Songwriting team of CMU grads works on musical for Pittsburgh's CLO

'Judge Jackie Justice: The Trials of Love' is being readied for a world premiere at the CLO Cabaret early next year


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It's a lot like the chicken-egg conundrum, the question put to songwriting teams: Which comes first, the music or the words? In the case of Michael Kooman (music) and Chris Dimond (words), which is not as important as who.

Altoona native Kooman was studying musical composition when he took a leap and entered a Carnegie Mellon University class for playwrights.

"Chris was in the class with me, and I just knew that Chris' lyrics were the best in the class," Mr. Kooman recalled. "We had to bring in lyrics every week, and Chris' were by far the best and the funniest, which was particularly interesting to me because I'm really drawn to comedy. So I asked Chris if we could write some cabaret songs."

Mr. Dimond, who was in the writers' program, accepted the invitation, and it's been Kooman & Dimond ever since.

"We both have similarly twisted senses of humor, and that was apparent right from the start," said Mr. Dimond, who graduated from Bishop Canevin High School when it was Canevin Catholic and has degrees from Duquesne University, the University of Pennsylvania and CMU.

On the question of words or music, and in what order, he said, "It depends on who has the stronger impulse for what the song is going to be. ... The rule of thumb tends to be if it's a comedy song the lyrics will come first, or if it's a ballad or more emotional song, the music will come first. But we break that rule fairly regularly."

The team was in Pittsburgh earlier this month to workshop a new musical commissioned by Pittsburgh CLO -- where Mr. Kooman served as an intern under producing artistic director Van Kaplan. "Judge Jackie Justice: The Trials of Love" was a concept by Mr. Kaplan that is being readied for a world premiere at the CLO Cabaret. The date hasn't been announced, but the audition notice said, "Principals must be available beginning Jan. 6, 2014, and continuing through April 27." It includes a new direction for the team -- audience participation -- which they had been toying with before the commission came along.

Another new commission, "Orphie and the Book of Heroes," will open at the Kennedy Center in February, and in the fall, they will team with fellow Carnegie Mellon artists in New York at the experimental company Exit, Pursued by a Bear, to show "Dani Girl," which was Mr. Dimond's senior thesis, with music by Mr. Kooman. Their musical "The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes" was selected for development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's 2013 Music Theater Conference, where Hunter Foster played the lead in the musical parody.

Along the way, the team has been granted the 2010 Jonathan Larson Grant, and Kooman & Dimond were the first recipients of the Lorenz Hart Award.

They had the benefit early on of having a couple of songs introduced by fellow CMU alum Patina Miller, the Tony Award-winning star of "Pippin." She was their muse and collaborator on "Random Black Girl (Singin' the Soul)," about an ensemble member voicing what it's like to be "an obligatory part of every new musical." A video of Ms. Miller singing the song in the musical "Homemade Fusion" has more than 147,000 hits on YouTube.

While in Pittsburgh prepping "Judge Jackie," they spent time with students at Carnegie Mellon and were the subjects of "A Cabaret Evening With Kooman & Dimond" at the Cabaret at Theater Square Sunday, when a dozen talented students sang their songs and the pair then introduced a song from the new musical.

Before the showcase, on a beautiful day in the Pittsburgh Cultural District, they sat down in Katz Plaza and talked about the words-and-music partnership to this point.

Q: How did Mr. Kaplan explain the idea for the show?

Dimond: That sort of television courtroom show with ridiculous elements you see in the other daytime talk shows -- Jerry Springer and the typical characters you see in those worlds. And he was pretty clear from the start that he wanted the audience to be actively involved in the story. ... It's the kind of concept that gave us the freedom to just do whatever we wanted and explore the absurd limits you can push it to.

Q: What kind of research did you do?

Kooman: We spent a couple of months YouTubing Dr. Phil, Montel [Williams], Jerry Springer ... every time we would watch a segment with an insane person, we would write it down. So by the end of the gathering process, we had five or six cases we knew we wanted to use because they were so over the top. And I would guess that just about every case is based on something we've heard.

In a way we had to cultivate a passion for it because these are our characters, and we have to sort of love and hate them at the same time. But we found certain shows were more palatable than others. ... I came to like Dr. Phil, because he seemed to try to rehabilitate people, so it felt a little less soulless.

Q: Was there ever a thought for either of you about going solo?

Dimond: There was never a question of not working together. It's really helpful to have a team and to be a unit like that. It's a tough business to break into and meet other people who you collaborate well with and [who] push you in the right directions.

theater

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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