When I saw a New York City reading of a three-character pop musical called Writing Kevin Taylor a few years ago, I was certain this would be the next big little hit in regional theaters — a small-cast, one-set romantic comedy about a couple on the rocks, the agony and ecstasy of creative people, and the power of friendship. Plus, a catchy contemporary score by Will Van Dyke (music and lyrics) and a touching, funny book by librettist and co-lyricist Josh Halloway.
As with so many musicals, it takes time for a property to get found. A new production of the show playing Feb. 9-March 6, 2022, at Meadow Brook Theatre, the resident Equity theater on the campus of my alma mater — Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan — caught my eye.
And it got me wondering — how come every regional theater isn’t grabbing this show? After all, its pedigree includes development at the respected musical incubator The Village Theatre in Washington state; composer Van Dyke is a sought-after Broadway and Off-Broadway orchestrator and music director (currently working nights at Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors) and writer of a number of musicals with lyricist-librettist Jeff Talbott; and librettist Halloway is a writer/producer on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Curious about the genesis of Writing Kevin Taylor, I asked Van Dyke and Halloway a slew of questions. Consider this your introduction to a heartfelt, funny musical you’ve probably never heard of.
What’s Writing Kevin Taylor, in a nutshell?
“We really leaned into the idea of creating a real rom-com for the stage like the movies we grew up with,” Van Dyke told me of the show’s roots, back when the collaborators were attending NYU together.
Halloway explained, “It’s a musical romantic comedy about a very successful novelist, Kevin, whose career and marriage implode in a very public way. He’s blocked creatively and emotionally until he takes on an assistant, Tyler; tries to reconcile with his ex-wife, Julia; and soon discovers how much more you can get out of life when you let someone in. Or maybe even two people.”
How did the idea for Writing Kevin Taylor first come up? How do you guys know each other, and who pitched what to whom?
Will Van Dyke: Josh and I both went to NYU, and randomly met in the musical theater performance program, at a time when we were both discovering we really did not want to perform. I was discovering the world of composing and music direction, and Josh was discovering writing and directing. We actually worked on two musicals at NYU as director/music director (The Rocky Horror Show and Smile), which was a turning point for both of us in finding our footing within the medium not as actors. We really built a bond and were excited to see what other things we could do with our collaboration. Out of necessity, and having no clue what we were doing, we decided to write something original and just made up a story about a guy named Kevin who was dying — what!? — and the women in his life.
Josh Halloway: Yeah, it was kind of like Nine meets A New Brain — though that version was quickly scrapped, and then the show went through several different iterations and a variety of titles. One version I think had like ten characters…the storyline was very unfocused at first. We were lucky that people kept giving us readings or workshops for the piece — and we really made the most of them. With each new reading we got rid of the stuff that didn’t work and held on to the one or two things that did. This was basically our musical theater writing boot camp.
Will Van Dyke: Eventually we landed on something that seemed funny and relatable.
Josh Halloway: Without giving too much away, there is a big twist early on that kind of spins the action in a different direction. It’s the hook of this show and it was not always there. But once we added that in, it opened everything up. We whittled it down to three main characters, 90 minutes, and essentially one location. It all just fell into place.
How much of the show is a love story, and is there more than one love story?
Josh Halloway: You’re definitely onto something with this line of questioning! There has always been a love story at the heart of the show — but the focus has evolved for sure. The plot has always been anchored by the “will they/won’t they get back together” arc with Kevin and Julia. But we’ve also spent a lot of time developing the father-son/mentorship/bromance between Kevin and Tyler. On top of that, there’s a third love story we’re trying to tell — which is the unlikely family unit that forms with Kevin, Julia and Tyler.
Will Van Dyke: I think something I’m always interested in exploring is “found family,” because at some point it’s a thing we all deal with. Often the most meaningful relationships in our lives can come from unexpected places, and I think what is great about our little show is that the event of Tyler showing up at Kevin’s apartment unlocks a bunch of these unique connections, and with every draft these connections have gotten deeper and more steeped in reality.
And can you unpack the title? What does it mean to you?
