Friday, February 3, 2012

I Made That: An Interview With Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen

For my first interview of the new year, I reached out to Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen to answer a few questions about exciting projects, from their recently released cast recording of The Burnt Part Boys (which I wrote about when it played at Playwrights Horizon) to their Broadway-bound Tuck Everlasting adaptation. Undoubtedly, very exciting things are on the horizon in 2012 for this songwriting team (including a recording of their song cycle Fugitive Songs), and they were gracious enough to share some details about the cool things they're working on:

Me: How did you two begin writing music together? What is your process of picking projects and how do you approach new works to pursue?

Nathan Tysen: We met in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU. We liked about 90% of the same things and have a similar aesthetic. It seemed only natural for us to write together.

Chris Miller: Our process of picking projects is odd—we just know it when it hits us. We currently have commissions from both Lincoln Center Theatre and Playwrights Horizons, and we’re just reading a lot of books, watching a bunch of movies, television, and listening to new music looking for the seed of the something that’s inspiring, that makes sense for us to either adapt, or jump off of into an original idea. It’s hard because you never know what will start speaking to you, so right now, as we’re looking for new things to write, we’re constantly tuned in to many different possible sources. Who knows? It’ll just make sense when we decide what it is.

Me: Congratulations on The Burnt Part Boys cast recording! What was it like making the recording?

Miller: Making the record was awesome, although we didn’t do it in the traditional way cast albums are made, so it took a little longer. We tracked the band first, then the strings, then brought in the vocals—all on separate days. It made for a long editing process, but it was totally a joy to work on, and we’re very proud of the end result. The show had closed in June of 2010 so when we got everybody back together the following November/December it was like a family reunion.

Tysen: There have been so many iterations of BPB (The Off-Broadway production was it’s tenth step of development), it is a great comfort to finally record the final version. It was especially amazing since our first cast album also happens to be the first show we wrote together (It started as our thesis at NYU). So it all came full circle. Now, with the near-completion of the Fugitive Songs album, we’ll finally have most of our early work out in the world.

Miller: Also working with the guys at Yellow Sound Lab has been a fantastic experience.

Me: How is the recording coming along for Fugitive Songs? What made you decide to record this album now?

Tysen: Fugitive Songs is going well, it sounds phenomenal. Because of everyone’s insane schedules (Our singers keep getting television shows!) we were forced to record the album piecemeal (much like BPB), so it’s taking a little longer than we thought. The band is tracked and we have almost all of the vocals finished, so we will be starting the mixing/editing process soon. We decided to make this record because various regional productions had started to pop up after the show’s initial Off-Broadway run, and much of the material had not been recorded, so there was not a blueprint or template for these productions to work from.
We wanted to make a definitive recording of the songs, and put in a few changes we weren’t able to implement during the initial run (Unfortunately we did not have a preview period). So, we wrote some new songs, cut some existing ones, modified others, and tweaked the song order. It’s a very tight, fun ride now.

Miller: On the original production, instead of orchestrating it, I simply did chord charts for the band and worked through each song as we went along; I can be pretty specific about certain piano & guitar parts, but then other times, I throw slashes & symbols down and let the musician do it better than I can.

I wanted to record the show in a spontaneous, jam session kind of way similar to the production, but with slightly expanded instrumentation. When it’s done, I want to transcribe it and use what we did as the score & parts that go out to new productions. On the original production, it was all acoustic instruments (piano, upright bass, guitar, violin and percussion). On the album it’s the same but I added some electric guitar, electric bass, banjo and mandolin. The band is phenomenal—Matt Hinkley (Guitars), Joe Brent (Mandolin/Fiddle), Rob Jost (Acoustic/Electric bass), Justin Mendoza (Piano), Mike Croiter (Drums/Percussion). I play piano and guitar & stomp my feet here and there on the record too.

Tysen: The singers are also incredible: Karen Olivo, Will Chase, Alysha Umphress, Matt Caplan, and Joshua Henry. They all bring such soul to the project. The show itself contains the first songs we wrote together, so it’s providing a sense of closure for us that these songs will be out in the world sung and played by amazing people in the same year as The Burnt Part Boys album.

Me: What has it been like raising money for the recordings through Kickstarter?

Miller: When the show was originally produced in spring of 2008 many people who saw it immediately suggested we do a recording, which was close to impossible for us to pull off because we are writers with no money. The only way a small little show could live on is by having a cast album—Jason Robert Brown’s show Songs for a New World played something like 30 performances in its original production, and now that show is done all over the place because of its album. The amount of cash it takes to produce a record is very large, and unless we had some kind of producer with that large amount swoop in and record it, it wasn’t gonna happen until we could figure out a plan to fundraise and make it happen. At the time, Kickstarter didn’t exist, so imagine our happiness when a few years later, Kickstarter seemed like a viable way to go about producing the record. I have nothing but good things to say about the process—they make it remarkably easy and efficient—and without it, we wouldn’t have this album we’re making now. Also it’s been great for self-promotion.

Me: Any news you can share about the Tuck Everlasting musical?

Tysen: Tuck is right on track – right now the timeline is Broadway in 2013. It’s been an absolutely amazing process working with Claudia Shear & Casey Nicholaw. We both grew up with the novel and have wanted to adapt it for over a decade. It’s truly a dream come true. We have come up with a really beautiful show and can’t wait to share it with the world.

(With Karen Olivo in the studio)

Me: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing musical theatre writers today? What excites you most about being a musical theatre writer right now?

Miller: I think the biggest challenge facing musical theatre writers today is figuring out how to get paid. We work very hard, and we’re always paid the least and last. Unless you have a hit show, but that’s like winning the lottery. I mean, we do this because we love it, absolutely, I can’t imagine doing anything else. But I’d love to figure out how to unionize us penniless writers so that we can make a living.

What excites me most about working in the theatre right now is that the door is open for a new generation to come stomping through and define it on their terms. I like to think that Nathan and I are a part of that new generation. We love musical theatre and its infinite possibilities; its exciting to see what’s coming up next, not only from us, but from our many amazing contemporaries who have the same visceral reaction to musicals, and then synthesize them in their own unique way.

Me: Anything else you’d like to plug?

Both: Like us on Facebook (MillerandTysen)
Buy The Burnt Part Boys album! (Amazon, Barnes & Noble)
Do the show! (It’s available through MTI)
Buy the Fugitive Songs album when it comes out!
Do the show! (It’s available through our agent!)
Visit our website! (
Thank you for reading our interview!

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