By Marlo Ihler
“What if the Marx Brothers performed a piece by Agatha Christie—wouldn’t that be fun?”
Murder for Two, created by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, has been called a mix between Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Clue, the Marx Brothers, and something the New York Times called “Ingenious!” (www.thebroadwayblog.com/2014/05/19/10518-joe-kinosian-murder-for-two).
This zany, romp of a murder mystery premiered in 2013 on off-Broadway, and during its young life has already won numerous awards as well as the attention of theatres across the country. Its writers, who were fresh out of college when they wrote it, combined their many talents as well as their love of film and musical theatre to create a show where one actor plays the detective and the other actor plays all the suspects.
So, who are Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair and how did they come to work together? And where did the idea for this crazy show come from?
Joe Kinosian (book and music) grew up near Milwaukee. He started playing the piano at age five and soon realized how much he enjoyed recreating his favorite songs on the piano. As a child, he also loved to draw, and, as he got older, his love of musical theatre increased. He would spend entire paychecks on piano-vocal scores to study them, and developed an interest in writing his own.
He attended the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, followed by college at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, where he studied film and television production. He credits his professor Andrew Levine as instrumental (no pun intended) in encouraging him to write musical theatre and introducing him to his first professional contacts (Personal Interview, January 24, 2016).
Following college, he moved to New York City, and, for a short time, he worked in film until, as he puts it “I crashed a truck as a PA and that was my signal that I wasn’t cut out for the film world” (Showbiz U, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6RY0ivrUAQ).
Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) is originally from Seattle and also attended film school, though he went to Chapman University in southern California. He studied to be a film writer and director. He spent a couple of years in Los Angeles, trying his hand at film but eventually he moved to New York City after realizing film was not actually his passion.
“I’d always loved musical theatre. It’s all I’d ever listened to. It’s all I ever wanted to do,” says Kellen. “And yet, it never occurred to me that that was an actual option in terms of career pursuit. And yet, for some reason, film seemed like the safe choice,” he jokes (Showbiz U).
Both Joe and Kellen applied for the BMI Musical Theater Writing workshop in New York City, where they met in 2008. They were paired up to work on a songwriting assignment, at which, in Kellen’s words, they did not exactly succeed (Showbiz U).
Despite the fact they failed the assignment, Kellen says it was a bonding experience for them and it “was a good time and we worked well together” (www.27east.com/news/article.cfm/sag-Harbon/256177/musical-comedy-makes-its-way-through-the-maze-to-Buy-Street). After a second assignment together, they realized their similar tastes and sensibilities made for great collaboration.
Following their first year at BMI, knowing that during the second they would be asked to choose a partner with whom they would work on a project, Joe and Kellen decided to continue their partnership and began hashing out ideas for a full-book musical. They knew that their “first show as two nobody-writers was never going to be a huge, expensive, Broadway spectacle.” So they gave themselves a challenge: “How much could we do with absolutely nothing?” (www.backstage.com/advice-for-actors/first-person/humble-apology-actors-creators-murder-two).
They took stock of their assets: Joe was a fantastic piano-playing, singer-actor-composer, and Kellen was a great lyricist. They made the smart choice to write something “small and easy to produce ourselves,” “something we could produce at the drop of a hat” and use to “entertain a few friends.” It would also be something that could be performed “at any given New York cabaret space whenever we needed to reaffirm the fact that we were real writers,” says the pair (Blair and Kinosian, Murder for Two, 2014, p. vii).
The concept of a musical murder mystery was among the early list of ideas. They both liked Agatha Christie and the way the Marx Brothers incorporated music into their comedy. They then decided to limit the cast to two actors, one who would play the detective and one who would play all the suspects. The structure of a murder mystery seemed great for a first show because they knew the detective would have to interview the different suspects, which allowed for a straightforward outline from the very beginning (www.theplaybillcollector.com/interviews/interview-with-murder-for-two-writer-kellen-blair).
Joe and Kellen spent the next three months writing the first draft of Murder for Two. The book was very collaborative between them; Joe wrote and recorded the music for Kellen who then wrote the lyrics. It follows a very “formulaic three-act screenplay structure,” says the former film students (Showbiz U).
The first reading of Murder for Two was for a group of friends in 2009. As fortune had it, a theatre producer who was also in attendance liked it; and from there the show went into developmental productions in New York and California. Its world premiere was at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2011 where it was extended four times due to popular demand. It made its off-Broadway debut at Second Stage Theatre Uptown in 2013 before it transferred to a commercial off-Broadway run at New World Stages where it closed June 2014. From there it went to its regional premiere at Pittsburgh CLO in October 2014 and is currently touring throughout the country (www.kinosianandblair.com).
As Murder for Two skyrocketed in popularity, it received numerous awards, such as Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for the Best New Musical in 2011 and the ASCAP Foundation Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Award in 2013. It was also a nominee for a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama League Award, and a Lucille Lortel Award (www.thebroadwayblog.com/2014/05/19/10518-joe-kinosian-murder-for-two).
Joe and Kellen continue their writing partnership today. As of press time, they are working on several new musicals. Their work has been performed on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, and in theatres across the country, where audiences continue to be delighted by this hilarious, fast-paced, highly theatrical, musically demanding gem.