“The impetus was from both of us,” Greg Pierce said about the new musical Kid Victory, currently in previews at Signature Theatre. Pierce wrote the book and lyrics, to music by John Kander. Kander is the Kander of Kander and Ebb, the prolific and successful team responsible for Chicago, the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, as well as Cabaret. Both of these iconic musicals are currently playing on The Great White Way. And in an era when the movie musical was heading toward decline, the film versions of these two shows have run against the tide to become critical successes, audience favorites, and Oscar magnets.
Pierce’s assessment is supported by something I noticed on the Signature production web-page, something that wouldn’t be surprising to see in the credits of a film, but that I can’t recall ever seeing for a stage piece: “Story by John Kander and Greg Pierce.” This unusual credit speaks to an unusual degree of collaboration, even for a team writing a musical. It suggests that, indeed, the two conceived the piece together.
“We wrote The Landing and had finished a solid draft,” Pierce told me, referring to their previous collaboration, “and were waiting to workshop that, and we talked about what would come next. The Landing was a triptych, and we knew that we wanted to do something full length, and we hit on the idea of people who had gone missing.”
Pierce told me that the two watched YouTube videos and read about missing teenagers, but that there was something missing in all the detail from that research: “You rarely hear about what happens when they come home. They’ve been through a traumatic time that no one else can understand. How do they jump back into life? How do you continue forward in life, when you feel like a fundamentally changed person?”
The musical is set in a small town in Kansas and “we kind of began creating characters around Luke, who is 17 and has been missing for around a year. He meets Emily, a misfit who works at a lawn and garden store.” Luke feels comfortable enough with Emily that he tells her his story, and it enfolds for the audience through flashbacks.
The title, Pierce explained, has to do with where Luke had been while he was missing. He was, for that year, in a complex relationship with a guy named Michael, and “Kid Victory” is a screen name Luke used while playing a computer racing game. The game is fictitious but is based on their research: “We made up stuff that could happen.”
“I knew John for about ten years, really,” Pierce told me, recalling their pre-collaboration relationship. “He mentored a handful of Oberlin students.” Pierce, like Kander before him, went to that Ohio liberal arts college, known for its music conservatory. “For about ten years, he basically read everything I wrote, and I went to every workshop or performance of a Kander and Ebb show. After Fred Ebb passed away, John called and said that he wanted to do an intimate piece, with just a few characters, not a big Broadway show.”
That turned out to be The Landing, which consisted of three sections and used narrators. This made the piece “feel like short stories on-stage, which is why he thought of me.” Pierce’s writing had focused on short-form work, not only prose, but also sketches written for Bad Astronauts, a comedy group of Oberlin grads who had moved to New York after college.
Kid Victory will open next season at The Vineyard Theatre in New York (where The Landing played) so I asked if the Signature run was a kind of an “out-of-town tryout” and whether he expected changes to occur over its run here. “We never know. We haven’t seen it with an audience.” But at this point, his sense is of a “complete work that’s come together. It feels like a finished product. You always sit and think, when it’s over, of all the things you want to change. So you wait a month after the show closes and see if you still feel that way.”
But Pierce made the point that it’s “not a big Broadway show that we’re trying to tweak. These are two really wonderful theaters that experiment. They don’t exist solely to make hits. This can be as strange or as different as it wants.” Signature and Vineyard, he said, are “a lot alike. I think it will come up to [Vineyard] in a similar state, but who knows? The Signature run closes on March 22nd; the Vineyard run is next season.” They don’t have the exact dates yet. “We’ll have spring and summer to think about it.”
I asked about the production’s advisory warning and what that was about. “The story is about a kid in a complex situation and basically flashing back to where he’s been for almost a year. There are disturbing images…not images; scenes. And it makes you squirm. It makes me squirm, a little. But there is joy, passion — a big tap dance! It’s what John has been doing for fifty years, making a musical out of unusual, darker thematic material.”
My memory of The Vineyard is of a quite different venue than Signature. Pierce agreed: “It’s a smaller space; the dimensions are wildly different. I’m bad at predicting, but Vineyard is about two-thirds the size of Signature.
