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September 18, 2017
Interview: The Team Behind ‘Aliens Coming!’ on Their Favorite Musicals and The Sound of Outer Space
Credit: Jackie Abbott Photography

Composer Joe Kelly and Musical Director Jonathan Evans discuss the influences and creative process behind their hilarious sci-fi musical Aliens Coming!

What were the challenges in coming up with the sound of aliens?

Joe: Each song came about in a different way and each had its own challenges. I'm not sure how other writing teams do this, but what was fairly common for us was to have Jonathan record a demo where he simply hummed the topline and then I would work backwards from there, adding lyrics to the melody to tell the story. A lot of the time it felt like we were just trying to swap different pieces in and out in order to try find the right combination, like cracking a code. Some songs were more difficult to get right than others but it was always a very fun, collaborative process.

Jonathan: We really tried to find one coherent musical voice. With so many styles of music and bits and pieces from fellow contributors, it felt really important to me to make sure that it all sounded like one show. If you listen closely, you can tell we put in a lot of effort into making sure that each character's motif appears at the appropriate moments throughout the show. The best example of this is in the finale (State School) when all the previous melodic motifs make appearances that really help bring the show home and create a sense of closure. Every little interlude is relevant to the resolution of that character's story.

Clearly the show is influenced by things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Earth Girls Are Easy, what about this campy sci-fi aesthetic attracted you?

Joe: This was something our director, Griffin Osborne, brought to the project. In the initial drafts of the script, the show presented Clementine and the art kids as Tumblr-esque, modern teens. Leaning heavily into the kitschy sci-fi angle really helped make the show feel more cohesive.

The show takes place in an anachronistic space with 50s dresses, smartphones and YouTube. What era from the past do you think our times resemble the most?

Joe: Oh I don't know about this. I've never been good at trend-spotting - but aren't the early 2000s sort of in right now? Baggy pants are coming back. Keep your eyes peeled for people to start wearing Etnies again! But in all seriousness, we definitely wanted to play with the line between past and present. I think that there are a lot of works out right now that are doing something similar. Take La La Land for example. The heavy stylization makes for a more atmospheric, eye-catching production but it definitely does also require a certain suspension of belief from our audience. Not too much of a problem I think, given the genital-harvesting premise of the show.

What are some of the changes the musical underwent before returning to the PIT?

Joe: We really shifted the entire aesthetic of the show to all that campy sci-fi stuff. We also made Ariana Raygoza's character (Brooklyn) a lot more prominent. Where she was previously just one of the art kids, we set her up in this run to be more of a direct foil to Brandi, really embodying Clementine's choice between being a 'cool art kid' or remaining marooned with her childhood friend. Of course we also tweaked some of the jokes to make things as funny as they could possibly be. Having seen the show performed before, it really became apparent what worked and what didn't in front of an audience.

Jonathan: Musically we shortened a few of the songs, made them punchier and cut any remaining fat. I sometimes have the tendency to write long, self indulgent songs but with so many characters and so little time on stage, we wanted to make sure each song was as lean as it could be.

Credit: Jackie Abbott Photography

It was refreshing to see a show focused on a female hero, what was the challenge in writing songs for her?

Joe: It was really important for us to make Brandi's songs as memorable as possible because she has such a dramatic transformation over the course of the show. I think this is reflected in the fact that she is the only character to have two solo numbers, one of which is the first solo of the show. Luckily, Jonathan had this terrific concept for a sultry, moody tango that eventually became "Ungrateful Little Goblin". Maia Scalia is also an incredibly expressive actress who does a phenomenal job at really showing the audience Brandi's tortured inner psyche, so everything came together for two stand-out musical moments with "Ungrateful" and "Such A Pretty Thing".

Jonathan: At the core of Brandi's character is a deep, unrequited love for Clementine, so we ultimately realized that the dramatic, driving tango of "Ungrateful Little Goblin" was probably not the right tone for that particular moment. It should be a love song! So we kept the melody the same but essentially swapped out the tango for a much sweeter piano accompaniment. Fun fact - you can hear the original tango version of "Ungrateful" on the cast recording on Spotify but you have to come to one of the shows to hear the new version!

Why was it important for you to have a cast recording? Was it fun to record it?

Joe: We wanted a piece of the show that would last beyond this iteration. I also just really wanted to be able to listen to these songs during my commute. The recording of the album was an absolute blast. We did it all over a couple of weeks at Jonathan's house in Brooklyn. Luckily all of the cast members were very down to get involved with the recording. I contributed backing vocals to a few of the songs, though having tried repeatedly to hear myself in the final mix, I suspect I got cut.

Joanthan: Theatre is fleeting. We wanted something that would last after the run finished. It was a lot of work to record but ultimately worth it. I think the album is as much for us as it is for the audience.

If there was an actual alien invasion, what musicals would you show them to prove we're not completely terrible?

Joe: Aliens Coming! And Grease. I fucking love Grease.

Jonathan: The Heights. And Aliens, of course.

For more information on Aliens Coming! click here.

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Written by: Jose Solis
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