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  • The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown Promotional ArtThat classic piece of advice to budding wordsmiths, "Write what you know," certainly applies to the history of The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown. The new musical by Kait Kerrigan (book and lyrics) and Brian Lowdermilk (music), which begins performances tonight at Goodspeed Musicals's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut, and runs through August 28, got its start nearly a decade ago, when Lowdermilk found himself in the position of so many high school seniors: He didn't know what to do with his life after graduation. While he discovered his own path, and that of the show (which was about a teenage girl facing that same vexing question), Lowdermilk gained a new collaborator in Kerrigan, and the two embarked on a years-long journey to unlock the heart of the show and the heroine at its center. This task, like choosing whether you want to go to college straight out of high school instead of seeing the world or pursuing a romantic relationship, was never an easy one.

    I asked both Lowdermilk and Kerrigan to discuss the history of the show, explain—from their unique perspectives—how it got to where it is now. They also talked about the Goodspeed production—which has been directed by Daniel Goldstein and stars Meghann Fahy, Andrew Durand, Melissa Benoist, Stephen Bogardus, and Catherine Porter—and what they've learned from working on it. Here's what they had to say.

    Brian Lowdermilk in rehearsal for The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.Brian Lowdermilk

    I wrote the first song for the show that would become The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown in 2001 when I was a senior in high school. It was called "Open Road," and was an "I want" song for a 17-year-old girl who wants to skip college and drive off into the sunset. Obviously, it was also what I wanted at the time.

    I had just started writing music seriously and was torn between going to a music conservatory or a fancy liberal arts college. Since I was pretty sure I wouldn't get into any music conservatories and dead certain I wouldn't be able to get into a fancy liberal arts college, I applied to 16 different schools, almost at random. I waited until the last possible day to send in my acceptance card. I can barely remember why I decided to go to Harvard, but it definitely involved me deciding to study math and several other bizarre factors. I left after my first semester and ended up at NYU a year later, with a new plan to make a career as a composer, and a draft of a show called The Wheel with a main character who I had an awful lot in common with.

    In retrospect, The Wheel had completely average music and lyrics, and a book by my best friend Zach Altman (who, incidentally is now a rising opera baritone). The only thing that was extraordinary about it at all was the impact it had on my life. The Wheel had staged readings at North Shore Music Theatre in Boston and the York Theatre in NYC (with Marla Mindelle, Sara Chase, and Michael Arden). And then I pretty much completely forgot about it because I reconnected with Kait Kerrigan.

    Years later, after Kait and I had gone through some growing pains together and written our first musical (The Woman Upstairs), The Wheel resurfaced. I kept telling her there was something compelling about writing a sort-of-autobiographical, weirdly feminist, coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old girl. She had major, major doubts. If I recall correctly, her main concern was that Sam was an unlikeable character who complained about wanting to be a writer, and then didn't go to college. (In retrospect, I may not have been very like-able back then either). Her smaller concerns were that none of the lyrics made sense, the plot had no structure and the title was bizarre.

    We started working on it together in March of 2005. In May, there was a reading at the Makor theatre of a musical called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown featuring Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michael Arden, Sara Chase, Alison Fraser, and John Herrera. This draft had a coherent plot, a flashy title (with a narrative device to boot), a likeable main character, and a brand new score that included "Say The Word," "The Proposal," "I Know My Girl," and "Run Away With Me." I figured we were close to production; all we had to do was figure out how to make Sam's arc compelling. (Kait knew it was a bigger problem, but I can't imagine she knew just how big or there's no way we would have continued.)

    Undaunted, I started pushing the songs everywhere. We were helped by the fact that "Run Away With Me" fit Michael Arden perfectly, and he started performing it around town. That fall he performed it at the NAMT conference in NYC to a crowded room of industry. (I've known Michael since we were in high school and I've seen him give some astonishing performances, but that night at NAMT was something else. It's still the best performance of the song I've ever seen.) Afterward, a woman named Beth Williams introduced herself to us, and the next chapter of Sam Brown's journey began.

    It seems really long-winded to recount the entire theatrical development process of ...Samantha Brown, which began in 2005 and continues now, so I'll just give the highlights. Beth optioned our show on behalf of a production company called East of Doheny, and then re-optioned it on her own a few years later when she moved to Broadway Across America. Our first workshop was at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2006, directed by Chris Ashley and featuring Stephen Bogardus and Nancy Opel. As Kait and I rewrote the show for that workshop, we killed off [Sam's best friend] Kelly and, inadvertently, much of the humor in the show. (The good news: Sam now had an inciting incident, the piece had an emotional depth, and we even had a compelling final song called "Can You Feel It Yet?")

