Women Who Wow Us: Week Four

ERIN MCKEOWN

Erin McKeown is a multi-talented musician, writer, and producer. Her Off-Broadway musical Miss You Like Hell, written with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, opened at The Public Theater in 2018 and was nominated for five Drama Desk Awards including Best Lyrics, Best Music, and Best Orchestrations, and The Wall Street Journal named it Best Musical of 2018. Erin has released ten full-length albums and performed at Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and the Newport Folk Festival. She has appeared on NPR and the BBC, and her songs have appeared in numerous commercials and television shows. She is also the 2020 Professor of the Practice at Brown University.

A Conversation with Erin McKeown

Jamie Maletz: You do a lot of awesome stuff! You’re a writer, you’re a musician, you’re a producer, you’re a performer…do you have a favorite among your vast skill set? 

Erin McKeown: I have yet to find something that is as gratifying as performing a great show to a full room of people. I’m surprised to hear myself say that, because I suffered a lot of stage fright earlier in my career and growing up, that kept me from performing until I was in late high school, but now there isn’t anything that really replaces that specific drug. 

JM: Also, you’ve recorded ten full-length albums and written music for film and television and theater. Do you have a favorite medium to write for?

Erin McKeown: Probably theater. I mean, I take for granted and don’t do very much anymore the songwriting for myself piece of it, which was primarily my career for many years, like, plumbing my own feelings and turning them into albums. But nowadays, to me, the theater stuff feels the most exciting.

JM: Yeah, I can relate to that. So speaking of theater, can we talk about Miss You Like Hell?

Erin McKeown: Yes!

JM: So you wrote this show with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and it played Off-Broadway at The Public and was nominated for 5 Drama Desk Awards, and The Wall Street Journal named it the Best Musical of 2018…and this was the first musical you ever wrote?

Erin McKeown: Yes. 

JM: Wow.

Erin McKeown: Pretty extraordinary experience.

JM: So, that’s amazing! How did you get the idea for the show?

Erin McKeown: The show is an adaptation of a play that Quiara wrote in the late 2000s, and it had an opening, it was published, it was licensed, people were doing it around the country, but she felt that there was something that she hadn’t quite done that she wanted to do with it. The play is called 26 Miles. And so she thought, “Oh, maybe I should make it into a musical.” Now, Quiara has lots of experience with musicals. I mean, obviously In the Heights is the most famous, but she is a composer as well, and she has written, I think, at least three others before In the Heights. So she heard a record of mine from 2009 called Hundreds of Lines, and she wrote me an email in 2011, just through the email catch-all on my website, saying, “I like how this record sounds. It sounds like what I want this musical to sound like. Do you want to write a musical?” And I didn’t know–I mean, I love theater, I’ve always been a theater fan, I especially love musicals, I took classes about musicals in college, I’m a very well-educated fan of musicals…but I didn’t know what I was getting into. I mean, you know, because you write shows, just how long they take and how incredibly difficult they are. Really harder than anything else I’ve ever written. So that’s how it started, and um, I’m so glad I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was able to just say yes to it. And I also feel like I won the collaborator lottery, because Quiara is…put all the awards and accolades aside, she is a real committed worker of an artist, as am I, and we love to make things together. And that remained the core of our collaboration. You know, I understand that you can not like somebody and still make something with them. I guess I heard stories all the time of like, especially musical theater collaborators having…you know, drama. And we had none of that, and I’m so grateful for it. I really learned a lot from her, and absolutely loved working with her.

JM: That’s awesome. So as far as the journey of writing the show, from, “Hey, let’s write a musical” to “We’re open Off-Broadway and getting all this recognition,” what was the journey like?

Erin McKeown: Well, I always think that the defining piece of that journey is the time. Because, again, based on anything else I ever made in my career, and you know, I’ve made lots of different things…seven years? It’s insane.

JM: Seven years?

