PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes Writers Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond
By Sophia Saifi
Playbill.com talks with songwriting team Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond about their musical The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes, the story of a man trapped inside a musical.
Kooman and Dimond are purveyors of pop culture, and the classy duo is capable of producing some very funny work. The two are at the top of their game with their musical The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes.
Currently in development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theatre Conference, the show's cast is made up of Hunter Foster, Kate Wetherhead, James Judy, Sara Gettelfinger, Price Waldman, Natalie Charle Ellis, Harris Doran, Sarah Stiles, Sergi Robles, Veronica J. Kuehn, Olli Haaskivi and Hannah Laird. Throughout the week, the public readings have been sold out.
Howard Barnes is a story of a man who wakes up to discover his life has become a musical, and his quest to escape is the crux of the story.
Kooman and Dimond sat down with Playbill.com to discuss their work, the movies that inspire them and the perils of chugging too many iced teas before a show.
Question: How did you guys end up collaborating and why do you both like working together?
Michael Kooman: I was at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), an undergrad in composition and he was a graduate student. I was writing orchestral pieces in choral and chamber music. I felt that musical theatre was something that was really captivating me and I forced my way into the drama school. I took a lyric writing class with Chris, and there was about eight of us in it, and Chris was by the best lyricist in the class. I loved his lyrics. I asked him if he wanted to work together on a project. That project became Home Made Fusion, which was just a little song cycle for us in 2006. Then he asked me to write his thesis show, which ended up being Dani Girl.
Question: What about the song, "Random Black Girl"? How did that happen?
Kooman: Chris had the concept of the song.
Question: What motivated you?
Christopher Dimond: It was one of the first songs that we wrote together, it was something we thought would be funny to take this character that is always placed in the background and playing the token minority in an ensemble and give her a moment in the sun and allow her to air her grievances with the theatre industry.
Kooman: It's a pretty interesting story though, because Chris had some interviews with people at CMU to get some ideas for the song, and then we wanted Patina Miller to sing it.
Question: Did you know her because she was also at Carnegie Melon?
Kooman: Not really. She was at Carnegie Mellon but I didn't know her because I was mainly in the music school. So we were just like, "Hey Patina, we have this song we'd like you to sing." Chris wasn't available so I had to sing this song for Patina, on my own. I was so nervous. Even in college Patina had a lot of respect and she was this amazing performer and I was singing for her. Basically the story is that I finished and she goes, "It's supposed to be funny, right?"
I said yes and she had a couple of thoughts and we worked the song around what she thought and she just turned the song into what it became.
Question: Was this around the time when you guys got the fellowship to come to the O'Neill?
Dimond: We were here in 2008, because of Dani Girl, which we wrote for my thesis project, and was as a result eligible for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, where they recognize theatre students across the country. We ended up winning the musical theatre award for Dani Girl and then got to go the festival. They introduced us to Martin Ketteling who was the O'Neil's literary manager. They ended up figuring out that we could come here on a four-week residency. Consequently, Michael carved out the role of the music assistant. He was the first one to do that.
Question: Was the O'Neill this amazing back then as well?
Kooman: It was fun. It was crazy and it was fun to be in the process to see how these professionals were working, how the process evolved the piece. It was a lot of work. It was intense but we also left the O'Neill with a lot of respect.
Dimond: It was a great experience and came away from that summer with better connections and a better understanding of how things work.
Question: How did your album come about?
Kooman: We wanted to make an album. We had some time available and we had some money, which we raised on Kickstarter. It wasn't produced by a label, it was just us.
Question: So you're proponents of Kickstarter?
Dimond: Yeah. It really allowed us to do the album the way that we wanted to do it. Obviously we are incredibly grateful for the support that we got from the community. It's also a great way to kind of connect you to the people who are interested in your work and are interested in supporting you.
Question: The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes - How did that come about?
Dimond: We have drawn on a lot of sources for inspiration. That kind of work is something that I have really loved. I grew up on Mel Brookes movies and things like "Airplane," and I have always loved referential humour. This gave us a chance to really pull from all of our different sources of inspiration, primarily obviously in musical theatre but also to weave some other things as well. I don't think I've written anything that doesn't have at least one "Star Wars" reference in it.
Question: Are you a big "Star Wars" buff? It's all over your website's blog!
Dimond: I've always been a big "Star Wars" fan. A lot of what I'm drawn to aligns with a lot of Joseph Campbell's work - the idea of the hero's journey which we reference throughout Howard Barnes - and "Star Wars" is the quintessential modern pop culture example of most of his ideas.
