Having just turned 30 last fall and about the same time hit his 10th anniversary as New Yorker, the busy musical theater composer, writer and actor Joe Kinosian should feel a satisfying sense of arrival. All those years of hard work and bright dreams this past year culminated in his and his writing partner Kellen Blair's show, Murder For Two (the CD of which is available on iTunes and in stores), arriving to great acclaim here in New York following its wildly successful premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Murder For Two is a deeply silly and entertaining evening, with smart, fast, funny songs and a story that follows an ambitious young police officer as he attempts to unravel the Agatha Christie-style murder of a famous, if also famously reviled, New England mystery novelist. It seems like everyone at his birthday party on the night in question had reason to want him face down in the onion dip, including the nine member boys choir bizarrely brought in as the entertainment for the evening. But perhaps that turned out to be of a piece as six of the wee choristers themselves had earlier met a comically tragic end, eulogized by the three survivors in their number "A Lot Woise," a delightfully specific "list song" explanation of why though of tender years, they don't bat an eye at merely one fresh corpse, even though:
Stuff like this could be depraving us, it's a little late for saving us,
Cause we've seen a lot woise.
We seen a chump who held his breath for longer than an hour once,
Saw my granny in the shower once, and we've seen a lot woise!
We seen a baby being born one day, we seen a fat guy eating corn one day,
We saw a boat while watching porn one day, we've seen a lot woise.
Did I mentioned that all the suspects are portrayed by just one actor? A role, or should I say a baker's dozen of roles, that Joe created for the Chicago run, and whose many imaginary shoes he has recently stepped into again at New York City's New World Stages replacing Jeff Blumenkrantz, himself an actor-pianist-composer, who embodied The Suspects starting when the show arrived for its Off-Broadway run presented by Second Stage uptown. Oh yeah, and both actors play all the piano accompaniment during the entire show, not infrequently seeming to leap into the air to replace their counterpart at the keyboard and seamlessly, jauntily play right on without missing a beat.
COMPOSER JOE KINOSIAN, in front, at the piano with his castmate, BRETT RYBACK, in MURDER FOR TWO at NEW WORLD STAGES -- Photo by Joan Marcus
Kinosian and Blair clearly must have sent each other into similarly balletic paroxysms as they developed the broad outlines of the show, including whodunit, one fateful day at a series of coffeehouse work sessions. When asked about his inspirations as he developed the musical tone and styles of Murder For Two -- especially, notes Kinosian, the "four-handed" parts where both performers are playing the keyboard at the same -- he doesn't miss a beat: "Oh, the Marx Brothers, for sure." He reverently recounts their musical madness, often of great sophistication or reference actually, in some of their classic films such as 1937's A Day At The Races where Harpo sits down to give Rachmaninoff's "C# Minor Prelude" and "plays it so hard that at the end the piano is reduced to rubble."
It's obvious that Kinosian's theatrical and musical sensibilities owe much to a quirkily broad range of beloved influences. He mentions four blissfully creative and formative years at Milwaukee's High School of the Arts, but also musicians like the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla and the king of the "Novelty Rag," Zez Confrey, who memorably composed the Scott-Joplin-on-laughing-gas favorite "Kitten on the Keys."
But, he says, "You gotta talk about my grandma," who was "an unbelievably brilliant pianist who could play by ear in an incredibly complex way, making things sound like a million bucks." He describes himself at the tender age of 6 being besotted with the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken musical Little Shop of Horrors and playing the opening doo-wop/Supremes-type musical number for his grandmother on the record player. She immediately played it back at the piano, but in an impromptu Glenn Miller-esque arrangement of her own invention, "filtered through her 1940s sensibility."
His admiration and love for this woman whose own creative opportunities might in some ways have been foreshortened by circumstance and the times she lived in, only deepens his appreciation for what was so lovingly inculcated in him by her example that "was inspiring and made me really want to do well."
Kinosian, tall, lean, at ease even on an appallingly bright green sofa in the lobby outside Murder For Two's theater one evening before his performance, has a quick, appreciative laugh and a devilish schoolboy twinkle in his eye. Murder For Two, for which he shares book-writing credit with Blair, who penned the lyrics, provides ample opportunity for naughty wit, particularly in that in his role as "The Suspects," he actually plays more females than males.
But his sensibility is not merely all broad strokes and gag lines as each character is delineated with razor-sharp precision and idiosyncratic gusto. This makes keeping track transparently easy and fun for the audience as he switches roles often mid-sentence, if not mid-air on the way back for another turn at the keyboard. All the thousand tics and tacts of each of his characterizations also reveal some of the care and concern Blair and he have taken in the writing process to keep the kooky characters tethered to realities of human character and foible.
During our conversation, he mentioned offhand having just finished reading psychologist Alan Downs' 2005 primer on internalized homophobia, The Velvet Rage, and wanting to speak with all due care about issues of gender and identity that, he said gently, we sometimes rush through. When asked what about gay culture he might like to change if he could, he says that we should all "go after the people we're attracted to" in our pursuit of romance, "but try not to be so judgmental" toward each other as gay men.
With no needful contradiction, he embraces as well the special gay perspective of "hilarious honesty," as he puts it. Those witty barbs so casually tossed off from barstools in tacky Midwestern gay bars, for example, can curdle into mere bitchiness in a flash. But in Kinosian's understanding, such protective bristlings are at least partially outgrowths of the coping skills of awkward, klutzy boys who would grow up to become creative gay men, but who were reared in well-meaning communities of regretfully incomplete understanding of difference and the niceties of original cast recordings.
Kinosian sips his mug of tea and the production stage manager walks by giving him a subtle but unmistakable look which he knows means "it's now half an hour before curtain, so please wind this interview up and get backstage and into costume."
Given our conversation about art and identity, mentors and mannerisms, it occurs to me to ask Kinosian who one of his gay heroes is. I wonder will it be sophisticated Sondheim or sad Richard Rodgers, maybe someone of kaleidoscopic aspects like Leonard Bernstein.
"Well," he says, holding back a smile, "I don't know if I love all of Paul Lynde's oeuvre, but I do love him in Bye, Bye, Birdie." Kinosian is a particularly vocal and warm partisan of the genius of Charles Strouse, the composer of the musical and then film, in which Lynde, somewhat incredulously in retrospect, reprised his Broadway turn as a parent who tries mightily to insist that his children adhere to safely traditional values and customs. "I'm a peace-loving man, Doris!" Kinosian has Lynde's strangled bark of a laugh, which he calls "lethal," down pat.
Lucky for theatregoers this year with Murder For Two and hopefully for many years to come, Kinosian's grandmother taught her talented offspring a more expansive and embracing tune.