    We continued working on it in the ASCAP Workshop, in the BMI Workshop, in our Dramatists Guild Fellowship, and at Perry-Mansfield in Steamboat Spring, Colorado in 2007. By that time we were really in the weeds on the opening number (we had written—get this—11 at that point), and kept jumping around with the chronology of the story. We had figured out that Sam needed to be narrating from a different point in time, but was that moment before she drove away? After? Did we catch up to the moment at some point? It seems obvious now, but we really struggled before landing on the device: The entire play takes place in her driveway, in the moment before she turns the key in the ignition.

    It was only then that we were really able to write the other "core" songs in the show. "Freedom" was a major accomplishment for us—it completely incorporates the narrative device, but remains tonally bright and compelling. "I Wouldn't Change Anything" genuinely feels like it takes place in both story arcs. "Ordinary Senior Year," "The Girl Who Drove Away" and "Drive" both entered the show at that time as well—but all three have have had at least a dozen versions each, because the struggle to write the first 10 minutes of the show and the last 20 is ongoing.

    La Jolla Playhouse produced a reading in 2008, we had a developmental production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 2009, and an industry reading at Playwrights Horizons in 2010. The Goodspeed production opens in 10 days. We finished a brand-new version of "Drive" yesterday (I brought in a few bars of the old opening number of The Wheel as a private joke to myself). Right now we all feel good about those sections, but the tone and dramatic structure we're playing with are very, very finicky. The past few drafts have all been about excruciatingly small, enormously impactful changes. We continue to feel Sam's journey more and more, but the rules of our strange little show have defied everything I thought I knew about rewriting. Except for one song, which truly felt magical.

    From the beginning, Kait blamed me for the show's central problem—and rightly so. The most compelling aspect of The Wheel and the Makor draft of Sam Brown was that it was not-so-secretly the story of my coming-of-age and becoming a writer. The problem was, unless you literally put me in the show (and we thought about it), there was no way to make it land. It took years of Kait and I learning—about grief, about regret, about writing—to tell the story in the way we do now.
    For me, the culmination of that journey was "Remember This." It's the last song in the show, as Sam tries to be in the moment, and experiences a true taste of independence. I remember being 18, running through Cambridge, giddy that I had just signed some kind of "non-enrollment" form with the dean, ecstatic about the first reading of my musical, and feeling free for the first time.

    Kait Kerrigan in rehearsal for The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.Kait Kerrigan

    If my memory serves, I started working on Sam Brown right after the first New York Musical Theatre Festival [in 2004], where Brian and I premiered The Woman Upstairs. We were talking about potential new projects and Brian mentioned a piece that he'd written called The Wheel. He did a reading of it around the same time at the York Theatre and I saw it but while there were some lovely moments, I had a lot of reservations about the show at the time. Basically, any question that a producer has leveled at us about Sam, I've already asked. Brian is the kind of writer who is able to be single-minded and go after an experience he personally wants to have when sitting in a theater, which is incredibly valuable. As I writer, I'm a little more audience-driven. I want to communicate one sensation to as broad a group of people as possible. Since this was Brian's story to begin with, he's always had an incredible intuitive sense about the sensations that he wants to experience and it was my job to find my way into those and figure out to broaden them. At the end of the day, Sam isn't someone "who doesn't go to college." She's someone who makes the first decision of her adult life—and that's a moment that everyone has had.

    I think that as I wrote more and more of Sam's text, I started to share more and more of my high school self with her. That isn't to say we're all that similar, at the end of the day; I felt the sense of privilege that Sam's mom believes Sam should feel about going to college. But I also watched several incredibly smart girls flounder in their freshman year because they weren't ready or had made wrong decisions about what school they should go to. By the time Brian brought this show to me, I fully believed that there were people who would benefit from some time and space between high school and college and I believed Brian might have been one of those people.

    When looking for a way to deepen Sam's problems, it was my idea to force Sam to deal with a very real and overwhelming grief and that definitely came from some of my own experiences. Over the course of college and the years that followed, three remarkable and vibrant friends of mine passed away—two of them in the same group of high school friends—and that experience impacted me greatly. Most people deal with loss for the first time sometime between middle school and high school. Thankfully, it's rarely the loss of a young friend, but it always changes the way you look at the world. Suddenly, that sense of impenetrable immortality that you've been building up for a few years is gone but with it comes a sense of urgency and a determination to live a fuller and more deliberate life. That's the only good that can come out of it and I wanted to explore that with Sam.

    Finally, yeah—I'm a feminist and I do think that it's a load of baloney that driving off a cliff or drowning yourself or committing suicide of any kind is even remotely a feminist act. And I will go fisticuffs on anyone who wants to fight me on this. I fought that idea back in my Barnard days and I will fight it now. It's not romantic. It's not strong. It's defeatist. Now, a young woman who takes action and makes her own decisions, who chooses a path that terrifies her but that is life-affirming and full of possibility? Sounds like a good li'l feminist to me!

