Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Out of Their Heads: An Interview with Kooman and Dimond

The names Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond shouldn't be foreign to this blog -- just in my post last week, I talked about their new album Out of Our Heads (Have you gotten that yet? What are you waiting for?!) but this musical theatre writing team is also behind shows like Dani Girl, Golden Gate, and Homemade Fusion -- to name a few. With a CD release concert coming up next week at The Birdland, they were generous to take the time to answer some questions about the upcoming album, writing less traditional musical stories, and connecting with their fans:

(Todd Buonopane singing "To Excess")

How did you two meet? What about your collaboration process has made you guys so successful as a team?

Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond: We met in a lyric writing course at Carnegie Mellon University. Michael was an undergraduate studying composition, and I was in the graduate playwriting program.

It’s hard to define exactly what it is that makes us work as a team. We like to think that we complement each other pretty well. We have similar aesthetics and senses of humor, which is probably critical, and are also both drawn to clean, dynamic storytelling. At the same time, though, we’re very different people, and some of the contradicting aspects of our personalities, experiences, and worldviews probably adds an interesting element of contrast to our work.

Me: There are so many great themes of love and loss and general rationalizing/reasoning serving as a throughline in all of the songs. What was your underlying thread that you wanted to hold all these songs together?

Kooman and Dimond: When it comes down to it, we wanted the album to be a collection of our strongest songs. There wasn’t necessarily an overt thread that we were looking for to connect everything, we really tried to go about putting together a cohesive album that represented our best work.

That being said, it’s probably not a coincidence that there are a number of undercurrents running through many of the songs, particularly touching upon the themes that you mentioned. Love and loss aren’t exactly uncommon areas of exploration for songwriters, and a lot of what we set out to express can fall into one, if not both, of those categories.

(Anderson Davis and Natalie Weiss singing "The Temp and the Receptionist")

Me: Many of the songs on Out of Our Heads are from your song cycle Homemade Fusion. How did you decide which songs from that show would be on the album? How did you decide to include the two songs that aren’t from Homemade Fusion?

Kooman and Dimond: We wanted the album to exist somewhere between the worlds of musical theater and pop. And, as we mentioned earlier, we wanted it to showcase our strongest individual songs. So, we took a look through our catalogue, and pulled the songs that we felt were the best representations of our work, which could stand alone, while simultaneously fitting in with everything around them to comprise a unified album. It wasn’t exactly easy.

The two songs that aren’t officially from Homemade Fusion, “Drift” and “Beautiful Mistake”, are newer songs that we wrote specifically for the album. With each of them, we tried to explore a “poppier” sensibility, while maintaining a coherent narrative throughout. They feel a bit more like pop songs than some of the other pieces might, but we feel as though they still have a theatrical sensibility.

Me: Do you see Out of Our Heads being a set that could be performed as a kind of concert (like you will be having for the CD release at the Birdland) or song cycle, or do you see this album as being something outside of the context of performance?

Kooman and Dimond: We definitely think that the songs are theatrical enough to feel like a cohesive evening of theater. The Birdland concert (which will feature a couple of brand-new songs in addition to those on the album) should be a great opportunity to experiment with that format.

Obviously, there won’t be anything resembling a thru-line in terms of a narrative, but we do think that there will be an overall arc to the evening. If we frame it all properly there should be a strong journey, complete with a catharsis. It’s just that the emotional arc will have to occur in the experiences of the audience, channeled through a series of stand-alone songs, rather than being tied to a particular character or group of characters.

Me: Something I love about your musicals is that they all seem to pull out very relatable, human stories out of sort of tragic or dark happenings. What kinds of stories are you most attracted to as a team? And what is the process like of translating those themes into music?

Kooman and Dimond: Thanks. We get a lot of flak because the topics that we’ve chosen to take on in pieces like Dani Girl and Golden Gate aren’t exactly traditional fodder for musicalization. But, they serve as pretty good examples of what we’re oftentimes drawn to. It’s easy to classify them as musicals about cancer and suicide, respectively, but if you scratch the surface, they’re both stories about people searching for hope in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

If there were a central theme to our work, that would probably be it, finding hope, beauty, truth, humor, and joy in the face of despair. It’s relatively easy to be hopeful in a world full of butterflies and bunny rabbits and love songs. But to us, the more interesting task, and perhaps the more significant, is to explore the nature of hope in a world where darkness is a very tangible reality.

Which is not to say that all of our work is necessarily dark. We’ve written a Christmas musical, and are currently working on a children’s show for the Kennedy Center.

Ultimately, we look for something that we feel a strong emotional connection to. If you’re going to spend five years working on something, it had better be something that you’re passionate about.

(Patina Miller singing "Random Black Girl")

Me: I also saw that you guys have a blog yourselves, and even raised money for the album through Kickstarter. What has your experience been with social media to promote your work?

Kooman and Dimond: We do have a blog. And a website. And a Facebook page. And a Twitter account. And a Youtube page. And just about every other kind of social media outlet we can possibly try to take advantage of. Occasionally we try to actually speak to people too.

The whole social media boom has provided incredible opportunity for new musical theater writers. It provides a direct link to the exact people that you’re looking to get in touch with.

When we were young, the only way to learn about a new show, short of seeing it on Broadway, was to buy the original cast album. Now, a wealth of new material is just a click away. It’s amazing.

Many of the opportunities we’ve had to this point in our careers can be directly linked to our social media efforts. Homemade Fusion has yet to have a “major” production in the United States. But a heck of a lot of people have heard “Random Black Girl.”

For us it’s not only a tremendous promotional tool, but it’s a great way to connect with fans on a truly personal level. It’s always incredible to hear about somebody’s experience with our work, or to be able to get real time feedback on a new song, or to simply be able to answer a question for an actor or director who may be struggling with one of our pieces.

It’s unbelievably rewarding to be able to interact with people in that way.

Me: Though it’s not musical theatre, I love that you guys also worked on a webseries. What was that process like and how did it compare to working on a stage musical? Any chance you would consider working on a musical webseries someday?

Kooman and Dimond: The web series was a blast to work on. It was a terrific learning experience, as we were all sort of figuring things out as we went along. We’re pretty damn pleased with the way it all turned out, too.

It’s interesting, there are obvious differences in terms of writing for the stage versus the screen, and those differences can be simultaneously frustratingly limiting and refreshingly freeing.

From a composing perspective, it’s quite different. As a composer for a stage musical, you’re typically writing music around which a stage moment will be crafted. Whereas, in scoring something for film, television, or the web, you’re writing the music to moments that are already there, in near-finalized form.

Still, at the heart of it all, you’re still trying to do the exact same thing: tell a clear, compelling story with the tools you have at your disposal.

We would definitely consider working on a musical web series. We’d consider working on anything, in any form. As much as we love the musical stage, we’re interested in exploring a million different forms of storytelling and expression.

(Part I of webseries "Geoff Russell Is A Total Douche")

Me: Any updates on any of your shows or any plugs for upcoming work?

Kooman and Dimond: We’re incredibly fortunate right now, in that we have a number of different things going on.

There are some very exciting things happening with Dani Girl, which include a Toronto production in early 2012.

There are a number of productions of Homemade Fusion in the works, including a run in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

We’re about to leave for DC for a workshop of our aforementioned Kennedy Center children’s musical.

And, we’re working on a short (non-musical) film, which will premiere in the Three Rivers Film Festival in November.

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