Nathan Tysen was talking about the difference between rock music and rock musicals.
The problem, as he sees it, is that rock tunes, when subordinated to the aesthetic demands of musical theater, often lose the feverish immediacy that made them good songs in the first place.
This has been on his mind during rehearsals for “Stillwater,” a musical he wrote with his band, Joe’s Pet Project, which Kansas City Rep is presenting in a workshop production. The show begins performances May 13 in the Spencer Theatre scene shop.
One thing he likes about “Stillwater” — described by the Rep’s marketing department as a pop/rock/alt-country show about a drug dealer, a recovering addict and a rock star, among other denizens of a “drug-fueled” trailer park in Oklahoma — is that it seems to follow its own artistic rules.
“It feels to me like it’s its own beast,” he said. “You know, they say rock musicals are always 20 years behind the times. ‘Rent’ legitimately rocks, but it’s music from the ’80s. So having a rock band at my disposal, I just wanted to do something legit.”
He said the band’s sound has been compared to Wilco, Phish and the Black Crowes.
“And it sounds like that kind of score,” Tysen said. “But that meant we had to have a sound system and a full band from the first day of rehearsals. … At the end of the day, the music is what’s telling the story.”
But rock songs tell stories in one way, songs in musicals another.
“It’s been a request in rehearsals to cut a chorus, because in a musical you don’t repeat the chorus three times,” he said.
Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, is staging the workshop. This will be the second time the show has flexed its muscles in front of an audience. An earlier workshop was performed last year at the Living Room.
Tysen lives in Brooklyn, where he has forged a successful career as a writer of musicals as well as children’s songs. But his Kansas and Missouri roots run deep. He was born in Kingston, N.Y., and when he was 3 his father took a job as a chaplain at a hospital in Salina. That’s where Tysen grew up and graduated from high school.
He then majored in theater at what is now called Missouri State University in Springfield. One of his classmates was Rusty Sneary, artistic director of the Living Room.
“We lived in an animal house together,” Tysen said. “He was one of my best friends. And when he lived in Brooklyn, we were neighbors.”
Tysen said Salina South High School had an “incredibly strong fine arts program.” He sang in the choir, played in the band and began writing songs. In his senior year of college he co-wrote his first musical. He later earned his master of fine arts degree from the graduate musical-writing program at New York University.
His musical, “The Burnt Part Boys,” which he wrote with composer Chris Miller and book writer Mariana Elder, ran off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2010. Tysen and Miller’s adaptation of “Tuck Everlasting” could make it to Broadway within the next year. At least he hopes so.
Miller is also a contributor to “Amelie,” a musicalization of the widely admired French movie, which is likely to receive a Broadway run in the next year or two.
Right now, however, his creative energies are focused on “Stillwater.” In the show are David George, Curt Hansen, F. Michael Haynie, Shanna Jones, Ryan McCall and Emily Shackelford. (Jones and Shackelford were seen in the Rep’s “Hair: Restrospection.”) The members of Joe’s Pet Project are Tysen, McCall, Lance Gilchrist, Jason Hammond and John Hobson.
Originally, Tysen wanted “Stillwater” to be entirely sung. But Rosen urged him to develop spoken dialogue.
“It really is a concert-theater hybrid,” he said. “The band is on stage for the entire time. Right now it’s told in two acts and … I’m slowly peppering in just enough dialogue and story to keep it interesting and keep the plot going. I thought it would be like a rock opera. I am not a playwright. That’s not my thing.”
He did, however, hit on an idea to show characters communicating not by speaking but by texting. Their messages appear as projections on a screen.
“When I first started writing it, I realized I didn’t want people to talk, but (texting) was a great way for people to communicate. One character is a drug dealer, and he’s always getting texts. … It’s so much easier to just pick up the phone and text somebody than call.”
Opening May 13
“Stillwater” runs through May 24 in the Spencer Theatre scene shop. The Spencer is part of the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St., on the UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.