The Ballad of Julia & Juliana — Working Together to Create a Murder Ballad

By Harry Haun
06 Jul 2013

Rebecca Naomi Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

"She came to me in December '09 with this idea of rewriting some old songs of mine," Nash remembered. "We were inspired by our own experiences. We were young and worked in bars and were wild. Then we stopped to be mothers and eventually began to miss our earlier lives. She missed writing plays. I missed playing bars. Murder Ballad was our way to connect with our past."

Both are credited with the lyrics to this sung-through musical. Then, they subdivide — Nash takes credit for the music, Jordan for the book and concept.

Their musical, currently having an extended run at the radically retooled Union Square Theatre, begins with the discovery of a bloodstained baseball bat, pin-spotted on a pool table in a sleazy bar. It's quite a mood-setter. The only questions now are who will wield the bat and who will catch it. The possibilities zigzag dizzily until the end.

Excluding the omnipresent, all-knowing, and nameless Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who reacts to the characters but not with them, the choices are three, this being one of those throbbing love triangles where anything — or, in this case, anyone — goes. At the vortex is a blonde named Sara (Caissie Levy), who relapses into an old affair with a Lower East Side bartender (Will Swenson) after settling down with a poetry professor (John Ellison Conlee) on the Upper West Side and starting a family. In short order, east meets west in this seedy dive, fists flying, slugging it out on the sidelines so as not to disturb the dozen or so audience members seated on the stage.

Bowing to the fashion of the times, the Union Square has chucked its proscenium stage and gone in-the-round. This is called "immersive entertainment," and there has been a lot of that going around lately. Here Lies Love, the Imelda Marcos saga musicalized by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is playing at The Public to standing customers who are shuffled from scene to scene like roiling revolutionaries. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's electropop-opera reading of 70 pages from "War and Peace," has shifted operations from a cramped space at Ars Nova to Kazino, a specially built venue at West 13th and Washington. Now Murder Ballad, which debuted last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage II, has rounded off its edges and thrown the audience into the chaotic fray.

"We went from a 140-seat house to a 370-seat house," beamed director Trip Cullman about the play's newfound and much-needed wiggle room. "I thought the story demanded it. I thought this was the way the story wanted to be told. I knew I wanted to set the piece in the bar where the climactic events of the story happen. Then, from there, I said, 'Well, let's put the audience there too and make it as intense as possible.' That's how it happened."

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Will Swenson, Caissie Levy, Rebecca Naomi Jones and John Ellison Conlee
Photo by Joan Marcus