What's New on the Rialto
Brian Lowdermilk & Kait KerriganBy Rob Lester
The Songs of Lowdermilk and Kerrigan will be on singer Kate Shindle's program on July 18th at 7 pm at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, 61 Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village.
It seems that nearly every time I tell someone I'm interested in writing about new songwriters, the person says, as if on cue, "Oh, have you heard Brian Lowdermilk?" Brian has been attracting attention as a composer and lyricist for a few years now. He is spoken of with admiration, respect and even jealousy because of his talent. But he's an unassuming small town guy from Pennsylvania, a "nice Jewish boy" who presents himself as just a modest, hard-working writer who's been lucky. Yeah, just another hard-working writer who collects awards (like the Alan Menken Award) and commissions and good reviews. And he attends Harvard and NYU in his spare time.
Brian now writes exclusively with Kait Kerrigan, and their songs have been very much in the air these days. When Kate Shindle treats her audience to a full serving of their material on at the Duplex, it will be only our latest chance. Brian excitedly praised both Kait and Kate to the skies when we sat down for a talk earlier this year. Perhaps "sit down" is not accurate, since I met him at a rehearsal and we talked in spurts whenever the cast had a couple of minutes of dialogue between songs. He'd stand in the corner with me, happily chirping answers to questions before hearing a song cue coming and dashing back to the keyboard.
Brian is casual but grateful about the attention his work has received. For example, he shrugs off the fact Red won the Richard Rodgers Award, saying it was really his collaborator's (Marcus Stevens) piece. Red a serious look at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and was mounted in a well-received production in Pittsburgh. One review began by saying that those who wonder where the new generation of composers would come from had found their answer with the young Mr. Lowdermilk. But Brian would rather look at the present, and that's all about his work with Kait Kerrigan and the upcoming concert with Kate Shindle.
Kait and Brian are a bit of an odd couple, but that's part of what makes theirs a match that creates sparks. They even wrote a song about their contrasting personal and work styles, which they perform as a mock argument. "He doesn't sleep - ever!" Kait exclaims in frustration and amazement. "At least I'm not 24," Brian gloats, as if Kait is ancient (he has recently turned 22). "She doesn't date - ever," Brian sings in a voice that seems to betray his amazement of her cool, calm, collected persona and focused work ethic, while he lets himself be portrayed as the hapless, hopeless non-Ladies' Man. They wrote this for a concert of their work at the club Opia, but I heard it this spring at a presentation at NYU to celebrate Brian's graduation.
When he was 20, a song Brian wrote music and lyrics for was included in a concert of up-and-coming songwriters at the York Theatre. The concert was released as a live album (NEO: New, Emerging ... Outstanding!") this year on JAY Records, and includes Kate Shindle performing an impressive number, "For No Apparent Reason," from Brian's show called Room To Grow. Kate was at the NYU send-off concert, and he called her up on stage with him as he presented a song he wrote about Kate's notable resume item: she was Miss America in 1998. In the number, Brian laments that she staunchly refuses to introduce him to the beautiful also-rans from beauty contests. "There they are in your address book," he croons and drools. "You don't bring me pageant girls ..."
After this comic item, the talented Miss Shindle again proved she is much more than just another pretty face as she dug into "Say The Word." It's one of many excellent songs in The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, a collaboration of Lowdermilk and Kerrigan, which has had a reading in New York and will be part of a London festival in August.
Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have also won a commission to write a new musical, a family show for TheatreWorks (scheduled for the Lucille Lortel Theatre next year) based on the Henry And Mudge books for children, which feature a loveable dog. The NYU concert included a preview of one of the first numbers they have completed. It was a delight and shows they are already succeeding in writing material with appeal for all ages. No children were present in the cheering, laughing audience which gave the song its first public hearing.
The Woman Upstairs is another Kerrigan/Lowdermilk show that has garnered praise. Included in New York's now annual New Musicals Festival, it was a standout - and directed by Kait herself. She directs, writes both book and lyrics - and has an attractive singing voice as well. Kate Shindle was one of the stars of this show about characters seeking emotional connections, which seems to be the writers' forte. Also in the cast, as well as in the Samantha Brown presentation, was a major musical theater figure who is also a major Lowdermilk/Kerrigan cheerleader, the wonderful Alison Fraser. Alison was effusive in her praise for the pair. "Their partnership is so strong. They remind me of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn," she told me, "I'm really, really excited by original writers," she said, stressing that the pair have their own voice and write specific, detailed characters. "I love the shades of gray. They tap into that emotional depth." She uses words like "spectacular" to describe how they can write songs and dialogue "giving an inner life" to everyone in a story, "even someone who could be a stock character."
