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Interview with Murder for Two’s Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Now Playing at the Adirondack Theatre Festival

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Joe Kinosian and Kellen BlairJoe Kinosian and Kellen Blair met a year and a half ago at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City. After hitting it off and discovering they had similar theatrical interests, the two decided to continue their collaboration once the program ended. Now after a year and a half of working together as composer (Joe) and lyricist (Kellen), and with workshop productions of their first show and many readings under their belt, they’re making their way to the Adirondacks for their first full production together. Murder for Two, a two-person murder mystery musical comedy, will open at the Adirondack Theatre Festival at the Charles Wood Theatre in Glens Falls on July 22nd and run until July 31st. We talked with Joe and Kellen a little bit about their upcoming show, their process and what they have planned for the future.

TFG: So what was the impetus for Murder for Two?
We wanted to write a big Broadway show, with expensive and elaborate sets and costumes, but in the end, we decided on something small that could be easily done. The show was essentially a long skit with about 5 or 6 songs. We had preliminary readings of it, which had a positive response and so our New York producer organized more readings for us in Sag Harbor and in Chicago.

TFG: It seems like it’s been kind of a whirlwind for you guys.
It happened really, really fast. A large part of what’s behind that is it’s very cheap to do. You don’t need any sets, props or costumes–you need two actors, both of whom can play the piano. When you have fun with your limitations, and we’re constantly trying to find ways to exploit that premise, then the audience gets drawn in to it.

TFG: Joe’s the only one of the two of you that performs in the show?
I don’t play the piano, so I’m the eyes from the audience and Joe’s the onstage premise. Joe’s one of the few people who can talk and play the piano at the same time. [Joe plays the show’s 12 murder suspects.]

TFG: Who would you say are your biggest influences in terms of your writing and musical style?
Murder for TwoKellen:
In terms of musical theatre influences, it would have to be Frank Loesser. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is one of my favorite shows of all time. Loesser was the perfect mix of craft and character, while still being incredibly hilarious. In terms of modern shows, The Drowsy Chaperone has been inspirational for me. The reason we’re doing a murder mystery, is because we love the genre and writers like Agatha Christie and the Thin Man stories.

Joe: Musically and lyrically definitely Frank Loesser first and foremost; we just love him. He found a way to take the typically bright, bouncy Broadway sound and give it a smart, sharp edge as well as a lot of sophistication. Our first conversation about writing was centered around what an amazing writer Loesser was. Old movies are an influence. I love the Marx Brothers, old musicals, Charlie Chan and Agatha Christie, especially the 1940s film version of And Then There Were None, which is so wonderfully put together. You don’t laugh at it at all; it’s really funny and it knows it’s funny.

TFG: Some of the wordplay in the songs reminded us of Gilbert and Sullivan. Would you consider them an influence as well?
I love Gilbert and Sullivan, and we have one character in Murder for Two who sings a song that lasts four bars, about 15 seconds, and that very, very short song is a specific nod to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Kellen: It’s interesting, we never really use them as examples of influences, but how can you not since our influences were influenced by everything they did, of course. That’s definitely a compliment. It’s a standard to live up to. I mean Murder for Two is a musical, it’s a mystery, it’s a two person gimmick show, but in the end it’s a comedy. We always err towards the joke.

TFG: This is the first full production of the play?
This is definitely the first full production.

TFG: Are you nervous?
Yeah, we’re nervous! It’s petrifying in that up until now, we’ve always used our scripts, but now we have to memorize all those lines. It’s one thing when you’re playing one character and it’s fast and furious and you have to remember what your next words are or your next intention, but when it’s 12 characters…the fear is that I’ll get in place one night and I won’t remember who I’m so supposed to be (laughs).

TFG: Being a co-writer, does it help you remember the lines or does it make it more difficult?
It’s harder and I’ll tell you why―we’ve been redrafting the show as we go along, and I now have about 6 or 7 different versions of the same line running through my head, and I can’t remember what’s the last one that Kellen told me to do. I know that I’ve worded the same sentence, the same meaning 5 different ways, but which one did we end on? (laughs)

Kellen: Also, for an actor it’s hard to remember, since it’s so farcical. A lot of it is zaniness popping out of nowhere, so there’s not always a clear line of one thing happening to the next.

Joe: But that’s what our rehearsals are for. Don’t worry, I’ll remember my lines.

TFG: Was the workshop process in Sag Harbor helpful?
It was incredibly helpful, because it was the first time we did the show in front of an audience that wasn’t made up of our friends and colleagues. It was a much needed step in the process to find out if people would find the show funny or not. We got to look at each joke with a magnifying glass. What was helpful was that the story was working for that group; the audience was really invested in the detective’s journey.

Joe: We took a big step forward from our reading in New York to the workshop in Sag Harbor. The piece really changed from a skit and we further developed the character of the detective, trying to understand why the audience should care about him. Once we figured that out, we took it from a clever idea to an actual musical that happens to be performed in a gimmicky way.

TFG: It seems the kind of show that might lend itself to a minimal set.
Kellen: The set‘s not going to be literal. It won’t be a mansion, or a drawing room with cobwebs. The idea is to give little hints of things and to make it a little bit more abstract.

TFG: We read that Thomas Caruso directed the production in Sag Harbor, will he be doing this production as well?
Scott Weinstein will be directing this go around. He’s been working in collaboration with the director we met in Chicago, whose name is David Bell. Scott is fantastic, he’s a young guy from Chicago and he’s wonderful.

TFG: What are your plans for the show beyond ATF?
We’re doing the show in San Francisco for three weeks at the 42nd Street Moon Theatre in November. We also did a reading at Chicago Shakespeare about a month ago, and they’ve expressed an interested in working with us in the future too.

Joe: We’re still working things out with Chicago Shakespeare, but they are definitely interested in producing the next step and we’re excited about it.

TFG: Are you working on anything else together right now?
We are. Some stuff is in the works for fall 2001. We took part in a writers coop through Cap 21 at NYU, where you get together and work all day every day for two weeks, which helped give us the outline for our next show. When the students aren’t there, they let their studios be used by writing teams during the summer and winter beaks. It’s remarkable to have all this time to work on something, to live in the dream.

Joe: The piece is another similar, smaller scale musical, with a cast of 5 characters, which is a big step up for us (laughs).

You can find out more about Murder for Two and its showing times at the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s website:

–Dave Bower and Monica Sirignano are Publishers of The Free George.

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