Interview: Theatre Life with Justin Huertas

The composer/lyricist on his World Premiere musical commission for The Kennedy Center and more.

Kennedy Center GUYS AND DOLLS, Kevin Chamberlin, And More Win Helen Hayes Awards
Justin Huertas. Photo by Bronwen Houck.

Today's subject Justin Huertas is currently living his theatre life as the composer/lyricist of Kennedy Center's World Premiere Commission Musical Click Here. The show begins performances March fourth and plays through the nineteenth in Kennedy Center's Family Theater.

Justin is a Seattle-based award-winning playwright, composer-lyricist, actor, and musician. His original musical Lizard Boy world-premiered at Seattle Rep and will be making its off-Broadway debut in the fall.

His other stage credits include The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion (co-composed with Steven Tran) for ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery and Lydia & the Troll (co-created by Ameenah Kaplan) for Seattle Rep. He is composer-lyricist for Howl's Moving Castle (Book-It Repertory Theatre) and The Lamplighter (co-written with Kirsten "Kiki" deLohr Helland and Sara Porkalob).

A brand-new Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) musical about someone working in a cadaver lab is definitely not your standard subject matter which is exactly why I encourage you to go see The Mortification of Fovea Munson.

Justin Huertas' score is sure to please your audible senses with many different musical styles within. Read on to find out what they are.

Justin Huertas is a young writer/performer who is living his theatre life to the fullest. 2023 promises to be a big year for him. Grab some tickets to The Mortification of Fovea Munson and be a part of it.

Were you an actor before turning to writing and composing?

Yeah, I graduated from college with a degree in acting and directing. I'd taken one playwriting course in school and written songs for myself that I never shared. It wasn't until I was commissioned by Jerry Manning at Seattle Rep to write myself a show that I discovered a love and talent for writing. That was the show that became Lizard Boy, which is about to make its Off-Broadway debut this summer!

My experience as an actor has been integral in my writing in terms of imagining character and the communication of text and how all of that relates to melody.

What was the theatrical experience you had as a kid that made you want to go work in the performing arts?

I grew up drawing superheroes in my sketchpad and then I picked up cello when I was 10. And then I joined choir in high school and auditioned for the school plays. My senior year, I was cast in the spring musical, and I realized that musical theatre was the ultimate intersection of all the skills I'd been honing my whole life - art, music, singing, and acting.

Kennedy Center GUYS AND DOLLS, Kevin Chamberlin, And More Win Helen Hayes Awards
The company of Kennedy Center's World Premeire Musical Commission
The Mortification of Fovea Munson.
L-R Michael Mainwaring, Christopher Michael Richardson,
Dylan Arredondo, Justine "Icy" Moral, and Jonathan Atkinson.
​​​​​​Photo by Teresa Wood.

Where did the idea for your upcoming Kennedy Center world premiere musical The Mortification of Fovea Munson come from?

This new musical is adapted from Mary Winn Heider's novel of the same name. Mary Winn is also writing the book of the musical. She and our director M. Graham Smith are old college friends and he approached her about adapting the novel into a musical. They found me through the power of Google and YouTube! This novel is inspired by Mary Winn's college job working reception at a cadaver lab and the friends she met working there.

Was there something specific in the source material that drew you into writing The Mortification of Fovea Munson?

Mary Winn has a very clever and irreverent sense of humor, and it super resonates with me. She and I are on the exact same page in terms of comedy. It's been such a joy musicalizing that sense of humor. On top of that, she's centered her story on a Filipino American family, so it feels even more special to me as a Filipino American to help bring this story to the stage.

Kennedy Center GUYS AND DOLLS, Kevin Chamberlin, And More Win Helen Hayes Awards
Justine "Icy" Moral in Kennedy Center's World Premeire Musical Commission
The Mortification of Fovea Munson.
Photo by Teresa Wood.

Can you please talk about the musical styles within the score for the show?

I write all of my songs on guitar, so they all begin as very "singer-songwriter" acoustic-pop. But there's always more layers buried deep in my imagination, and my orchestrator Steven Tran is near-telepathic in mining those layers. I'll hand him a demo and he'll hand me back an orchestration that is exactly what I imagined if not better! This score is pretty solidly pop-rock with some jazz, electronic synth-pop, and 90's hip-hop thrown in here and there.

Many composers and playwrights always say they write for their audience. Do you find writing for TYA audiences is any different than writing for adults?

Absolutely not. My approach is always to trust my audience no matter what the age. I never underestimate the emotional intelligence of children. I really believe this musical will resonate with all generations, so my approach is to tell a story for all of them.

Most TYA shows are performed with a recorded track. In creating the track for The Mortification of Fovea Munson, what were some of the challenges of getting all the vamps and timings correct and what happens if a performer gets behind or ahead? Are there safeties built into the recording to compensate?

Yeah, this is Steven Tran's and my first-time creating tracks for one of our musicals, so we learned a lot in this process. Luckily, we're able to rely on the consistency of our amazing cast. I'm currently in tech rehearsal as I write this and we haven't had to create a vamp yet. These actors are so slick that we're able to create tracked underscore that allows them the time they need without compromising their storytelling.

What does 2023 hold in store for you after The Mortification of Fovea Munson opens at Kennedy Center?

Next, I go home to Seattle and start rehearsals for another world premiere commission called Lydia & the Troll at Seattle Rep. As soon as that musical opens in May, I'll head to New York to begin rehearsals for Lizard Boy with Prospect Theater Company, which is a musical I both wrote and am starring in!

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Senior Press Represenitve Brittany Laeger for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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