David Muse was one of the lucky ones to have seen Murder Ballad, a rock musical by Julia Jordan and the singer-songwriter Juliana Nash, when it originally played at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II in the fall of 2012, before it moved to its larger Off-Broadway home. He knew then that it was something he would one day be interested in directing.
That time is now, as Muse is directing the musical’s DC premiere at Studio Theatre, where Muse is Artistic Director.
“That first production is one of the things that really inspired me about directing this version,” he says. “It was staged somewhat immersively. The action of the whole play took place in a bar environment in the center of the space and there were café tables and chairs and some audience members would sit in those. Other people in the audience were sitting on fixed seats and I suspected they had to do that to fit a certain amount of people or the space wasn’t flexible enough to hold a full cabaret environment.”
When taking on Murder Ballad at Studio, Muse felt it would be cool to take that very good idea and give it its full expression, creating an entire immersive, cabaret environment.
“We have this space on the 4th floor, which is really just an empty space and there are no fixed seats so we could configure it however we wanted,” he says. “I wanted to take the idea of the original production and go all the way with it, which means build a dive bar, really serve drinks, have bartenders and servers and just let the play happen all amongst the audience.”
Having been a student at Yale University’s School of Drama, Muse was familiar with running a play in this sort of environment, as the school is famous for its cabarets and having productions operate in such a space. From that experience, Muse learned the importance of creating pathways through the audience and creating elevated stations where the action can take place.
“The truth is, it wasn’t that hard once it was all worked out,” he says. “The biggest challenge was in figuring out the front-of-house things more than directing the play, such as how the audience is going to get in, how to take care of table service, when people come in and leave, when do you do sound and light checks. Those logistic things are actually more challenging.”
The production is Muse’s first attempt to direct a musical, something he has been eager to try for a while.
“I really like this musical. It’s sexy, smart and it doesn’t try to be any more than it’s trying to be. It’s also a production that allows us to tap into the energy of 14th Street, specifically the nightlife energy,” he says. “It’s something we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about for a couple of years, and it just felt like an ideal pairing. It speaks to an institutional moment in the right way.”
The musical tells the story of Sara, who seems to be living the perfect life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, until her irresistible past blows back into her life in the form of an old flame, a dangerous passion, and a love triangle headed for ignition.
Muse admits that in some ways, directing a musical made him feel a bit “like a novice” at times, but found that to be refreshing.
“Auditioning actors for a musical was a whole new thing, as was finding a musical director and figuring out how to do a handoff with the musical director in terms of rehearsal and how to integrate musicians into it all,” he says. “I do feel that it is a good musical for me as a first-time director. It’s the kind of thing that the second it feels like musical theater, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t want song and dance number style performances. It wants gritty realistic acting. And also it’s sung through so I’m not having to negotiate like you would in a traditional musical what it means to go from book scene to a sung scene.”
One of the surprising things Muse discovered is how similar directing a musical like this is to directing Shakespeare’s plays, which he has done for many years.
“It’s about being emotionally truthful in a heightened form. It’s about trusting a form, in this case notes and music, where in Shakespeare it’s verse and structure of verse,” he says. “It’s like trusting the form and finding freedom in it. The play doesn’t need you to bring out a whole new set of scenery when you go from place to place—it happens in a downtown bar, an uptown apartment, in Central Park, on a street—it’s very fluid and all it needs is an actor to come out and sing about where you are. Which is like Shakespeare.”
Now that he’s got his first musical under his belt, Muse admits that it might not be long until he tries it again.
“I don’t have one booked but it’s nice to know this is something I could consider doing again,” he says. “My curiosity has been piqued.”
Murder Ballad plays April 15 though May 10 at Studio Theatre.