Keurim Hur and Mike Hunter Q+A
There’s a globe-spanning artistic collaboration afoot at Child’s Play NY. Playwright Keurim Hur, and Musician Mike Hunter have teamed up to create not one but two original children’s musicals. The first, VillanoUS, about a bevy of slighted fairy tale villains, is having its world premiere this month. Melopoioi, where the Muses tell and then re-tell Greek hero’s stories with moxie and music, will start rehearsals this January. Both plays dust off the classics and use wit and music to bring a contemporary sensibility to the worlds they create. The characters are indelible, and the kids are having a blast working on them.
I was delighted to have a conversation with these two supremely artistic humans. We talk about inspiration, collaboration, and how kids can honor that creative voice inside themselves! Keurim joins us from her home in South Korea, and Mike and I from Brooklyn! Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
Thank you both for coming together and talking! It is marvelous that you have collaborated so successfully from such a distance, yet you only met each other over Zoom before work got underway for VillanoUS. Kids love the show, and we know it will be a big hit. So first, just a huge thank you for your work. What was this process like for you?
Keurim: Thank you so much for having us! My two great passions are writing for young audiences and revisionist takes on classics, so mashing up a bunch of fairy tales for a children’s musical was honestly a dream. And you both have been such generous collaborators throughout – I felt the freedom to throw all my ideas out there and be met with enthusiasm and support, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Mike: It was really fun! When I write my own music I’m usually starting with a blank canvas, which offers plenty of creative freedom but can also be super daunting to start. Working off of Keurim’s script and lyrics gave me a jumping off point, which in many ways I find easier and more rewarding to write music to since there’s a clearer vision for where the music should be headed.
Collaborating on a new thing could be kind of like a giant improvisation. And in that, we know that listening is critical. So how did you “listen,” Mike, to what Keurim wrote before you started composing?
M: Yeah, paying close attention to Keurim’s script and lyrics was definitely crucial, the music should always follow the book and the characters. Understanding a character’s motivation going into a song informs the energy of the song, the genre, the vibe, etc., so it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. The song needs to match the moment for the characters, but also fit as a piece within the whole, so I tried to write each song to the moment in the musical while keeping the larger context in the back of my mind.
Who are your musical influences when you go into this kind of work? How did your shared references create shorthand when you were making? (For example, I remember, Keurim, you saying, “this is like her “My Shot” song” at one point when we were discussing the arc of a character, and you both were like – “Yup!”.)
K: As far as the general story and structure, Into the Woods is the obvious one, shows like A Chorus Line where everyone has their own tale to tell, I won’t spoil Six but I know I mentioned Six a lot when discussing song moments. But in the writing itself, I thought more about the Disney Renaissance movies I watched growing up – intended for children, but not talking down to them. I learned so many great words from Howard Ashman. (Have I ever heard anyone but Gaston use the word “expectorating”? I think not.) And try as I might, I tend not to hear music when I’m writing lyrics, so any references I make are more about the function of the song than what sound I’m going for.
M: My background is more in the rock ‘n roll/pop world when it comes to songwriting, but I’ve been fortunate enough to collect some pretty varied experiences in the theatre world that very much inform my musical sensibilities. I’d say working on small cabaret and off-off-off Broadway shows has influenced my writing as much as the few Broadway shows I’ve been fortunate enough to play in, and I just sort of combine that knowledge with my own experience writing songs in/for bands. Luckily I’ve gotten most of the Broadway references Keurim has shared so far, but I think even if I don’t get a specific reference as long as I understand the structural/stylistic point being made I can adapt the music to fit as needed.
Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed a lot of our students have been coming forward as extraordinary writers. Because of the many stories kids are bursting to tell, we’ve even added some original writing and movie-making courses to what we offer at Child’s Play. So, Keurim, what would your advice be to young people interested in playwriting?
K: I’m going to give them all the advice I hate hearing, because it’s true: just do it! You have a story to tell, so tell it. Write it down. Act it out. Do it again. Read as many plays as you can and notice what you love as much as what you don’t. Adaptations are great practice, because the hard part’s already done. Take a story you already love and have fun figuring out how to put it onstage. Or skip that part, if you already know what you want to do. The best part is, there are no rules.