Question: How did you start work on Howard Barnes?
Dimond: It grew gradually for us. It started off as an idea of, "Wouldn't it be funny if somebody woke up in a musical?" and just added to that and played with it in different forms.
Then Michael was working on a "Stranger Than Fiction" project at BMI and gave us an idea on how, rather than someone realising that they are part of a novel, that they are part of a musical.
We struggled with what would it mean. What would the larger metaphor be? What would the need be for this characters life, for this metamorphosis to the musical? When we got the heart of the heart of that, we played around with the larger structure and versions of what happened along the way. We watched a lot of movies to look for examples.
Question: Which movies?
Dimond: We were looking mostly for examples of movies that have fantastical worlds that were crystallized very simply and the audience were able to hop on board with it and believe, even though they were absurd and highly unrealistic. We watched a lot Charlie Kaufman's movies.
Dimond: "Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich", "The Truman Show".
Question: Did you have a discussion about which direction you would take this musical? What genre it would fall under?
Kooman: That was one of the most important parts. Before we even started writing, we had a very long conversation about what kind of show this was going to be. It took us a long time to write the musical aspect of it. There stractually a couple of different worlds we ended up going through. We talk a lot before we start writing, just to figure out that we're on the same page. We weren't uniform in our ideas. It took a lot of arguing.
Question: What did you guys argue about?
Kooman: There were some envelope-pushing humor moments and that was some of our arguing: How far we could we go with this. We've hopefully opened it up that we can go pretty far, because we do go pretty far.
Question: It had never been watched before a live audience, except for the one time you had a specifically-invited audience.
Kooman: Ever since we were here in a different capacity, we have been dreaming of coming back. It is an amazing place to be and an amazing place to workshop. Not just because of its reputation but because it actually is a wonderful place to see the audience rewrite and make another change.
The O'Neill was one of the first places, if not the first place, where we sent the script and the score, other than those private reads.
Question: Saturday was packed!
Kooman: Yea for comedy its great to have a large audience because more people will laugh and it is more contagious.
Question: I noticed that mid-show you (Michael) got up and walked away! Why was that? Were you nervous?
Kooman: I had eight iced teas for dinner and my bladder was full.
Question: Someone mentioned that you were very agitated, and that's why you left!
Kooman: No it was literally me not being smart and drinking too much liquid. I was in all honesty really nervous which is why I was dropping those iced teas down. I was really excited to be there and the actors blew it away, considering the first run through was only two hours before.
Question: So do you think there will be more changes?
Dimond: Absolutely. We've been working all morning and talking about things to implement in rehearsals. That's why we want to be here. With this kind of show you need the freedom to experiment to throw an idea out there and see what happens with it and see how it changes things and determine whether that is the right direction to go or not.
Question: You mentioned that there are many references to musicals, there are a lot of in-jokes as well. You've referenced many big of personalities in the world of music theatre. Do you feel the references could be alienating to an audience?
Kooman: Our goal is to make it work on different levels. We're hoping it works on two levels. We want everyone to enjoy this, whether you've seen every musical that is ever written or if you've seen zero musicals.
Question: Whats next for The Noteworthy LIfe of Howard Barnes?
Dimond: I'm sure we will come away with the final performance this Friday, were going to have some more workshop opportunities this summer to hear it all out and we're hoping to go from there. We're going to send it out and engage interest.
Question: What about the cast. Is this your dream cast?
Dimond: I'd say this is pretty much a dream cast scenario. We've been really happy with the works these folks have done. They're really giving their all, completely dedicated to it, putting themselves in front of an audience with very few rehearsals. All really smart and asked great questions and give great feedback. Actors give such a different perspective to the role. The caliber of the talent we have is unbelievable.
Question: What would annoy you guys most in a musical?
Dimond: For better or for worse I am very story oriented. I like plot and structure and I am frustrated by musicals that sacrifice story for the sake of visual. My mind tends to wander. I get a little ADHD about that sort of thing.
Kooman: I don't like theatre that has zero comedy in it. I enjoy balance and contrast, I find it hard to relate to shows that have zero or very little comedy.
Question: Whats next for you guys?
Kooman: We have two shows at the Kennedy Center: Orpheus and The Book of Heros, which is sort of greek mythology with a modern contemporary sensibility and we're are working on another unnamed commission.
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