"There is something so kind and generous about Kait's acceptance of the flaws of her characters," according to Alison. About Brian's music, she flatly states, "He really rocks. He's not just pretending to rock. Mariah Carey should be singing his songs." Alison remembers her first impression when she met them: "It was how dazzlingly talented they were - and how young they were." Twice-Tony-nominated Alison loved working on The Woman Upstairs and Samantha Brown, where she played mother to the titular character played by another Tony nominee, Celia Keenan-Bolger. Celia was nominated this year for her work in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn, whose earlier shows featured Alison, and the originality and energy of Finn's work reminds her of Lowdermilk and Kerrigan. "To be at the genesis of a writing partnership is exciting!" Alison's current project is starring with Nathan Lane in the soon-to-open Dedication or The Stuff Of Dreams, and she looks forward to another collaboration with her young friends.
Michael Arden has performed the team's songs on various occasions, including the Samantha Brown readings, as the boyfriend of Alison's stage daughter. Michael, star of Bare, a Pop Opera and the acclaimed Pippin concert, and currently in Swimming in the Shallows, is also eager to sing the writing team's praises and songs. "No one works as fast as Brian Lowdermilk," he told me, recalling how new songs were written and tweaked during rehearsals in a matter of hours, even though "Brian writes ridiculously hard music to sing," referring to the songs' admirable complexity. "He also makes me laugh. But Brian knows that the actor becomes half the song. It ultimately becomes theirs. He respects performance, and that's why actors want to work with him again." Michael is not only a talented performer, but also a skilled songwriter, so his admiration for the Lowdermilk-Kerrigan craft comes from that point of view as well. "I see a great relationship there. I just can't wait to work with them more."
Like Alison Fraser, Michael is especially attracted to performing the work of new writers, having just done a Ricky Ian Gordon piece with dancers at The Joyce Theatre. Asked to describe the writing style of Kait Kerrigan, he replied, "She's a very fancy lady and writes fancy lyrics," with a tone of voice indicating that "fancy" is high praise indeed. He is not the first to comment on the pair's modesty about the acclaim they've been getting from all quarters, including the Jonathan Larson Award.
When told that Kait and Brian met when they were teenagers doing local theatre, and once played opposite each other as nerdy Seymour as needy Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, Michael's eyes widened. "I would have loved to have seen that!" he laughed, still not quite being able to imagine it.
"I didn't ever think of writing professionally. I was an English major in college," Kait told me. But growing up in Pennsylvania with a mother who is a sculptress and painter and a father who directed the aforementioned local theater, she was surrounded by the arts. She played the violin, was a voracious reader and did some early fiction writing. "Just some stories," she recalls. "They weren't very good!" she laughs. This led to a later interest in writing monologues with a feminist bent while a student at Barnard. After starting on a theatre project, a group she was with lost the rights to do the piece they had intended, and with time ticking, Kait agreed to try her hand at writing something that could be performed, and she found she loved it. She also discovered she had what it takes to be a director.
It's clear that she is quite an observer and thinks things through analytically. "Form has to match content" is her motto when putting things together. "I think, 'why is a moment musicalized?'" she says. She is able to step back and be objective. "An audience has to open up. When they laugh, they can get closer and more at ease." She knows how music can do the same thing, and she puts in musical or comic moments to bring her audience deeper into her characters' world. Kait has looked at other shows to see how the writers bring an audience in emotionally, and she makes songs tell the story. "Once On This Island just has to be a musical," she says, pointing to one favorite.
At www.BrianLowdermilk.com you can hear Alison Fraser, Michael Arden and many others by clicking on "Shows" and choosing from the titles. One is a musical called Elliot And The Magic Bed, which is as charming as others are powerful and emotionally brave. One week after Kate Shindle's night at the Duplex, the same venue will present Jeremiah Downes (July 25, 7 pm) who will be including an Elliot song of Brian's with the work of others like Jason Robert Brown, whom he puts in the same league. Jeremiah was part of an earlier concert of Lowdermilk and Kerrigan songs in New York. "I connect with Brian's music on a real basic level ... in a musical theatre world where so few things are new and fresh, it's thrilling when material like Brian's comes long."
Similar praise has been expressed by producers putting together concerts of new work this year, including John Znidarsic of Arts and Artists at St. Paul's Church at The Donnell Library, who is one of this city's major champions of new writers. And, for a benefit for Broadway Cares, producer Todd Adamson was smart enough to get a few of their songs and to snare a couple to expertly sing himself.
"Hey, if you're looking for someone to write about, you should hear Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan," a friend tells me on my answering machine. I know, I know. I'm on the bandwagon.
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