Photo: Shervin Lainez, courtesy Erin McKeown
“When everything gets going, and the whole engine starts to move, we really do have moments where I think you can look at this as the sound of America, or the sound of a country, something that’s much bigger than the two people who are sitting in the car,” said musician, composer and poet Erin McKeown. They’re talking about “Miss You Like Hell”, the epic mother/daughter road trip musical on which they collaborated with Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegria Hudes (“In the Heights”). The show opened Off Broadway in 2018, and was subsequently named “Best Musical of 2018” by the Wall Street Journal; on June 3, it will burst onto the stage at TheatreSquared. In addition to the usual hoopla of an opening night at the theater, there will be an extra frisson of excitement that evening: McKeown will be performing live in the Commons Bar/Café starting at 6 p.m.
“Every once in a while I ask the licensing company who is doing the show, and where,” McKeown explained. “Before the pandemic, I was sort of making a habit of it if I could, to visit places that were doing the show and then try to play my own concert there. I saw TheatreSquared on the list and I thought, ‘I’ve never played in Arkansas. This is obviously a professional theater that knows what they’re doing, it’s going to be a great event, and if they’ll have me, I’ll go.’”
Playing in an intimate, café-like atmosphere — just a person and a guitar — is a throwback for McKeown, whose musical career started out just that way. They had declared ornithology as their major when they set off for college at Brown University — their childhood in rural Virginia and summers at camp had made them a huge fan of the outdoors and birds, in particular, had captured their fancy. But McKeown was also a fan of the performing arts, and high school and college theater productions had been meaningful events for them during their formative years. They had studied piano from a young age, McKeown said, not because it was determined they had some special talent for it, but because “that’s what middle class kids did,” though “I was neither good nor bad at it, it was just the thing that I did.”
“Miss You Like Hell”
Where: TheatreSquared, Fayetteville
When: June 1-July 10
Cost: $15-$61 in person, $25-$35 digital stream
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org
Note: Erin McKeown will perform live in the Commons Bar/Café starting at 6 p.m., June 3
But they had quite a different experience when they first picked up a guitar at the age of 12.
“I had always written poems and short stories — that that was more of what I got attention for as a young person,” they said. “I was always writing poems and stories and when I started, marrying that with the guitar and the singer/songwriter mission, I think that’s maybe when people might have said, ‘Oh, you have a talent for this.’ I certainly knew that I loved it. And that’s the moment where I started to love music, really. Writing was my first love. And then when I got a guitar in my hands, I music became an important part of my life.”
The coffee house scene in the region around Brown University was a fertile ground for a musician just starting out, though it wasn’t easy for McKeown to start performing in front of crowds. Theater had been such a passion for them as an adolescent that they took drama classes in high school but, McKeown said, the trepidation at standing in front of the other theater students to perform was often so intense they threw up right before class started. But the guitar in hand lent a more dogged determination, and McKeown soon overcame their stage fright. Their first album, 1999’s Monday Morning Cold, was released while they were still in college, in 1999. Since then, they’ve released nine more albums, written for film, television and theater, toured worldwide with cult hit podcast “Welcome to Nightvale” and—oh, yeah—co-created an award-winning musical.
“The answer is not even that exciting,” McKeown said with a laugh when asked about the wide variety of projects they’ve worked on. “It’s just, money. How do you keep paying the rent? If a project comes my way, and I like the people, and it’s a chance to pay my rent, I’m game for it.”
But deeper into the conversation, clues reveal that McKeown is, in fact, quite particular about the projects they sign on for — helping to explain the sheer breadth of creativity that’s been displayed by their accomplishments across the past two decades.
“That’s my main criteria in choosing projects — am I collaborating with someone interesting? Am I going to have a great adventure with them doing it?” they said of considering the offer from Hudes to collaborate on “Miss You Like Hell”. Contact from Hudes came after she had listened to McKeown’s 2009 album, “Hundreds of Lions”.
