Protocol Says! Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback Act as Suspects, Detective and Accompanists in Murder for Two

News   Protocol Says! Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback Act as Suspects, Detective and Accompanists in Murder for Two
In Murder for Two, the Off-Broadway whodunit musical by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Jeff Blumenkrantz plays just under a dozen characters, Brett Ryback (as up-and-coming detective Marcus) attempts to uncover a murder, and the two accompany each other on piano — all in a mere 90 minutes.

Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback
Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback Photo by Joan Marcus

Where — in a musical that not only requires its actors to memorize a script and staging, but also its complex piano part — did the dynamic duo begin? "With the score," said Ryback — confidently — in his dressing room at New World Stages, Murder for Two's current home.

Blumenkrantz interjected: "With a panic!"

With Murder for Two — the new work featuring music by Kinosian, lyrics by Blair and a book by both, which was given its New York premiere this summer as part of Second Stage Theatre's 2013 Uptown Series — the creative team set out to find two multi-talented actor-musicians who had the ability to split their brains into "performer" and "accompanist," yet simultaneously deliver cohesive performances.

"I think there's a certain 'internalization' that Jeff and I both have about music, and that was one of the hurdles that we had to get over — to internalize this music," explained Ryback, who, along with his co-star, are not only performers, but also musicians, composers and writers. "It's different when you sit down and open up a book and play for somebody else, but when you have to kind of create it — in the moment — it becomes a bit of a different animal."

"We share a similar aesthetic for what we like to see and do on stage… I never told you this," Blumenkrantz said to Ryback, "but people — when we were rehearsing in the beginning — would ask, 'How do you like your co-star?' And, I said, 'I love him. The worst thing I could say about him is that he will shut down a process for something he believes in,' which is actually a compliment." Ryback, with a smile, responded, "I just said that I thought he was very funny!"

Brett Ryback
Photo by Joan Marcus

Before developing an obvious on-and-offstage chemistry, Blumenkrantz and Ryback were put through a demanding audition process. "I know Joe and Kellen from the BMI [Lehman Engel Musical Theatre] Workshop, [so] I knew about this project," said Blumenkrantz. "I heard songs from it over the years, [but after] I had that first audition, I was mortified. I just thought, 'That was an embarrassment. I wish I could erase that from the world's experience.' And, I remember going to Macy's afterwards just to try and shed…" Ryback interrupted: "Retail therapy?"

"Yes!" responded Blumenkrantz, who was asked to audition with distinct and different choices for the handful of characters he would play in Murder for Two (the Southern Dahlia, husband-and-wife duo Murray and Barb, eccentric dancer Barrette, teenager Steph and a gang of children, among others). "I [thought], 'How can I wash this awful audition off me?' By buying something! And, then my agent said, 'You got a callback.' I thought, 'No, I'm sorry. That does not compute.'"

The process was similar for Ryback. "The [creative team] gave me all this material," he explained. "It was some of the scenes, stuff that I had to play for the other character, and there was stuff that I had to play and sing myself… They were [checking] off all the boxes. The trickiest thing for me was to act in a scene and play music that was somehow counter to what was happening. I had never had to split my brain quite that way before, and now I feel like it's so effortless."

Blumenkrantz clarified: "Playing and singing at the same time is sort of effortless, but talking — like, dialogue — and playing the piano, or playing the piano and trying to have a conversation… It's a totally divided-brain situation, and it still kicks my ass."

Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback
photo by Joan Marcus

In order to digest the massive amount of material performed in Murder for Two, Blumenkrantz and Ryback were often given time off from rehearsal to complete their "homework assignments," or small chunks of the score to memorize for their next meeting, to work through music on their own. The duo also took time in between the summer uptown engagement and the New World Stages run to have a "phone-through," in which Blumenkrantz and Ryback — who splits time between New York and Los Angeles — revisited the material over the phone. "Now we're back in it, but when we first started [rehearsals for the New World Stages run], it was scary," said Ryback. "If you just closed your eyes and trusted your muscles, you kind of knew where to go, but the minute you thought about what was supposed to happen next, your brain just lost it. You had to rely on muscle memory."

The two continue at New World Stages through March 16, 2014, and although stamina proves to be the biggest challenge, Blumenkrantz admitted that the show is the "fastest 90 minutes" of his day. Ryback agreed.

"It's playfulness and trust. It's give and take," said the show's detective. "It's just the two of us, so if one person is giving something, the other person has to take it and run with it. Honestly, that element, and the element of the audience — when it's a good audience — is the reason why I can't get enough of this show. It's literally, '1, 2, 3… Go play!'"

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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