Second Star Theatre presents Murder Ballad, The New Musical. It's a steamy exploration of the complications of love, the compromises we make, and the betrayals that undo us. The show opens on Valentine's Night at Front Street Theater.
Listen to Director David Heck and Music Director Billy Heathen-or read our extended conversation below. The music is described as a mixture of punk-infused rock, rockabilly, and alt country. See a video of title song.
Murder Ballad is onstage February 14-18 & 23-25, 8:00 pm. Tickets are priced to encourage theatregoers to take a chance on a new musical-just $20-and are available online or at the door. See a description of the story here.
Gina: It's not a children's show.
David: No, no. But if you're old enough to have been in a relationship that's gone bad, you're pretty much old enough to understand what this is. You're going understand a lot of the heavier instances. I wouldn’t bring kids. There’s some language in here, there’s implied violence. Nobody actually gets murdered, not even fake murdered on the stage. It's kind of a story.
Gina: Does the murder happen off the stage?
David: No, the murder is a memory. To set this story, we have a narrator and she is weaving a web of connections between three characters. So over the course of the first act, we don't know anything about them to growing to know who they are and how they're motivated. And we traverse about 10 years. The second act, we reveal a little bit more about the characters as well as the narrator and the narrator's motivations. And she steps in and out of the story, kind of like a pixie of some sort and gently nudges the story in the direction that she wants to go. She'll tap someone on the shoulder to make them notice something that's happening. She will talk to the characters even though they can't hear her. Eventually it all comes to fruition that the choices that you make and the people that you trust and the things that happen and the people that you betray all come back to haunt you. And eventually somebody's going to die.
Gina: Who wrote this?
David: This was actually written by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash. It came out in New York off Broadway in 2013 I believe, and ran for about a year before closing. I had found this show around that time and did some digging on the Internet and could only find four or five minutes of promo video. And what I saw intrigued me but certainly didn't fill the picture. The more and more I listened to the music, the more I wanted to find out about it and I became obsessed.
Gina: And then you got to do it. I wasn't sure if they approached you and asked you to direct this or if you brought it to them. But of course, one would ask David Heck to direct this.
David: It's a combination. I've been talking about this for years. I've wanted this show to go up for years and I've wanted to do it in the old City Stage venue- 21 North Front Street. I built that model and measured it two years ago, three years ago, and have just kind of kept it. LaRaisha DiEvelyn Burnett [Dionne], she reached out to me and asked me if I knew anything about Murder Ballad. And I said I did. And she asked me what were my thoughts on this. I actually sent her a PDF of the blueprint that I had made and she said, “We need to talk.” Fast forward several months, I talked with the Second Star board and signed on to be the director and they had to assemble the creative team, of which Billy Heathen is a member and he makes me look cool just by being close to him.
Billy: I just heard that they were looking for a music director and I hadn't done that yet. I worked on the Fake Brothers shows, but I was writing that so I hadn't directed something like someone else's music before. So I listened to it for the first time and fell in love with it because it's basically a punk musical. It's not straight punk. It's got a lot of rockabilly and country influences that kind of round it out into this late eighties, New York, New Jersey, kind of punk scene environment where bands like X and Violent Femmes were doing just a little more avant garde style country and this show draws a lot from that. So I fell in love with it. I've always loved murder ballads. I’ve been writing and singing them since I was 16 and just always had a little dark sense of humor and appreciation of romance. I'm glad that I got to fall into the show. It's just been so much fun getting to work on it. And not a lot of times does a score call for your guitar to feedback uncontrollably, and that just kind of speaks to my soul.
Gina: What is your background in music? Tell me your musical story.
Billy: Around 14 I decided I wanted to play guitar. There was some girls involved where I wanted to look cool and it worked. I started playing acoustic guitar and singing love songs. I grew up here, but my mom's from Burgaw and so I was tied in with Cripple Creek Studio where Jason Aycock and his family own and operate. So I used to be on the clogging team and playing bluegrass with those guys and being involved with that. Started learning these old, dark bluegrass songs that just very lightly pick on murder and all sorts of things and it just grabbed a very sick part of a 16 year old me. I started following that more and ended up going to the mountains to study music and played in a couple bluegrass groups that started taking on that Avett Brothers vibe.
About two years ago I picked up the electric guitar for the first time and started playing again and working with Numb Skulls, which is a band in town. I started taking these country rooted old murder ballad songs and bringing that like punk background from when I was younger. It's been a lot of fun being a lot louder onstage, getting to use an electric guitar. And that kind of brings me up to starting the Billy Heathen solo project, which is kind of an alt country. I like to call it Wilco meets Strokes. So sometimes it's psychedelic and weird and has got kind of country groove to it and then other times we are just crazy loud. We did a promo for Murder Ballad at Bottega and that was the first time I think I did the Billy Heathen set. Had a lot of fun. So this show is actually a kind of rebirth of a brand for me.
Gina: In terms of the show, what is your favorite piece of music?