Erin McKeown: Seven years. And that was actually pretty quick, for a musical. I mean, I’m long-time friends with Anaïs Mitchell…twelve years for Hadestown. I have another friend who’s been writing a musical, a Broadway-producer-created musical, for more than ten years, still going. So I feel like I kind of got out early with seven years. But about the journey, I would say that we just went bit by bit, and we were really fortunate to be supported in that development journey from the beginning by La Jolla Playhouse. We had three different developmental processes with them (two 29-hour readings and one three-week movement workshop for a program series that they have called DNA) and then a production with them. So we kind of had four of these different steps before we even got to The Public. I’m working on another musical right now that currently doesn’t have anyone as a partner for development, and you know, I’ve always been grateful for Miss You Like Hell’s path and the support that it had, and especially observing the difference in how fast I can move and discoveries that I can make on my own. I can see how important it is to be able to see it and hear it at different stages. If you can get a reading or workshop, everything takes a thousand leaps forward much more quickly than me sitting on my porch writing. 

JM: So seven years, that’s from the moment that you decided to start writing to the moment you opened at The Public?

Erin McKeown: Quiara sent me the email in late 2011, and our first workshop was in the fall of 2014. I would say for most of 2012, we were trading songs back and forth together. Not songs we’d written, but like, mixes. You know, like, kind of making mix tapes for each other and being like, “This song by this artist sounds like what we would imagine in this moment.” We sat down to really start writing in the spring of 2013. Quiara had a baby before that, and I put out a record. Quiara’s baby was born–a couple weeks before? The week of?–my record coming out. And then when those big life experiences settled, we started actually writing. So I think the first song we wrote was somewhere in the spring of 2013.

JM: The other thing I want to ask about Miss You Like Hell is, how did it feel to have it take off and be so successful? Especially with it being your first musical, to have it go Off-Broadway where people really loved it and it got all these accolades…what was that like?

Erin McKeown: Well, I have to be honest, and I think it’s important to be thinking about the people we’re talking to. We’re talking to Maestra readers. And I have to be honest and say that it’s been a very mixed experience for me. And I wish that I had been prepared better for it. I think that I fell into the trap of…especially because we were with La Jolla, we were with The Public, our team has a lot of high level experience (besides me)…you know, Danny Mefford has choreographed two Best Musical Tony winners, Lear [DeBessonet] (our director) has been shepherding these big projects, Quiara of course has had stuff on Broadway…I think I fell into the trap that because Miss You Like Hell didn’t make it to Broadway, I have had a hard time feeling like it’s a success. And it’s pretty nuts that I feel that way. I can’t intellectually think my way out of that, so I’ve had to work really hard in the last year to try to untangle from that. And I think that…I don’t know, I didn’t hear enough either from people around me or culturally that if you don’t make it to Broadway, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You know? And we didn’t get very good reviews.

JM: Really?

Erin McKeown: No. We got kind of the worst type of review you can get, which is “this could be better” faint praise. So, like, obviously if you get a thrilling review, a really great review, that’s great for your show. If you get an egregiously bad review, that’s also great for your show, because it’s very clear, and people can say, “No, that wasn’t my experience,” or “how dare they?” or “look at the critical industrial complex, it’s so unfair.” But this soft world in the middle is where the reviews landed for our show. And I think that some of that was sexism, and I think some of that was critics not being fluent in the cultural issues that come with telling the story of two brown women, so that also landed in a hard place for me. And I have felt like I can’t talk about that, but I’ve decided to talk about it more, just to be more honest with it, especially because this outlet for people we’re talking to with Maestra is other creators, other women creators. So I have to say that that’s part of my experience. Absolutely at the same time, I am thrilled that it’s being done around the country right now. Like, every time I hear about a different production (and I’ve been trying to visit each of them), I feel better and better about the work that we did and the way it was received, because it feels very democratic and very robust to be able to say, “More people can see this show than if it were on Broadway. More people can do this show than if it were on Broadway right now. More people can have their impact and influence, and it can reach their communities.” …That was a long answer.

JM: No, but it’s good!

Erin McKeown: I don’t have unmitigated feelings of success around this show.

