“Steppin’ Out of the Shadows:” An Interview with Murder for Two’s Kellen Blair

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By KWAPI VENGESAYI, 5th Avenue Community Engagement Specialist

Murder for Two is a hilarious musical comedy to die for. It received rave reviews during a record-breaking run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater prior to a critically-acclaimed run Off-Broadway at Second Stage Uptown. Called “Ingenious” by The New York Times, it is the perfect blend of murder, music and mayhem! In an interview with lyricist and co-writer Kellen Blair we get a little bit more insight into the show’s creation and success.

Joe Kinosian (left) and Kellen Blair (right)

Do you have any prior connections to The 5th and/or ACT?
I grew up in Seattle and most of my family still lives here (all proud subscribers at 5th Avenue, thank you very much). And interestingly enough, my very first theater experience was at ACT. I was two years old and my parents took me to see A Christmas Carol. It was a terrible idea because the sight of Jacob Marley had me screaming my head off and made everybody hate us, I’m sure. But I’ve been back every year since (and the screaming has definitely mellowed since then). So you can imagine, having my show here, the first theater I set foot in, is extremely meaningful to me. It’s also meaningful to my mom, who has been waiting for this day since our first reading seven years ago. Actually, when I found out Murder for Two was going to New York, I told my mom, and her response was, “Does that mean it’ll be coming to Seattle anytime soon?”

What was the inspiration for the Murder for Two?
A few different things came together at just the right time and led to the idea of this show. Joe [Kinosian, the co-author of Murder for Two] and I had started working on a great big full blown American musical, complete with a thousand person cast and a giant orchestra (I’m exaggerating, but it was huge). This was during the financial crisis (early 2009) and we noticed a lot of theaters replacing their big full blown shows and doing much more economical shows like The 39 Steps (which we both had seen several times and loved, by the way). And it occurred to us that we probably wouldn’t get very far as two newbies with a big expensive show on our hands. And once we decided to go “small,” we actually found it really rewarding to start brainstorming how to use those limitations as not a hindrance but in fact an integral part of the storytelling; hence, one actor playing multiple characters. In terms of the story and the tone, it really came down to some similar interests we shared. We’re both huge fans of good old murder mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie, and both hugely inspired by the Marx Brothers. Early on we had the idea: what if the Marx Brothers performed an Agatha Christie play? The detective would be trying to take things seriously because the stakes would be so high, but inevitably things would just devolve into chaos.

How does this story work as a musical?
Actually it’s funny because it’s sort of a joke in the musical theater world that murder mysteries usually make terrible musicals. The logic is that songs often bring out the inner-thoughts of the characters, and that doesn’t bode well for a genre that’s all about secrets and twists and turns. But we actually found that the two genres fit together really nicely. I think it also helps that the actual murder mystery is only one small part of whats going on onstage; it’s really about a guy learning to connect with someone. And any time you’ve got characters who desperately want and need things, letting them sing is a great way to get from point A to point B. Plus there’s all the piano playing. Since they both play their own accompaniment, the various antics around the piano were a great way to set up the rivalries and relationships.

Where did you meet and how did you come to work together?
We met at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, which, in a nutshell, is speed-dating for musical theater writers. The idea being that if you throw a bunch of lyricists together with a bunch of composers, something interesting is bound to happen. And it turns out, that’s a great system, because shows like Ragtime, Avenue Q, A Chorus Line, just to name a few, came out of collaborations formed at BMI. For Joe and me, we started in late 2008, and we were randomly paired to write a charm song for It’s a Wonderful Life. It was the perfect first assignment for us because we immediately hit it off talking about old movies and writing up-tempo, funny material. And actually, we started writing Murder For Two only a few months after that assignment.

Scrapbook photo courtesy Kellen Blair

Has the show changed since its first staging?
In some ways it has changed a lot, but in terms of the core concept (i.e. a murder mystery musical comedy where one actor plays the detective and one actor plays the suspects, and they both play the piano), it hasn’t really changed at all. Actually that’s a lie, in the very first reading only the suspects played the piano, and as you can imagine, it felt very unbalanced. That first reading was also only about 45 minutes long and pretty much just a string of loosely connected one-liners.

Scrapbook photo courtesy Kellen Blair

Do you have any example of a change and a reason it was made?
In the first incarnation of the show, our hero, Detective Marcus, wasn’t very well-developed. He didn’t really seem to want much more than to solve the crime, which was fine on the surface, but it wasn’t a very meaningful reason to root for him. So we turned him into a young officer who wanted to make detective… and in fact, he pretends to be the detective in hopes of solving the crime and impressing his chief. All at once he had an internal goal in addition to the external one, plus a ticking clock (the real detective is on his way to the scene of the crime), ambition, flaws, and a whole slew of other things that make characters more or less sympathetic and interesting! That was definitely the most meaningful change, in my opinion, during the show’s development.

What do you hope audiences will walk away with?
If audiences walk away with a smile on their faces, that would be worth its weight in gold to me. And I know smiles don’t technically have a weight, but you understand what I’m saying. Every now and then during writing, Joe and I would remind ourselves of our list of priorities, and here they are in reverse order: 4) write a good mystery. 3) write a good musical. 2) I don’t remember what two was so it couldn’t have been that important after all. And 1) make people laugh. So we hope audiences laugh, and we hope for 90 minutes people are able to escape from anything in the world that might be getting them down right now.

What should we keep an eye out for that you’re currently working on?
We’ve got a new show we’ve been developing with a theater in New York that we’re really excited about. The name has changed about ten times in the last two years, so I’m terrified to record something here in print, but oh well: it’s currently titled Diane Steals the Show. It’s a backstage musical farce… basically imagine Noises Off as a musical and that’s the world we’re going for. And we’re always developing new stuff, so here’s my official pitch to check out our website (www.kinosianandblair.com) or our youtube channel (Joe and I both went to film school so we take great pleasure in making silly videos now and then: youtube.com/kinosianandblair), both of which are great places to check for updates and ridiculous songs.

Murder for Two runs March 25 – June 11 at ACT. Click here to learn more and purchase tickets.

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