Billy: So many. I want to say right now it is “I'll Be There,” which on the recording it's got an acoustic guitar and a mandolin. I was putting together the band and my one thing for this show was I wanted the band to be on stage. I told David that from day one in the meeting that we first had, that was my thing. The band has to be on stage. I want there to be a band at a bar playing this to kind of close in on the environment that we're making. So I just decided we needed to fit so just a four piece. I think it calls for about a six or an eight piece band typically. So I cut the acoustic guitar out of the score and then I cut the mandolin because I didn't want to find a mandolin.
So I had to rewrite that song. I didn't change any of the chords or anything, but just like reshape it. I added an organ it's just gotten darker. The song is about somebody being scorned by a person and then deciding, “No, no, I'm going to be in your life.” And that switch that happens where you are so certain that you are right and going from heartbroken to righteous all of a sudden. Getting to work with Beau Mumford, who's playing Tom, and drawing this kind of a sadistic sound out of him has been a lot of fun and it's going to be cool. And it digs on those country roots from when I was younger too.
David: This is definitely a spooky song. And the line that you're alluding to is, “I'm going to be the last one that you will ever know. Take today. Take it slowly, but tomorrow you’re mine” And it is spooky and very low key and very unassuming. And you just don't feel right watching it.
Gina: What is the four piece band-what are your four pieces?
Billy: I have Phil Covington playing drums, who's played with me for a long time all through the Fake Brothers shows. Also Matt Marino will be playing bass and then I have Paul Miller on keys, organ. He’s playing an electro with a ton of fun noises. And then I'm playing electric guitar.
Gina: This is an interesting topic. Murder Ballads for Valentine's Day. Explain this to me.
David: I know it's a hard sell, but you know, that's the most passionate amount of love, that you want to love somebody to death. I know that I'm throwing this into a really dark light, but that's what it is. This show is all about love and the choices that we make and some of them end very, very badly and some of them are great and you get to see everybody in that cast being loved or denied at one point in time or another in this show.
Billy: I think all of it, every person in the audience will relate to something one of the characters is going through at some part in the show. So I think that while Valentine's Day is a great time for a lot of people, for a vast majority of us out there it's kind of this, ”Oh, everybody look at them all being happy while we’re just still doing the same old thing. Thanks for the reminder.” And having some kind of dark, kind of justifying show to go to, I think it will be fun.
David: For the record, not all of it's dark. There are some definite tongue in cheek, good smiley toe taping tunes. You're going to enjoy it. You can't have the lows without the highs and that's something that I look forward to. “I'll Be There” is one of my favorites as well as “You Belong to Me and “The Crying Scene,” which is a delicate song. It's just so well orchestrated by the cast that they tell a story within a story and you get to feel that presence and just watch it.
Gina: Tell me who is your cast?
David: Well, we mentioned Beau Mumford playing Tom, he is the downtown bartender, old flame. We have Jay Zadeh who plays Michael who is a NYU Grad poetry guy. General nice Guy. You have Sarah played by Kire Ann Stenson, who is the girlfriend of Tom who breaks up with Tom and then finds Michael and then you fast forward to 10 years. And then you have the narrator who weaves everything together, which is played by Robin Heck.
Gina: Will you tell me also about your model?
David: This was a couple years ago. Again, I became obsessed with this show because I couldn't find any information about it and that was actually good because I had to design it myself in my head. So when City Stage Co was up and running, I asked Rachel Moser if I could sneak in there and measure the set and measure the stage and I measured it out and I made a plan and I designed a set. It's basically a bar where the pool table, but we traverse six miles up and downtown Manhattan down to below Fourteenth Street. So the bar is going to be used as a bed and that you can stand on. They're going to stand on the table and they're going to run around all over. You'll see that there are steps that we have in this. It's definitely a smoky bar at the start and becomes other things as you move along. A little bit abstract, but it's a lot of fun.
Gina: Where is the band?
David: The band is playing in the background and the narrator starts out up on that stage and then steps into the story.
Gina: Make sure that we can hear the narrator or whoever is talking over the music. I have to say that because sometimes that can be difficult.
Billy: The beautiful thing about this show is that there is- actually, I don't want to say zero talking, there's a couple lines, but everybody will be miked in and leveled out so that you get that nice rock show, because there are some just gorgeous dynamic moments. “Crying Scene” is a soft song, and then we have “I Love New York,” which is a punk song and it's loud and it's aggressive. One of my favorite things in music is dynamism. Having that ability to go from a very soft piano noise to that huge forte, swelling, having room to move and grow and not deafening the audience at its peak and not being too quiet to where they can't hear anything. We just did our sitz probe last night and met up with the cast and the band for the first time and without having anybody miked in a tiny living room just all crammed in there together, it sounds gorgeous already. It's going to be a fantastic show and you definitely will be able to hear it.
David: One more thing. The tickets are priced to fill the seats. We are looking for people to come in who have never seen an odd, unusual show. There's something great about seeing Annie, but we've seen Annie. Just because you're not familiar with the show doesn't mean that you shouldn't come. Students are $15 with ID and same thing with military and adults are $20 and it's general seating. This is not going to break the bank. $20 will get you a box of chocolates on Valentine's Day or it'll get you a ticket to go see a show, which is much more entertaining.
Billy: Plus the bar will be open, if that's important to you.