JM: But it’s really refreshing to hear an honest answer like that. I think it’s a psychological thing that, as people, a lot of times we get the thing we’ve been working towards, and instead of celebrating the thing, we’re like, “Okay, why haven’t I gotten the next thing yet, how can I get the next thing?” That’s what our brains do. They don’t let us enjoy the level of achievement we’re currently on. 

Erin McKeown: I want to be very clear: I am holding gratitude at the same time as disappointment. 

JM: I think that’s fair.

Erin McKeown: Yeah.

JM: As far as your other work, you also have a band. On your website, it says you’ve played at Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, the Newport Folk Festival, you’ve been on NPR and the BBC…do you have a favorite gig story?

Erin McKeown: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] I have to say that at this point, I’m grateful not to remember all of it. There’s something really incredibly enjoyable and satisfying about making music in the moment with people. Sometimes as I do some of this other work in my career, whether it’s teaching or composing or producing records for people, I enjoy that work and I’m really glad to help other artists realize their vision, but I also really love just being a musician, and really love playing music with people. 

JM: So your band is not always the same set of people?

Erin McKeown: No, I never went that route. Which has actually been really fun, because there’s a large bench of people that I’ve played with over the years who play different instruments. And I would say, in general, my band has evolved to be drums, baritone sax instead of a bass, my guitar, and a keyboard. If we can get five, I add another horn. If we can get six, I add another horn. And when we get to seven, then I add a bass player. Which is very rare, that there’s the money for seven. But gosh, that’s so much fun when that can happen. 

JM: And what instruments do you play, other than guitar?

Erin McKeown: I play piano. I would say I play piano passively; I play it like a songwriter or a composer where I’m thinking more structurally than necessarily performance-wise. I play bass of any kind, I play lots of different percussion things, um…kind of the family of rock instruments, so like, synthesizers, guitars, basses, drum kits. Anything with frets and strings, I can play with varying degrees of knowledge, mandolins and banjos…I play accordion a little bit, and I play bass clarinet. I played bass clarinet in middle school, and it’s actually really great as a composer and orchestrator, to be able to play a bunch of instruments. And I wish that when I was in middle school for example, when the stakes are very low, that I had played a bowed instrument, because that’s sort of the one family that I don’t know as much about. And it was really great, while we were making Miss You Like Hell, my orchestrating partner was Charlie Rosen, and I had such a great time learning all the nuances of writing for strings.

JM: That’s awesome. Also, your website says that you’re the 2020 Professor of the Practice at Brown University. What does that mean?

Erin McKeown: It means that they have asked someone who’s a working artist to come and create and teach a class for a semester.

JM: Oh, cool!

Erin McKeown: So I will be creating and teaching a class about musicals in the 21st century.

JM: That’s amazing! 

Erin McKeown: Yeah, I’m really excited about it.

JM: That is so cool. Have you started creating your curriculum yet?

Erin McKeown: Yeah. I’m gonna work a little bit more on it next month, but I have. It’s gonna be a writing class, so it will be for students who want to be writing musical theater, or who are curious about it. We’re gonna look at shows post 2000. It’s a little bit of an arbitrary line, but you know, 21st century musicals and thinking about ways that the form is changing, and kind of thinking about what feels good as a musical now. 

JM: I love that. That’s so great. So now, to kind of go all the way back to the beginning…what was it like for you starting out in this industry?

Erin McKeown: My path in the musical theater industry has been a little bit sideways, and a bit of a shortcut compared to other people’s. Although I also am coming from 20 plus years of being a touring singer-songwriter and record producer and performer. But yeah, my path started in 2011, and I was able to move very quickly with really great partners through the process of getting to go to Off-Broadway. 

JM: And why did you join Maestra?

Erin McKeown: I’m always looking for ways to connect with people who identify as female. I mean, that’s a larger conversation of what that means, but I’m always interested in expanding that definition of who women are and what women can be. And I found as I was staffing and looking for collaborators for my musical project that I wanted to work with more women, and I wasn’t getting enough names. We had a long process in finding musical directors, and I wanted to make sure that our pits when we got to productions had, if not all, mostly women, and you know, god bless the contractors that we worked with, but…we didn’t get enough names. Certainly not enough names for me to feel like I could even have a process. And so I wanted to support something that was really directly trying to address that. 

