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

By Harry Haun
July 6, 2013

Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash have reconnected with their past with the help of a dingy bar, a throbbing love triangle and a bloodstained bat.



It is nearly impossible to be introduced to playwright Jordan and not break into Rodgers and Hammerstein's, "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan" from Carousel.

"Oh, that's okay," she'll be telling the 10,000th jerk who does this — because it invites a lovely memory, which she always readily relays to her new acquaintance.

It seems, during her first year at The Juilliard School as a writer, Terrence McNally asked her to sit in on his Master Class, run lines with Zoe Caldwell and observe. Audra McDonald, who won the first of her five Tonys singing that song, was also in the play. Jordan recalled, "When I walked in, the first thing Terrence said was, 'It's Julia Jordan. Sing the song!' And Audra sang that right in my face. Now I just love it when people do that."

Jordan couldn't be farther from R&H these days, though. R&R would be more like it, only here that stands for rock 'n' rage rather than rock 'n' roll. Her clamorous and aggressive Murder Ballad is titled after a sub-genre of the traditional ballad form where lyrics describe a murder and its aftermath.

"I have loved murder ballads for the longest time," she admitted. "I find them thrilling and exciting. I just love the form," so translating that form into musical theatre has been a genuine kick for her. "As a writer, the thrill of doing this show was in writing the murder ballad itself, writing the twists and the turns of it."

And there are at least two more to come, "I'm planning a trilogy — all commenting on the one that came before, all with different characters and places."

For installment one, she enlisted the aid of a friend, Nash, who had never written for the theatre before, but who had a hard-driving rock band, Talking to Animals, that Jordan liked.

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