The Authorized Biography of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk
The writers of The Mad Ones bring their fan-favorite character Samantha Brown to New York City for her off-Broadway debut.
It should come as no surprise that the musical-theater writers Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk can finish each other's sentences. As collaborators, they've worked together for more than a decade, but as friends, they go back much longer, to their youth in suburban Philadelphia.
They knew each other as kids. Lowdermilk was a "terrible but very enthusiastic musical-theater performer." But they never got along; Kerrigan was two years older, "and when you're 10," she recalls, "that's massive." They played Audrey and Seymour in high school, and "He kept stealing my high notes," says Kerrigan. The pair finally "became a weird little duo" while working on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. "We found each other at that moment," she says.
At the time, Lowdermilk started writing songs and Kerrigan began to write fiction, later transitioning to plays. After he dropped out of Harvard during his freshman year, Lowdermilk's mother and Kerrigan's stepmother "plotted that the two of us should get together to write a musical," he says, remembering that he and Kerrigan "sat on the roof of my car, and found that we had all these deep mutual loves. So, we set about to start writing together."
Looking back, Lowdermilk views his academic history as the seedling for an idea that has traveled with them for the better part of their writing careers: The Mad Ones tells the story of a young woman on the precipice of a life-changing move. The musical that resulted from this idea was originally titled The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, and had developmental runs across the country. Its songs landed in cabaret shows and a dedicated fan base developed among high school and college drama students.
Now rechristened, The Mad Ones is finally receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Prospect Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters. While the pair are "excited and scared'' for this moment, they also remain in control of a path they forged together a long time ago.
Tell me about the genesis of The Mad Ones. Where did the show come from, and how did you get to this point?
Brian: Kait and I talked about there being very few moments in life where you truly go through a period of real change and come out on the other side a completely different person. For me, that was the year I dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York to be a musical-theater composer. The idea [for this show] was something that was forged during that period of my life and Kait got pulled into it. We've had spurts of working on it, and in the past year or two, we've dug into it with renewed vigor and found the heart of what we've always wanted it to be.
Kait: We've always known what we wanted it to be, but, especially in your early 20s, it's easy to get pulled into other people's agendas.
Brian: This piece has been really appealing as a commercial property, and that has been good and bad for us.
Kait: It's nice when somebody likes your show and wants to work on it. But I think we've gotten better at figuring out how we want to work on it. One of the things that happened while we were coming up is that off-Broadway died. It existed when we were 22, but it was on its final legs, and then it actually completely combusted.
Brian: Meanwhile, we were creating this musical that was basically like The Fantasticks, in that, it's meant to sustain a long run in a small theater.
Kait: I think that's what was so confusing to producers as they were looking at it. They could see how it could hit a wider audience, but what is the model? The conversations that we could end up in now will be very different than the ones when we first started talking about this show, just because the models [for off-Broadway] have completely changed.
Songs from the show are heard in dozens of cabaret shows and you've posted videos of the songs and the sheet music on your website. How did you figure out how to connect the material with fans in the manner that you have?
Brian: It kind of happened organically. We put things up online and people gravitated towards them. It felt really natural to share with people. Getting responses from high schoolers felt thrilling, and like we could leap frog to the goalpost in some ways.
Kait: We were always careful about what we shared and didn't share. And we were proud of the way people have responded to the songs in context, and how they're surprised that they liked it better in context than when they thought it was a cabaret song.
Why change the title when it's a known commodity?
Brian: The title no longer suited the piece. And this show is 40-50 percent new material.
Kait: The thing about the most recent draft is that we were not 22 as we're writing it. We have different expectations for how universal the story needs to be, and how resonant it needs to be for an older audience. It's always worked for teenagers, but our relationship with it has shifted drastically.
There have also always been strains of feminism in the piece, but I definitely have learned in the past decade of writing the degree to which you must say exactly what you mean in a play or musical.
Brian: I've been singularly focused on amplifying Kait's voice in this new draft, and trying to make sure what's always been present is more focused.
What does it feel like to see this piece take its first breath in New York after all of this time?
Kait: It's mostly very exciting. When you get to the moment where something exciting is happening, you have to tell yourself to remember that it is exciting, rather than dealing with all of the fear that you have that it won't be exactly what you hoped it would be. There's something about trying to hold on to the joy and excitement.
Brian: Something that hits me hard emotionally is that I'm building this thing over a long period of time with my best friend. Kait and I have been inseparable for the better part of our adult lives.
Kait: Our entire adult lives.
Brian: Our entire adult lives. So yes, it's terrifying and it's exciting, but it's all mitigated by having your best friend with you.