“She thought it sounded like the musical that she wanted to make, and so she just wrote me an email,” they said. “She didn’t have a Pulitzer at the time, but she was the book writer of the Tony winning ‘In the Heights’, which I actually had never seen — I’m a passionate theater fan, but obviously myopic in some ways. And so I didn’t know who she was. And I thought, ‘That sounds interesting.’ I had lunch with her and loved the script, and, really more than that, loved her. I just loved her. So I said yes, and because of of her talent and skill and history, we had a very, very golden pathway for developing the musical. Most people’s first musicals don’t begin at the La Jolla Playhouse and end at the Public Theater. In that way, it was really like a bolt of lightning.”
For the book, Hudes re-configured a play she’d written years before called “26 Miles”. McKeown says Hudes had always felt the story was missing something. Turns out, that something was McKeown’s imminently hummable, toe-tapping take on the folk-rock-Americana songbook.
Photo courtesy TheatreSquared
“She expressed appreciation for the sort of engine that’s underneath all my music — I’m always interested in rhythm, and I’m always interested in forward motion, and she felt like that was what was appropriate for a road trip musical,” McKeown explained. “And my skills in writing for different characters, and different kinds of songs, definitely came in handy, and I didn’t have to think twice about that, so I guess that’s a secondary reason that I was probably a good choice.
“Something that I think it’s important to talk about with this show in particular is that I did say to her, that one thing I don’t write is Latin music,” McKeown continued. “It’s not my heritage. I’m certainly interested in it and appreciate it, but I don’t try to write it. I’m not the right person for that, and I don’t feel comfortable trying to do that because, again, it’s not my heritage. She said, ‘That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the sounds of America — there are a lot of people in America,” and I said, ‘I can do that.’”
The show features a cast of 10 actors and seven musicians — the idea of which thrilled McKeown as a composer.
“I really liked the idea of a sonic democracy, the fact that we were going to have 10 voices, and I was going to get a seven-piece orchestra—to be able to have 17 things that could be going on at once, instead of the usual me and a guitar was very exciting to me,” they said. “To really try to reach out and expand the scope of this show.”
The musical has, at its center, the story of a mother-daughter pair whose relationship has gone off the rails. Beatriz shows up at her daughter, Olivia’s, bedroom window in the middle of the night, begging her to drive cross-country in an attempt to reconcile. In the course of their road trip, the two meet a slate of big-hearted characters across the country who help usher them along the way. There’s an underlying story that’s even bigger, however, that tells the tale of the unjust American immigration system and the families it tears apart.
“It’s hard not to be moved by the newly earned parent-child bond, by lessons learned on a road well-traveled and, ultimately, by walls that stand in the way of loving families,” read a review from Variety about the 2018 production.
“’Miss You Like Hell’, now playing at Baltimore Center Stage, follows in the tradition of works like ‘Hair’, ‘Cabaret’, and ‘Rent’, addressing its moment in history with stories that help elucidate political concerns for a wider audience,” read a review from DC Metro. “This musical with book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes and music and lyrics by Erin McKeown reaches into the zeitgeist to produce a work that could not possibly be more timely, relevant, and important.”
Six years since the first production of the show and four years after its Off Broadway run, McKeown still sounds slightly stunned at the achievement.
“It just remains kind of cool and strange in my life that I wrote a musical,” they marveled. “It’s as unpredictable as anything else that I’ve done.”
After the set in the Commons, McKeown plans on watching the show.
“When you work on something for so long — 2011 to 2018 is a long time, and that’s pretty usual for a new musical to take that long,” they explained. “You live with it in this particular way that you still love it at the end but you can’t really see it anymore. I’ve been grateful for the time that’s passed, and also grateful for the other productions that people are doing because obviously they bring something new each time and I’m fundamentally tickled seeing these things that I wrote, but I had nothing to do with.”
Do they have any expectations about the performance they’ll see in Arkansas?
“There’s no opportunity for something not to love,” McKeown answered firmly. “It’s already amazing that I can go to Arkansas and people are working on this piece that means so much to me and Quiara and bringing it to the community. I don’t know much about your community and maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going to guess that centering a story of two Latinx people is not the usual fare? So that’s so cool. And I want to support that in all manners. That’s my mission, to come and be like: ‘Y’all are awesome. How can I help?’”