainly, when given the incredible privilege of collaborating with Lauren Gunderson on her first musical, I took care and aimed for a light touch. I encouraged her to write the lyrics herself. I moved things around here and there, and certainly made some suggestions, but I tried to follow her instincts. And then, once she got her ideas out, I used everything I knew about musicals fit into her vision for the show.

So that means there's an awesome amount of weirdness in the score to Dr. Wonderful. The songs come in and out in little blips and blobs, barging in for 20 seconds, then retreating. Scientific information doesn't wait for the scenes, it bursts in and out, fast and furious. The big emotional ballad at the end is called "Wow," which is not a musical hook I would have selected on my own. I don't think the word "Wow" is especially pretty, but in Lauren Gunderson's hands, the word "Wow" ends up being a big, beautiful statement about science and humanity.

So, when I think about Dr. Wonderful, I'm proud of the way I welcomed Lauren into musical theatre, where she's now made a whole slew of amazing, unique shows that are unmistakably in her own voice.

Interview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk
L-R Lauren Gunderson and Bree Lowdermilk.
Lauren Gunderson photo by Bryan Derballa/Slate.

Is writing a show with Lauren Gunderson any different than writing one with Kait Kerrigan? Is the process any different?
Both feel like cooking dinner with a friend. With Kait, we tend to follow a recipe. With Lauren, it feels more like we check to see what's in the fridge, divide up the burners, and start cooking. In both instances, we're having a cocktail in the kitchen and a great time. And dinner with either Lauren or Kait always turns out exponentially better than what I could have prepared on my own.

Do you find writing a show for kids is any harder than writing one for an adult audience? Is there any difference in music complexity for the younger set?
I love writing for kids! I don't quite know how it happened, but one day I started counting and realized I'd written twice as many children's musicals as general audience?! I don't think either is harder, but I think that there's a major difference in how an audience response: kids are way better audiences in my opinion! They tell you exactly what isn't working, which means you get to fix it.

I don't change my musical palette based on the age of my audience, but I do change it based on the subject matter. For Dr. Wonderful, Lauren's script was so playful and techno-savvy and scientific, and so I started thinking about and smart-EDM music. (Which, for me in 2009, meant LCD Soundsystem and Imogen Heap, I think.) Then, of course, Lauren asked for a about that song called "Solar Fusion" and I realized I had to go full-electro-bop.

Can you please tell us about your journey of self-realization?
I'm a queer, polyamorous, neurodivergent, non-binary trans woman. Some of those words have lived with me for a long time; some revealed themselves later in my life. But those are my words, a satisfying shorthand for ideas that have long been true about my identity. Those are also all words which I felt far more comfortable saying about myself in my personal life than in the world of professional musical theater. I grew up thinking that musical theater was supposed to be this place where people who didn't fit in could find a place for themselves, and that has not been my experience. I feel sad about that. I feel scared about the direction that trans rights are headed, in America and around the world.

I feel nervous about what it's going to be like for my four-month-old kid, growing up with me as a mom. But my co-parent and I are raising them with gender-expensive-parenting in a community of radical love, and I'm writing the roles that ought to exist in the musical theater canon, and I'm trying to advocate when I'm able. But mostly, these days I'm trying to learn to be angry. There are a lot of people in this country who see me, and who see my family, as a threat. I've been scared, sad and anxious. But in America right now, those emotions feel like luxuries I can't afford. So, to answer your question, my journey of self-realization is leading me towards righteous, productive anger.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to promote here?
Lauren Gunderson and I are working on a film I'm over-the-moon-excited-about but can't-say-another-word-about. Kait and I have a musical called The Mad Ones available for licensing from Concord Musicals. It's been amazing to watch so many people discover that show, and create their own productions around the world. We just did a translation for Germany - wild! I also just got back from the International Thespian Festival with 4000 theater kids (!), where we premiered a new gender expansive adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, which will be available for licensing in the next year or so. I'm working as hard as I can to create the roles and opportunities in musical theater that I so very much wish had existed for me when I was starting out.

Here is a song from the demo of The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (And Her Dog!). The song is called "Wow" and is performed by Jenni Barber, Dee Roscioli, Taylor Trensch, and Nathan Tysen.

Special thanks to Keegan Theatre's Managing Director Alexis Hartwick for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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