Versions, Vol. 1: “Two Strangers”

I don’t know how or where exactly I first learned of songwriters Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk (also collectively known as Kerrigan-Lowdermilk) but whatever the source, it led me straight to their YouTube channel, which has garnered 3,182,254 views and launched 195 videos (and several careers in the process) since its inception in 2007.  Their videos — usually taken at workshop performances, concerts and cabarets — have seen the likes of Laura Osnes, Caissie Levy, Skylar Astin, and Aaron Tveit perform renditions of their songs before going onto Broadway, West End and film stardom.  The popularity of such videos soon took over the theatrosphere, spawning a whole bevy of upcoming songwriters, all of whom would eventually gain their own respective followings through new media, including: Ryan Scott Oliver, Scott Alan and Drew Gasparini, to name a few.

Thus, New Musical Theatre was born.

This column is my own love song to the aforementioned talents whose work I’ve come to know and yes, obsess over these past few years.  As you might have guessed, Kerrigan-Lowdermilk are among those whose musical and lyrical style immediately caught my attention from the very first listen.  Their ability to magnify what could be considered small moments and turn them into big, earth-shattering events is something that, as a writer myself, I could appreciate.  One such song that demonstrates the duo’s signature style is “Two Strangers,” from their musical Tales from the Bad Years.  The first version of the song I had come across in those early days of New Musical Theatre was this one by Caissie Levy (along with Helene Yorke and Morgan Weed), at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland, VT as Bad Years was being developed:

Watch this video on YouTube.

“Two Strangers” talks of being young, lonely and trying to find connection in a big city — and eventually failing.  This theme resonated with me not just because I was, at the time, heading into my early twenties (a.k.a. The Bad Years), but also because it’s a subject I’ve written a lot about myself.  The idea of yearning and attempting before finally faltering altogether are what makes the song so universal, and definitely a signature Kerrigan-Lowdermilk tune.  Everything, from the first verse going into the chorus starts off with a sense of hope: that somehow you, this tiny insignificant person taking up a tiny insignificant space in a huge city are not alone after all, and that somewhere is another someone just as tiny and insignificant, waiting to share that space with you in that “quiet little nook of the city.” 

There are so many things to love about this song, lyrically: from the beginning lines of each of the verses (“Somewhere in the quiet little nook of this city”/“And somewhere out in Brooklyn you’re alone and you’re drinking”) to the repetition of the La da da-da da da’s to the perhaps the best line about a drink ever to grace a song (Whiskey makes you brood/ but that’s your kind of mood).  Kerrigan’s words here honestly display the quick drop from hopefulness to despair over the course of a one-night stand through the use of small phrases.  It’s this talent for the ability to say so much with so little that to this day fascinates me about the art of songwriting.  The moment in “Two Strangers” that really clinches it for me was when it finally hits the climax of the song, with our protagonist declaring:

This was not so magical.
You didn’t impress me.
Not at all.
No, no.
Not even a little bit.
You were something I wanted to try
And we were happy…
for a while.

Again, Kerrigan’s knack for packing a mean emotional punch through understatement is at play here – and boy, what a punch it is.  This point in the song was when I really started to take notice of Caissie Levy, as the simplicity in her expression and vocal performance brought impact to an already impactful piece, and it remains a moment I will forever remember as the one that made me a permanent Kerrigan-Lowdermilk fan.  There are those, however, who claim that the 2010 concert version by Morgan Karr, Jay A. Johnson (who later went on to lead yet another version of the song) and Matt Doyle is the more emotionally gripping of the two:

Watch this video on YouTube.

Now, this is not to say that the all-male version, which made the cut onto Kerrigan-Lowdermilk’s debut album Our First Mistake the very next year, isn’t up to snuff with the “workshop” version – I mean, it’s an all-male version!  Plus, there’s no denying that the orchestral accompaniment and Morgan Karr’s belting really upped the ante here.  The album version? Forget about it.  The combination of strings and piano create a different soundscape here, one that recalls the city lit up at night, where a million things could happen – or not happen.

And of course, the boys could sing the hell out of this song.  But while Karr and company definitely sung it out of the park, their rendition didn’t quite have the quiet intensity the females had in theirs.  I felt that, while the fuller sound was certainly beautiful to listen to, it didn’t necessarily reflect the feeling of solitude the song depicted.

Still, whichever rendition you prefer, I think we can all agree that “Two Strangers” is one of the most well-written pieces to come out of the New Musical Theatre scene – and for that, we have Kerrigan-Lowdermilk to thank.

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