Similarly, Mike, what would you tell kids interested in creating their own music and lyrics?
M: Hm. I’d say just to keep an open mind, always be learning, and try to remember that writing music is a craft, and like any craft it requires practice, work, trial & error, etc. I think it’s really important to learn how other people compose and write, even if it’s only to figure out that their way isn’t YOUR way. A composition teacher I used to study under once told our class: “A good composer can write a great song if they get lucky, but a great composer can write a good song whenever they want”, and that’s where the work and willingness to learn really come into play.
We were all pretty inspired to make new work for children’s theater: To hear voices and perspectives enter the fray that hadn’t been centered before. Both these plays, VillainoUS and Melopoioi, have that in common. The female characters are so much more than a “strong” voice in your plays, Keurim – they are wholly original, hilarious, brimming with personality, and, yes, strength. Tell us more about the work you are interested in creating.
K: Everything I do is really for myself. I write the books I want to read and the musicals I want to see, and in the case of work geared towards younger audiences, I write what I wish I had growing up. There are so many studies about plummeting self-esteem in elementary school aged children of color and white girls connected to negative and/or nonexistent media portrayals. You learn implicit lessons about the people who get to be the center of their stories, the ones who are worthwhile, the ones deserving of empathy, and it’s easy to internalize even negative stereotypes about yourself if that’s all you ever see. Stories are so important when you’re a kid – they can teach you about the world, as well as your place in it. They can help you decide what kind of person you want to be. I think that’s why I spend so much time interrogating the narratives I grew up with, what I learned from them, and the lessons I want to pass on instead, with all these adaptations and retellings. Or I just really love Into the Woods.
Mike, when you were composing for VillanoUS, how does that even work? Can you walk us through your artistic process a little? What changes now that you’ll be writing the lyrics as well as the music for Melopoioi?
M: Sure, yeah like I mentioned before it really all comes from the book and lyrics. I think about the characters, and the style and energy that would match them at that particular point in the story and then start to create melody lines to match Keurim’s lyrics and chord progressions/rhythms to mesh with the appropriate style and vibe.
The difference for Melopoioi is that the canvas is just a little more bare to start with now that I’ll be writing the lyrics too. Writing lyrics is such a wonderful challenge, and since my normal writing process involves writing music and lyrics simultaneously I wanted to push myself this time to see if I can find lyrical voices for the characters in addition to finding their musical voices.
The fact that we could meet on Zoom and you could work collaboratively, even simply over email, means that this kind of creativity knows no geographic boundaries. As the writers and composers, how does this process compare to being in the room together – what do you think are the upsides/downsides of working creatively-remotely?
M: It’s definitely odd for me working remotely sometimes; as a musician I’m very used to being in the same room with the other creatives. There’s a spontaneity in that room that can result in wonderful things. At the same time it can also bog down the process and slow things down, commuting can be a pain, and this collaboration wouldn’t even be possible without the option to go remote! So I’m thankful the option exists and that technology has enabled us to continue to create through the pandemic and across the world.
K: Most of my collaborators are back in New York, so there’s been a lot of video calls and Google Docs and “Hey, I put that comma back in” texts over a fourteen hour time difference. Sometimes it can take a full day to get an answer to a question about a scene, so the stops and starts can get frustrating, and I miss the organic sort of flow of being in a room together, where it really feels like you’re creating something that’s alive. But I’m a muller – even if I spend the whole day in the room with someone, there will still have been a bunch of questions I didn’t have the answers to at the time, and they’ll come in a nine page email at 4:48 am and not a moment sooner. In that sense, some things never change.
I think it eases my anxiety a little too, not having to come up with those answers on the spot. I’ve definitely had sessions where my composer played two bars of a beautiful melody over and over while I failed to come up with lyrics that fit and felt horrible about it and was sure they hated me for wasting their time and wondered why they even bothered, so sometimes it’s nice to take those fourteen hours to obsess over something until it’s right and send it off like it was nothing. It’s a bit less pressure, if you’re not into pressure. And the fact that we can do this at all is tremendous. Thanks, technology!
We can’t wait for the shows’ premiere and dive right into rehearsals for your next collaboration! Thank you both.