“It will have to be re-designed a bit, but the idea is to transfer the production” as intact as possible. That said, he touted designer Clint Ramos’ set and its “sweeping horizon, at Signature, because of its width.”
I asked Pierce about balancing collaborations with composers along with his solo work as the writer of straight plays. At the same time that The Landing was opening at The Vineyard in 2013, his play Showgirl had the distinction of being the first play that Lincoln Center produced in its new space dedicated to play development (called LCT3). His website mentions an opera project and a collaboration with his composer brother Randal. Does he have any new plays in the works?
“What’s happened is that the stuff with music is at the forefront just because productions are in the works. The opera was going to happen; Signature was doing Kid Victory. Manhattan Theatre Club and Second Stage commissions are not waiting on me. When I turn a play in, they workshop it and decide whether to do it, so it’s easier for plays to get pushed back.”
I asked whether Pierce was, before his hands-on musical experience, a big fan of the form. “I’m not a musicals aficionado at all. After The Landing, some people said, ‘It’s not like any musical I’ve seen before.’ I didn’t grow up listening to musicals. They aren’t the first thing I reach for. I have a great admiration and respect for Cabaret, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Candide — the dark ones. But real influences? Fiction is the big one for me. I read short stories the whole time. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, and some classical music now. There have been different influences. I’ve been listening to a lot more theatre music since working with John.”
We talked about his family. His uncle David Hyde Pierce is a Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor, and his brother Randal wrote the music for The Quarry, which the two brothers wrote on a commission from Vermont Stage Company. Does this mean conversation at family events centers on theatre?
“My parents are not in theatre, but love it a lot and have always been theatre junkies. It’s a common ground. But there’s not a ton of shop talk, of the mechanics of it, the career aspects — we want a break from that. But we talk about the shows we’ve seen, what we’re enthusiastic about.”
David Hyde Pierce was in the cast of his nephew’s The Landing at The Vineyard and is about to make his directing debut on Broadway with It Shoulda Been You, a musical co-written by David H.P.’s husband Brian Hargrove. I asked about that upcoming family project. “It’s an amazing, cool piece. They’ve been doing incredible work for years on it. It’s exciting that it’s happening.”
Since I was involved with Washington Shakespeare Company in the early years when it was, along with Signature, part of the Arlington County Arts Incubator program, I knew Pierce’s aunt Nancy Morgan, who was on the staff at Arlington County Cultural Affairs. She was a constantly supportive presence and, in those days before the Gunston renovation, we all used her office as our dressing room, which can’t have been fun for her. I asked Pierce if he had been aware of Signature from those days or from family visits.
“No. I’d heard the name, but I never really came down here. Our family vacations were at Saratoga Springs. I’d see Nancy there. I’d get down to New York to see David in The Heidi Chronicles and Beyond Therapy, but most of the theatre I saw was in Burlington.” He would go there to Atlantic Theater Company, the group founded by David Mamet, William H. Macy, and others that has since relocated to, and become an important player in, New York. Spring Awakening transferred to Broadway from its run there.
“I started to become really aware of Signature with The Visit,” Pierce said, referring to the Kander and Ebb musical that played there in 2008 and is now heading to Broadway starring Chita Rivera. He also mentioned The Happy Time, another Kander and Ebb show, this one from the sixties, that got a second look from Signature, also in 2008. “I’m thrilled to be working here. It’s an incredible opportunity. This theater is so well run. It’s beautiful.”
I ended our chat by asking about acting. After all, for the sketch comedy group Bad Astronauts, he performed as well as wrote. “It’s done. I never had a strong impulse for it. There’s a bunch of actors in the family, and I always thought it would be a fun thing to do. But writing for Bad Astronauts, sketches I was also performing, I realized that it wasn’t acting I really loved. I was just excited getting my writing up there. When I would audition and didn’t get cast, I would be so relieved, because it opened up time for me to write. It’s weird that it took years for me to figure it out, but I said no, and it’s great for me.”
Sometimes Pierce will do an informal reading as an actor of a play by a colleague, and that, he told me, “is a blast, doing it like that. But I did a long run of a play, well, a long run for me, and I just hated it. I’m very happy as a writer.”