The new musical The Mad Ones began its life when the writers were closer in age to the main character, 18-year-old Samantha Brown. Today, The Mad Ones is having its NYC premiere at 59E59 Theaters, produced by Prospect Theater Company, and writing team Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk have a new perspective on the material. Culturadar Blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to both Kerrigan and Lowdermilk about being in the moment of choice versus looking back, the change in title from The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, and the show’s relationship—as well as their own relationship—with the book On the Road.
Culturadar: What inspired this piece?
Brian Lowdermilk: I was 18 years old and deeply conflicted about how college was going to fit into my life. I ultimately ended up going to Harvard, dropping out, and coming to New York to become a composer. This was the first piece I started working on when I was on my own. Then Kait entered picture when we started working together, and we dug back into the piece. It became a very different story. One big element of the show that’s new in the past few years is the arc of Sam’s mother, Beverly, and now that Kait and I are not 18 any longer—
Kait Kerrigan: We’re on the north side of 30.
BL: We weren’t able to tell it back then.
KK: Because this show has had a long gestation, our perspectives have changed. We want to feel and understand what this 18-year-old girl is feeling and make it harder for her, which we weren’t capable of when we first started. We’ve made the mom a stronger force in her life, someone who has a real point of view, and we’re able to talk about the complications of what Sam is doing. The audience will celebrate that she’s making a choice. I went to a women’s college and I’ve always been a feminist. These three women who are in the story, this older generation of feminism and this newer generation, are to be celebrated and also are complicated and problematic. Sam is navigating between her friend’s hashtag version of feminism and her mom’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps feminism.
CR: Kait, what inspired this piece for you?
KK: I had a couple childhood friends from college and from high school who died in quick succession. It changes you. It makes you look at the world in a slightly different way. I felt the reverberation in my life. They weren’t my best friends so I could look at it from the perspective of that fourth or fifth person removed. It’s not what the piece is about, but it’s the engine for Sam to become what she needs to become. When it comes to death, it’s a horrible thing but hopefully you can turn it into something life affirming.
CR: Has writing the story of a teenager brought back memories and feelings from that time in your lives?
BL: We’ve spent a lot more time talking about what Sam’s journey means for anyone on the precipice of change, for anyone paralyzed by fear, when you tear yourself apart and put yourself together to move forward. There’s something about when you go through those experiences for the first time that makes them feel more vivid, more paralyzing, more intense. They can change who you are as a person. The rest of your life you are going back into those moments.
KK: I’m a mom now so I find myself looking at it from a different angle, both connected to my kid and also connected to the people around me. I think, this is my kid’s first time experiencing that. It’s something then will echo throughout her life and all of our lives. When you’re in those moments, instead of looking back 5 years later, actually take the time when those transformations are occurring.
CR: What would you tell your teenage self now? Or what would you tell teenagers in the audience?
KK: Be brave and responsible. A good mission statement for the show is, with the freedom to do anything comes the responsibility to do something. I’ve been reading a lot of Rebecca Solnit, and she talks a lot about doing things that are not goal-based. We watch characters sing the “I Want song” over and over again in musical theater. In this show, Sam is telling us that she’s going after the unknown, something she can’t name. That’s valuable. But it’s terrifying to describe it to someone else. This is a treatise on that idea of choosing something that is not a clear path.
CR: What prompted the title change? What is the new focus?
BL: The new title reference is to Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, and the quote is from the show. The show is in dialogue with On The Road. Sam has a misplaced affection for the book. Every character in show has an opinion about it. It’s a fairly problematic text. Sam and Kelly see themselves in male protagonists in that book, and Sam ultimately has a step forward at end that is not quite the same.
KK: I had to read it in high school at a moment when I was starting to get pretty annoyed with the canon, and I watched friends think it was the coolest book. Everyone was into that hippie idea of getting on the road and driving. My problems with it were connected to feminism and the way the women were treated. The book became ingrained in the writing of this show for me. The boys in the book have this beautiful freedom, so what does it mean to be a woman trying to do the same thing? Beverly ends up talking about the difference between a boy on the highway and a girl on the highway. We had outgrown the old title. As we were looking for what we wanted we wanted to push, it was the relationship with On the Road and the relationship between these two girls. Sam is Sal, and Kelly, the wild child, the most alive person in the show, that’s Dean, and Sam has the same idolization that Sal has for Dean.
CR: What are you excited for audiences to experience?
BL: Beverly is one of my favorite characters that Kait and I have written. I’m excited for audiences to experience her arc and to see how these three very different women play off each other.
CR: This show already has some hit songs. Has that been helpful for the show?
KK: It’s fun to have people come in feeling like they know the show before they get here and see it’s way more than these songs. I talked to a group of girls who saw the first workshop in California many years ago who flew in for the first preview and they came up to me and said they knew it was very different but they felt it was more of what they wanted out of the show than it had been in previous versions. It was so gratifying. It’s what we’ve been chasing.
BL: Knowing two or three songs can actually be exciting. It gives you something to look forward to, a suggestion of a tone of the piece. I don’t think anything is lost or given away. We’ve been careful not to share certain songs on YouTube and continue to protect those.
KK: Two of those familiar songs are “Runaway with Me” and “Freedom.” If you know these songs, you know about the spirit of the piece that we’ve written.
CR: How has Prospect Theater Company’s long history with developing and producing new musicals enhanced this production for you?
KK: [Artistic Director] Cara Reichel has been there with us. [Artistic Associate] Peter Mills makes the cookies that are in the show. They know how to make a show not just as producers but as writers. The notes you get from Cara are insightful and incisive, not invasive. They stay out of the conversation and then act as a new set of eyes in the room, noticing new things no one else has noticed.
CR: As part of the next generation of musical theater writers, how do you see the future of musical theater and your place in it?
BL: We feel very hopeful overall about things that are coming down the pipeline. With every piece we do we try and ask big questions thematically and work creatively as structuralists.
KK: I’m excited. I think we’re in an awesome age of musicals. Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 can happen in a tent downtown or on Broadway. Hamilton is the biggest hit. It feels like everything is possible. I saw Fun Home, and I felt like I had never been asked to have this kind of experience with this kind of character in a musical before. We’ve always been asked to go on white men’s journeys. It’s exciting to be in a theater where women are no longer ingénues and Alexander Hamilton is not white. That’s a power that theater has that doesn’t exist in other mediums. There’s a realism in film that we’re not bound to in theater. And being in the room right next to something is a different experience. As soon as the audience appeared last night at the first preview, I felt that again.
The Mad Ones runs through Sunday, December 17th at 59E59 Theaters.
(1) Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown) and Emma Hunton (as Kelly)
(2) Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown) and Leah Hocking (as Beverly Brown)
(3) Emma Hunton (as Kelly) and Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown)
(4) Emma Hunton (as Kelly) and Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown)
Photos by Richard Termine.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.