    The lyrics for this show were a joy to write. I've definitely spent more hours than I'd like to admit thinking about how to make it feel fresh and young without riddling it with slang. I think a lot about how lucky Sondheim got that "cool" remained cool when he wrote West Side Story. Every little reference I make in the show, I try to make sure it has meaning beyond its current one (Grand Theft Auto is a video game but even if you live under a rock, the words evoke a high-speed car chase).

    As I type this, I have to be honest, there were a few lyrics that were really hard to write. I remember receiving the music to "I Wouldn't Change Anything" and Brian telling me how I could just put any words on it and it would be okay. I forced Brian to write lyrics to it after complaining that it was going to take me a thousand years to write words that wouldn't sound stupid. He tried and conceded that it was the hardest thing he'd ever asked me to do. Then, I shut the door and sat there eking it out, one image at a time for the next week. "Remember This" was also really hard to write. It took a long time to name exactly what the moment was and then required a real precision of imagery and tone. I remember Brian painstakingly composing every note because if one note was off, the whole section wasn't good. The same was true of the lyrics. It's one of the few songs that I've written that I can just listen to and invest in without ever distancing myself and critiquing my own work on it.

    The most interesting aspect of writing the score is that it walks a line between a more heightened and poetic pop sensibility in the music and a very grounded book. Sometimes we get away with this because there's a lot of fantasy and memory in the show but more often, it's a matter of writing something that I wouldn't be embarrassed to have someone read aloud without the music underneath it but that sings really well.

    Brian Lowdermilk and Kait KerriganBrian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan Together

    Matthew Murray: In what ways do you feel its lengthy development process has been a benefit and/or a detriment to The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown?

    Kait Kerrigan: Our show has matured and reaches a broader audience than I think it would have reached had we gotten the show produced quickly. We've really grown up as writers as we've worked on this show and we now require more of the script and the score than we ever imagined it was capable of when we started working on it. Certainly, you hear stories of development hell, but in our case, our producers have been really smart about the steps we've needed to take.

    MM: How do you feel the collaborative process, both at Goodspeed and in places where you've worked with other people, voices, and perspectives, has shaped ...SAMANTHA BROWN overall?

    Brian Lowdermilk: We've had incredible collaborators on ...Samantha Brown, both here at Goodspeed and in previous incarnations. Our director, Daniel Goldstein, has been a major force in the show's development. It's been really exciting watching his role shift from someone who was working with us on dramatic and structural revisions, to the person who's giving the play a physical life and shape. He creates stage magic that's always in service of story and character. Our producers, (Beth, Laurel, Jen, and everyone at BAA) have given us great notes and feedback, and have helped us hone this current draft of the script. Musically, we've also learned a lot about the music through concerts and individual performances. We've done several arrangements of
    "Say The Word" and "Run Away With Me" for many different performers including Aaron Tveit, Michael Arden, and pop artists The Spring Standards and Vienna Teng. We've pulled from all of those arrangements as we've developed the score.

    MM: What changes (if any) have you made to the material for the Goodspeed production? Do you think these are needed just to make the show work there, and for that audience, or do you think they will stick with the show itself over the long haul?

    BL: We've made a few changes here and there to accommodate production elements, and we always tailor the musical arrangements to the specific actors we have, but largely any changes we're making are for the benefit of the show in the long run. We're doing detail work to clarify the timeline of the piece, and to make Sam's emotional journey land for a broad audience. While those are changes we've specifically worked on during our time at Goodspeed, they're important for the long-term future of the show.

    MM: What has it been like working with Goldstein and the cast in this production?

    BL and KK: Danny Goldstein has been unwavering in his belief in this show. He has become one of our closest collaborators and we trust him implicitly. We'd always work with him in a heartbeat because he believes that storytelling is paramount and he creates a collaborative environment where everyone—actors, writers, designers—all feel like they're on a team together. [And] we couldn't ask for a better ensemble cast. They blow us away every day. Each of them [is] bringing so much individuality and care to their parts. They're so game and ready for whatever we throw at them and they treat each other like a family. But more than anything, we thank our lucky stars that we have Meghann Fahy as Sam. From the moment she walked in for her first audition with us (immediately before she booked Next to Normal), we fell in love with her spirit, her youth and her pure honesty. She has the rare and incredible ability to make hairpin turns between making you laugh and breaking your heart. Watching her go on this journey is absolutely thrilling for us.

    MM: What have you learned about the show strictly from the experience of working on it at Goodspeed?

    BL and KK: We've wracked our brains and we're a little at a loss with this question. While we've learned a ton from our cast and from this process, we won't really know what we learn from Goodspeed until the audience arrives.

    For more information about Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, visit www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com. To see and hear performances of songs from The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown and other Kerrigan-Lowdermilk musicals, check out the Kerrigan-Lowdermilk YouTube channel.

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