At the start of rehearsals for Last Days of Summer, KCRep Associate Artistic Director/New Works Director Marissa Wolf sat down with the creative team to discuss the processes for bringing this new musical to life. Playwright Steve Kluger, Director Jeff Calhoun, and Composer Steve Howland reflect on baseball, musicals, and Kansas City.
Marissa Wolf: I’d love to know about the intersection of baseball and theater for you, Steve. How does baseball fit into your creative life?
Steve Kluger: Baseball started my creative life. I was 25, I moved to LA, and I went to a Dodgers game, which was only the fourth baseball game I’d seen in my life. I was with my brother and there was a moment when a Dodger player was on first, and the pitcher from Montreal tried to pick him off because he knew he was going to try to steal second. This went on for five minutes, back and forth. I got so totally mesmerized in the whole dynamic. It was like two hemispheres shifting. By the end of the game I was totally addicted. A year later, the obsession triggered the writing. The first two novels, the first play, they were all baseball themed.
Marissa: Jeff, I know this has been a passion project of yours. What did you initially connect to in the material?
Jeff Calhoun: I connected deeply with Joey. When I was that age – as most people at that age – you just have a best friend, and your heart never loses track of the imprint they made on your life. I would call it a buddy play. It touched me deeply. This is the kind of play where you’re laughing and then crying, sometimes at the same time.
Marissa: And how did you get involved as the composter, Jason?
Jason Howland: Jeff invited me to music direct the project, initially. Steve was writing lyrics to source songs from the 30s and 40s, and I said “Hey, you’re not allowed to rewrite lyrics to songs!” By then Steve had written lyrics to the existing songs, so there was a structure already there. I looked at the lyrics, and I could immediately hear how the songs would go.
Marissa: Last Days of Summer was first published as a novel, beautifully rendered through letters and newspaper clippings. How did you go about making that active for the stage?
Jeff: I fell in love with the play, and then I went, this guy is a brilliant librettist. And then I thought, “Okay, what’s this novel that it’s based on?” and I could not believe it was the same material. He truly adapted a novel to the stage, as opposed to just putting the novel on the stage.
Steve: It didn’t start as a novel. It was a screenplay before it was anything else. What wound up happening was that we got very close to something happening with it, but I finally got fed up, and I said I’m writing the novel.
Jeff: And you don’t have to collaborate with the movie studio [when you write a novel]!
Steve: Right! So then I thought, all I have to do is flesh it out. In adapting it to the stage, music adds to it. And there’s just no way to get that emotionality in the book, you can’t do it.
Marissa: I love that musicals can offer an epic quality to the emotions. What does music does to this story?
Jason: It enriches the story. In a musical, you’re supposed to sing when you can’t talk anymore. If the music is doing one kind of work, then the actors are doing another kind of work. So if the music is communicating “Wow, this is really sad,” then the actors are thinking “I have to stay strong.” That kind of opposition is at the heart of any good musical experience.
Marissa: Jeff, can you talk about the movement world of this play? You come from a dance-world, and you always bring a beautiful lift to your shows.
Jeff: I tend to start with the scenery moving, because you have to create the physical production to begin with. Given my choreographic background, I’ve had passion for figuring out a ground plan that has the right movement, for the material. And that’s where it starts.
Audiences here are very sophisticated. I learned that last year with Between the Lines. It’s going to be a very helpful part of the process, to tailor the show based on the reactions of the preview audiences.
Marissa: Thank you for bringing up KC audiences! Can you give us the scoop on what Kansas City spots you’re going to take these guys out to?
Jason: Something Q right?
Jeff: Q 39, hands down my favorite BBQ place in town. And Imperial Foot Care is the best massage place. I’m a Pirates fan, but I still anticipate seeing a Royals game while I’m here. I’m also a die-hard football fan, and like last year I want to catch a Chiefs game.
Jason: The whole joy of having the this opportunity, and knowing that Jeff has an affinity for this community and this audience, is that it’s an opportunity for us to say “hey, did we communicate what we think the story’s about and where you feel emotionally invested?” That’s such a vital part of the process, and we’ve not had a single audience ever on this show. We have no idea!
Marissa: That’s the most exhilarating part of new works, putting a project in front of audiences for the first time!
Last Days of Summer runs through September 30 at KCRep. Learn more, and get tickets, at KCRep.org.
Above: The cast of LAST DAYS OF SUMMER [Photo by Cory Weaver]