Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2013-14 season will end exactly the way it started: with a world premiere. Daniel Beaty’s “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” directed by four-time Tony nominee Moises Kaufman, went on from its initial engagement at Copaken Stage last year to productions at La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Now the Rep invites audiences to a new musical, “A Little More Alive,” a serious exploration of family secrets, which began previews last weekend and officially opens Friday night. Chances are this show, too, will have a life after the Rep.
This piece, which has been in development for three years, teams composer/playwright Nick Blaemire and director Sheryl Kaller, a Tony nominee for her 2010 production of the drama “Next Fall” and the director of “Mothers and Sons,” which opened on Broadway in March. She cruised into Kansas City without breaking stride. “She opened a new Terrence McNally play the day before our first rehearsal in Kansas City,” said Blaemire. “And at 2 a.m. (producer) Hunter Arnold texts me and says, ‘I can’t get Sheryl to leave the party, too many people are surrounding her, she has a 7 a.m. flight, what do I do?’ I was like, ‘You can’t stop her; it’s her night.’ And then she showed up the next morning with her voice in shreds, and we started putting this show on its feet, like it’s just another day. And it is.”
Blaemire, 29, maintains multiple careers — as an actor on stage and on screen, as a playwright and theater composer, and as a songwriter and bandleader. His impressive resume prompted the obvious question: When does he sleep?
“I have high-functioning ADD, I think,” he said. “I just love it all too much. I get bored easily. So having a bunch of different things to work on has made it possible for me to kind of spin this dial. One of the things about working on a new musical is that there’s a lot of downtime. There’s a lot of waiting to find out. In the process of waiting to see if Kansas City Rep wanted to do this show there was a lot of nail-biting.”
Blaemire and Kaller began working on this show under a different title three years ago in a workshop production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Since Williamstown, the show has grown from one act to two, while the cast has shrunk from 10 to five. In Kansas City, the script has changed daily. “We just put a new scene in half an hour ago,” Kaller said one afternoon during the second week of rehearsal.
“A Little More Alive” depicts two brothers, young adults, who after their mother’s funeral discover a part of her life they knew nothing about. “(They) find a box of letters that are to and from a man who is not their father, who is upstairs mourning the loss of his wife,” Blaemire said. “And the letters describe an affair that lasted their whole lives and is reflected in their beloved home videos, which contain frames that include this man, who they’ve known their whole life. They have to decide what to do with that information and how it affects their memories and they eventually decide to go find the guy.”
Kaller said she met Blaemire in New York after someone she knew at Broadway Across America, the producing company that brings touring shows to the Music Hall, asked whether she’d be interested in directing a new musical that BAA had commissioned but decided not to produce. She and Blaemire met in a conference room at the company’s office. “The first song he played for me was the father’s song,” Kaller said. “I lost my mother at 52 when I was 29, and for me that really hit a deep chord. He was describing exactly the moment after my mother died that my father sat in the den in our childhood home and confronted an empty house. So that was the first song I heard, not all the groovy, hip, ridiculously nerd soul stuff. So I think Nick’s been around before. I don’t think he’s really 29 and a half. He’s had many lives.”
“Nerd soul.” That’s what Blaemire calls the music he creates with his band, the Hustle, which he co-founded with Jesse Vargas in 2011. Vargas, like Blaemire, dwells in more than one world. He’s a conductor/orchestrator who works in New York theater. And he’s working on “A Little More Alive.”
“Their sound is a fusion of ’70s funk with current alternative swag: a kind of Maroon 5 meets Dave Matthews, with a Michael Bublé twist,” wrote D.C. theater critic Douglas Lloyd. “Many numbers featured Nick’s stellar falsetto register.”
When asked to describe “nerd soul,” Blaemire responded with an answer that was — well, complicated. “It’s actually become a defining phrase for my life, in that it’s sort of like singing the song of the underdog and the idea of coming up with a way to make pop music that would have spoken to me when I was first falling in love with girls and needing a soundtrack to my adolescence,” he said. “And coming up with a way to describe what love feels like to me, and not oversimplifying it, if possible, using surprising chord changes and grooves you might not expect coupled with words that aren’t boxed into the sort of normative pop structure.
“I think audiences are intelligent and they thrive off of surprise, and that’s something I know I love as a listener. So its been my goal with this show and the band to come up with stuff that reflects my aesthetic.”
The music in “A Little More Alive” isn’t exactly the same, but it’s close.
“I would say it’s like nerd folk,” he said. “It’s definitely groove-based. For a show that’s about affairs and families and mortality, our hope is that it has an unexpected energy to it, where it doesn’t dwell in the darkness as much as it fights it.”
Indeed, Blaemire said he hopes his show generates a positive vibe.
“Our goal is to make a show for everybody,” he said. “There’s an instinct (among young writers) to make something that’s polarizing or that’s dark and edgy, and I think that is an inherently limiting way to look at making something. What we’re interested in is making something where you can decide whose story you want to watch, and who you want to follow and who you see yourself in and what theme relates to you most.
“In New York there’s this urge to make something that feels way darker or way more bombastic in order to make a splash because it’s so hard to get something up. But sometimes you squelch the human need for hope and the potential of us being able to rise above. And that’s what our show’s about.”
Kaller said Blaemire’s music reflects the challenge of life in your 20s, as well as the challenges faced by people much older. “The characters in this play are multigenerational, so not only did he find the heartbeat musically for the two brothers, he also found the heartbeat musically for the father character, who is of my generation,” Kaller said. “And it still feels of one score, and one whole and one family.”
Blaemire grew up in Washington, D.C. and earned a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Michigan. He said he wrote his first musical in high-school — a one-person show about bullying — and he’s been writing for theater ever since.
“It became sort of an addiction,” he said. As the originating theater company, Kansas City Rep’s name will stay with the show in any future incarnations. It also has the backing of a commercial producer, Hunter Arnold, whose Broadway hits include “Kinky Boots” and a revival of “Godspell,” in which Blaemire performed. “The long-range plan is to ultimately bring it to New York, and we have three to four different variations on that plan,” Kaller said. “We’ll be able to assess where we are creatively by the time we open here, and then one of those plans will get kicked right in. I think what happens a lot of times with new work is that if the plan is in place too early, it outruns the creative process. Hunter has been willing to (let us) have the ducks, but they’re not in a row yet. And once we open and we see where we’re at, we’ll put those ducks in a row and figure out the next steps.”
“We’re really lucky to have a bunch of ducks,” Blaemire said. “And who are quacking loudly,” Kaller added.
“A Little More Alive” runs through May 11 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut streets. For more information, call 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org. Details about Nick Blaemire are at Nick-Blaemire.com.