Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City: A Look at STILLWATER

Kansas City is quickly becoming a hub for new musicals. Whether it’s through private readings with nonprofit theatres, small productions through the local fringe festival, or full out-of-town try outs, Kansas City is seeing its share of new, original musicals. Most recently, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, under the artistic direction of Eric Rosen, has committed itself to the development of new works—both plays and musicals. This commitment has led to the development of musicals such as Venice, Clay and A Christmas Story, all three of which went on to respective runs in New York City.

Earlier this year, the Kansas City Rep ended its 50th anniversary season with the workshop production of the new musical Stillwater. With book and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and music by the Midwestern rock band Joe’s Pet Project, Stillwater tells the story of story of an indie musician returning home to play the final gig of his world tour. An entertainment writer returns to cover the story, reuniting with both her drug dealing ex-boyfriend and the neighbor next door who loves her. As the story unfolds, two love triangles intersect in a series of actual concert moments (featuring a five-piece rock band) and concerts of the characters’ interior lives. It was billed by the KCRep as “an angst-filled love letter to a generation rebounding from the economic and cultural shocks of the last ten years.”

Much like Venice and Clay, Stillwater is anything but your typical musical. The music is not traditional musical theatre fare. The alt-country/rock’n’roll score brings the sound of the Midwest to the stage. The audience was first introduced to this sound at the very beginning of the show as the fictional band Igloo Sleepover (portrayed by Joe’s Pet Project) takes the stage. Immediately, the audience is thrust into the convention of using a rock concert to tell the story. The band is present the entire show, and each character speaks and sings each line into ever-present microphones, either handheld or in stands.

Even more interesting than the creative staging of the piece is the unconventional method in which the show was developed. The members of Joe’s Pet Project have been playing together for over a decade, and most of the music from the show came from the band’s existing catalogue. Nathan Tysen, who plays guitar and provides lead vocals for the band (both in real life and in the musical), said that he developed a rough draft of the plot and “dropped 20 of JPP’s songs into it.” From there, he and the band began to tweak the show over a three-year process. But by the time they reached the developmental workshop at the KCRep, much of the material had changed. Composer Ryan McCall, who plays keyboards in the band and also plays the role of J.D., a drug dealer and disgraced musician, said that once the story started to take shape, at least 8 songs were thrown out and completely rewritten, and every remaining tune received a substantial lyric tweak.

When the piece reached Eric Rosen’s skilled hands, the members of the cast and creative team were met with an equally unconventional, yet effective, approach to musical theatre development. After being rehearsed and staged in two weeks, the piece was presented to a paying audience for a two-week run. As the show ran at night, the cast rehearsed during the day as the creative team made changes after each night’s performance. Tysen said this process was “atypical” for the development of a new show, and McCall called it a “hybrid” between a traditional workshop process and a full staging of a new musical. Both spoke positively about the experience, with Tysen even calling it a “dream process.”

Another unique aspect of the production was that Nathan Tysen and Joe’s Pet Project were onstage for the entire show. When asked if there was any frustration in having to perform while still paying close attention to how the show was being received, Tysen said it was “difficult to gauge if the pacing was correct,” and that he “relied heavily on the director and dramaturg’s nightly notes. They pinpointed where the audience seemed to check out and what story moments needed clarification.” This process proved to be a good one as the show grew stronger every night.

With a successful workshop completed, there are plans to bring Stillwater to a new audience, with a concert in New York City planned for January 4, 2016 at Joe’s Pub. Ryan McCall said he wasn’t worried about how the story of Midwestern entrapment would be received by New York audiences when asked if he had any reservations. He said the story is about wanting to get out, and that everyone can relate to that regardless of their geographic region.

Though the characters in the story are doing their best to get out of the Midwest, I imagine that many musical theatre writers will soon be clamoring to get there. Each one trying to be a part of the unique process the Kansas City Repertory Theatre is pioneering. With such exciting new developments at the KCRep, the old Hammerstein lyric rings true: everything is up to date in Kansas City.

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