Interview: A Murderous Good Time with Joe Kinosian
by Marcus Scott
The world of theater is changing, with much of the excitement happening off-Broadway. For those suspicious minds, survey the productions that were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year, including The Flick, which was produced at Playwrights Horizons. For those who have had their share of soul-searching sobriety, there is also fun to be had beyond the Great White Way. Consider the killer interactive whodunit musical, Murder For Two. Taking time between grading year-end finals and events during the hectic awards season, composer Joe Kinosian talked with Marcus Scott on choices, crime and collaboration.
Congratulations on the Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Book of a Musical! How will you celebrate if you take home this prestigious honor?
I will insist that everyone refer to me as Drama Desk winner Joe Kinosian. Like at Starbucks, they’ll have to announce, “I have an iced latte for Drama Desk winner Joe Kinosian.” And if they don’t say that, I’ll throw that latte right in their face and storm out. And slam the door, even if it’s a revolving door.
Is there a set schedule when you and writing partner Kellen Blair work together? What is an average workweek in your lives like?
We both teach (he at Riverdale Country School, me at CAP21) and I also do a lot of freelance music directing, so we set each week’s schedule a week in advance, deciding when to work privately on “assignments” and when to have them ready to present to the other person.
The show is terrific, by the way. What was the impetus for the vaudevillian murder mystery musical, Murder For Two?
Thank you! Kellen and I sat down one day to write something fast, funny, and producible — a show that would need nothing more than a piano on a bare stage and two piano-playing actors to play it. Initially, I played the Suspects, and Marcus Stevens (our good friend and current star of Forbidden Broadway) played Officer Marcus (which is why the character’s name is still Marcus), so we were also lucky to have two actors who were invested in the material and would work for cheap! We loved murder mysteries, too. So, we thought we’d take a whack at an insane farce based around a murder. Or to be more succinct, what if the Marx Brothers performed a piece by Agatha Christie… wouldn’t that be fun?
You have received praise for the role of The Suspects, which you originated while the show was in workshops, but so has Jeff Blumenkrantz, who is stunning in the show. Because the musical relies so heavily on the two actors, how would you say the two of you differ as The Suspects?
First of all, allow me to agree with you that Jeff Blumenkrantz is absolutely stunning. I love watching him work. Jeff and I make very different choices as to each and every character (for example, his take on Steph, the love interest, is a little more romantic, while mine is a little more insistent), but both totally work, and both cause the actor playing Marcus to react differently.
Do you have a favorite part of the show? As a writer or performer?
As a writer, I’m very proud of the flashback sequence (in the song “He Needs a Partner”) that explains why Officer Marcus is so fearful of ever trusting someone again. In moving the show from Chicago to New York, we started wondering what would happen if we made Marcus’ past affair darker… like, much darker, and I’m very happy with how that bit of unexpected gruesomeness came out. As a performer, I love playing the victim’s wife, Dahlia Whitney. She has an internal logic that makes sense only to her, and license to say the most ridiculous things (“I have the ability to close my ears!”). As an actor, being Dahlia makes me feel like a naughty kid getting away with something, and it’s a whole lotta fun.
Performing alongside Brett Ryback or Adam Overett, how crucial was it when casting to find the right person for the role of “Marcus”?
It mattered a lot, because so much of what makes the show work is chemistry between the performers. As it happened, there was a lot of history amongst all of us before we even went in to production. Adam and I had been friends for many years, Jeff and Brett became very close friends during rehearsals; Jeff and Adam had known one another from the BMI workshop, and Brett and I grew up in neighboring small towns in Wisconsin (!) There is camaraderie between all combinations of us (I must include Jeremiah Ginn, another understudy, as well) that makes for an element of trust and supportiveness onstage.
It’s been called a mix between Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Clue, which is given a nod in the show. For example, there’s a cache of weapons on the set identical to that of the Clue game, which is used later in the show. Was that intentional?
Indeed it was! The nods to other murder mysteries were conceived by Scott Schwartz, director, and executed by our brilliant designers, including Beowulf Boritt (sets) and Andrea Lauer (costumes). If you look closely, you can see other references: on the trunk stage right, there are stickers for locations like Cabot Cove (setting of Murder, She Wrote) and advertisements for the Orient Express. When the Chief calls to check in on Officer Marcus, his prop iPhone lights up with a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes, and toward the end, there is a very cheeky reference to a famous cartoon detective, which I won’t spoil here. I was, and remain, very tickled by all these details. As I said, we are lucky enough to work with some brilliant collaborators.
The show is being awarded in the same season as another big Broadway hit, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. Last year, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, another murder mystery, received its first ever Broadway revival. Why do you think people are so enthralled with murder mysteries and the whodunit genre even to this day?
I think it’s the same reason Halloween is such a beloved holiday: people like exploring the darker sides of life in a safe way. Murder – actual murder – is horrible, but there’s something fun and irreverent and even cathartic in treating it lightly. And then of course, there’s the “race to the finish line” angle of every mystery, where you ask yourself, can I solve this before the end? It’s innately engaging, asking you to play along.
You are currently working on a new piece The More Things Change, a backstage musical comedy about two middle-aged actors with a turbulent relationship. What inspired this?
It’s an entirely fabricated plot, with maybe a slight nod to a certain vanity project in Broadway history where one person wrote, directed, produced, and scored a single musical (no names!). Our characters have grown over time and now it’s hard to identify where they started. But we sure like where they’re going.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but any grain of knowledge for budding writer-composers?
Only do it if you can’t do anything else. It’s a hard life, with a lot of sacrifices, and you should know that if you’re just setting out. The potential rewards can’t be enough, because you don’t know that you’ll get anything concrete back. You have to do it because you can’t not.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.