JM: So, a connected question that you’ve already started to answer: Why do you think Maestra is important?

Erin McKeown: Yeah, I think it’s…I am not looking for a goal of 50/50. I am looking for a goal of much more than that. I’m looking for women and women’s sensibility and women’s skills and capability to dominate this industry. I think it would be really, really good. I would be thrilled to see most of the Tony nominees be women and people of color. I would be thrilled to see theaters giving money, almost all of their money if not all of it, into works that function both as a corrective for the history that we’ve experienced and also as absolutely forward-thinking. 

JM: And how has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?

Erin McKeown: It’s helped me find collaborators. It’s helped me find community. And you know, I think when we poll the people who are interested in it, a lot of what people are saying is how much it matters to be able to just find community around it. It’s really validating to know that there are people with a similar life and gender experience if you are trying to make musical theater, and there are some very specific things that it feels really good to talk to someone else about and know that they understand. And that’s, for me, not to say that I don’t value my collaborators that have had a different gender experience than me, whether they identify as male or not, but there’s something very specific about having been raised female in our culture and wanting to be a musician, and I love being able to sit in a room full of people who have had similar experiences with me.

JM: Why do you think people should care about the services that Maestra offers? 

Erin McKeown: I think anytime, for example, you’re trying to find a collaborator or you’re trying to staff a project, you want to be able to choose the person that’s right for that project. And you’re not making a choice if you are not looking at all of the people possible that you could work with. You are simply following a well-worn path if you’re not getting a lot of choices. So you could even throw the gender part of it aside and just say that Maestra is doing a great job at trying to correct and corral and give people more information about a wider range of potential collaborators. 

JM: And finally, is there anything else that you’d like to share about yourself or your work, or thoughts about Maestra? 

Erin McKeown: I think it’s great. I mean, I don’t live in New York City, and I think that…I don’t think you have to live in New York City to make theater. That’s probably another soapbox that I would want to get on given my experience. You know, I live in Western Massachusetts, and New York is not out of reach for me to get there. But it impacts my career to not live in New York City, and I want to do as much work as possible to change that, not just for myself, but for other people. There’s a hundred reasons why you can’t live in New York City, or don’t even want to, you know? Like, I don’t actually want to live in New York, as “good” as it might be for my career. I have a really beautiful life in Western Massachusetts, and a really beautiful community that sustains me. And Maestra has an opportunity to help people who don’t live in New York, for example, to connect and collaborate and create together outside of that extremely limited economic situation. I know that because of the internet and because of Facebook and everybody’s connections that it’s certainly a national and international idea.

JM: Yeah, it’s not just for New York! Our mission is, ahem, directly quoting: “To provide support, visibility, and community for the women who make the music in the musical theater industry.”

Erin McKeown: Hundred percent! I’m a hundred percent down with that. And really glad that that’s part of the opportunity that it offers. 

JM: Yeah, and exactly, I think it’s good that it’s not just for New York. And I’m glad that in the directory, you can say if you’re New York, if you’re specifically Broadway or Off-Broadway or Regional…

Erin McKeown: I think the directory is going to be radical. I really think, like…I’m one of those people that believes in the radicalness of information science. You know what I mean? Like, I think libraries are incredible, and I think Wikipedia’s very important, and crowd-sourcing data’s a great thing, and a directory, an index, are really radical things. I think that project is amazing, and I know that it will continue to grow. And the more it grows, the more useful it’s gonna be.

JM: Yeah, that and the statistics that Maestra is gathering I think are fascinating and…terrible. In a way that it’s terrible what we’re learning, but amazing that we have that information.

Erin McKeown: Yeah. I mean, that’s kind of where it starts is defining the problem, naming the problem, and figuring out where we have to go. And again, I can’t say enough that I think we need to be shooting for far more than 50/50. 

Special thanks to Erin for sharing her story.

Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, and Emily Grishman.

Women Who Wow Us: Week 4
Author: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Sara Cooper

Photographers: Jo Chattman and Anna Sheehy


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