It seems every new musical is based on a familiar movie, such as the current Broadway productions of Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, and Aladdin. There are notable exceptions, though - original stories crafted from pure imagination.
Opening its world premiere production at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre is a show taking up that challenge called A Little More Alive.
With the scruffy beard of a graduate student backpacking through Europe and a double-espresso bounce to his step, Nick Blaemire recently visited the KCUR studios with his guitar in hand. Blaemire's 29 and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., but he's been in Kansas City, Mo., for a few weeks, molding into shape his new musical.
Nick Blaemire says the show examines memories and poses the question: What if our memories aren't what we thought they were?
"The musical is called A Little More Alive and is about two brothers who come home for their mother's funeral," he says. "They're not super close and they find a box full of letters to and from their mom from another man over the last twenty-five years of their lives while their father is upstairs mourning the loss of his wife.
"The show is really about watching these two guys, who are both in their late twenties and in two very different places in their lives, deal with how this new information changes the memories that they have."
"This idea stemmed from an experience a friend of mine in college had had with her family," Blaemire says. "I began to realize this is actually a more ubiquitous theme than even I would like to admit.
"We all have this lacing through our lives in some ways. We're imperfect human beings trying to figure out how to relate to each other and there's a lot of difficulty in that and the affair seemed a way in to talk about that question of what makes a family."
When not writing, Blaemire also works as an actor, including a stint in a recent revival of Godspell on Broadway. Yet he says he wasn't planning to write the show with a role for himself.
"You know I really wasn't," he admits. "I feel like one of the great gifts of writing in my life is taking a break from acting. I have a writer beard right now and I'm eating whatever I want and I don't have to worry about singing. I can go have a drink after rehearsal.
"There's something really wonderful to me about sitting in the room and watching people I respect take the words that I'm coming up with and talk to me about them, knowing I have the understanding of what it's like to be an actor but I have no interest in doing what they're doing. It's a huge relief for me."
Asked about the dearth of original musicals on today's Broadway stage, he mentions that a friend is currently playing the female lead in Rocky, yet another remake of a familiar story. He says that climate of limited risk-taking can be daunting to an up-and-coming composer.
"One of the challenges theater is facing, especially that New York theater is facing, is that it's always in danger of becoming a theme park," Blaemire says. "There are parts of it that will always be.
"And I think that okay; I think the Mamma Mias of the world and the Hairsprays of the world do a great service to the culture. Those shows have things to say in them. They're just said in different ways than I'm interested in expressing myself.
"So the challenge on our end - doing a small musical that is just about the human experience, as if that was a small thing, but it doesn't have a helicopter in it - is finding a way to market it that shows its universality. That's where I'm always interested. I'm not scared or angry at the system of bringing out shows that regurgitate material that's already been out there because it's safer but it's not what I'm interested in."
Striking a balance
Blaemire explains how Eric Rosen, the artistic director of the Rep, convinced him that Kansas City was the place to premiere his musical.
"He said Kansas City has a very specific balance between the Midwest kindness and openness and a real erudite, cosmopolitan world view that many cities don't have," Blaemire recalls. "Being here already has been both incredibly relaxing and made it possible for me to go sit on the grass and write, surrounded by artists who are making me better every step of the way."
Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents 'A Little More Alive,' through May 11, 2014, at the Rep's Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700.
The Artists in Their Own Words series is funded in part by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.