Josh Halloway: The title Writing Kevin Taylor speaks to the idea that we are all a work in progress. As Kevin struggles to figure out the next chapter of his book and his life — he is still learning and growing. There’s an evolution taking place creatively and emotionally. Of course, it’s also a show about a guy named Kevin Taylor who is writing a book.
Underneath it all, what do you want audiences to walk away with, or — more interestingly — what’s the feeling or major idea that surfaces for you in the show? Does that takeaway change as you get older? You first conceived this a decade ago?
Will Van Dyke: I think this has 100 percent shifted over the years. While, yes, the first “real” iteration of this title came about in 2013, when we released a concept album, the first real draft of the show was around 2005. In 2005, Josh and I had never been in real adult relationships before, and certainly didn’t know the complexities that come with that. What has been so therapeutic about returning to this show over the years is that it has allowed us to give these characters realistic responses to life’s curve balls, while also allowing us to find some closure in the complicated things we have experienced in growing up. The loss we feel losing a relationship is a very tender thing, but there is a version of life where losing a romantic relationship does not mean losing a human being from your life. I think this show is a nice meditation on that concept and what it means to us.
Since the show is about a writer who is stuck, how is the project personal for you both? Are there specific things about your novelist that are specific to you and Josh — writing routines, obstacles, passions?
Will Van Dyke: I am a big proponent of preventing getting stuck with a really strong creative habit. I’m a huge believer in routine because it gets me to the piano every day to sit down and write. Now, that doesn’t mean I create something great every time I sit down, but I at least try to create. Right now, for instance, a new song I am working on is completely gestating, but I get a little bit more out each day and one day (hopefully soon), I know it will all click and happen. But I think if I didn’t force myself to try everyday it would just take that much longer. I think we, as artists, have to keep going when we feel stuck and not accept defeat!
Josh Halloway: Basically, what Will is trying to say is that I’m the one who has a tendency to procrastinate and lament over a cup of coffee. But, I, too, have a regimented, deadline-oriented writing schedule each day, which has taught me not to be overly precious. It’s funny because when we started to create this show — we each happened to be assisting our favorite writers — and so the character of Tyler the intern was deeply personal. That was the experience we were living at the time and the idea of mentorship was so important to us. We were fortunate to have mentors who helped us get where we wanted to go career-wise and we wanted to honor that unique relationship. And yes, there are certain qualities I share with Kevin Taylor beyond just the excessive coffee drinking. I’ve definitely struggled to maintain a healthy work/life balance and to not let my anxiety get in my way — though not to the extreme it’s taken to in this piece.
What made you a fit as collaborators on this?
Josh Halloway: We have such a deep respect and appreciation for one another; there’s a strong friendship that goes beyond the work. Because of that, I think we are able to be brutally honest with each other about the material and are willing to tear it up and start over if that’s what it takes — and it has taken that a number of times. We also just have a lot of fun together.
Will Van Dyke: Honestly, the fact we like each other. So much of the joy of this show and process are the times when Josh and I are sitting around a piano or at a table and throwing ideas against the wall trying to make each other laugh. That’s the beautiful thing about a comedy, it’s about finding what is funny. The hard part about it is when you get stuck, which is where enjoying each other’s company comes in handy. Those moments where we get stuck, we just are able to enjoy the frustration together.
Josh Halloway: I think maybe Will enjoys the frustration a little more than I do! He is so fast and prolific, he has a knack for pushing us to keep going when all feels lost. I can spend days obsessing over one revision to a lyric — and Will has written four new songs in that time. It’s maddening but also inspiring.
The show is original, right? Not based on existing work. Will, you’re committed to that sort of thing in your other collaborations too — like with the shows you write with Jeff Talbott. Why is writing “original” interesting to you, and what’s the challenge or joy?
Will Van Dyke: Not unlike our characters of Tyler and Kevin, Josh and I both found great mentors. My mentor, Andrew Lippa, really gave me the confidence to find my own musical voice and really made me believe in myself as a writer. So much so, that I like exploring original ideas. Andrew once joked to me when I was starting another original musical that I was a “glutton for punishment,” and while he probably wasn’t wrong, there is something different about it. With an existing story, especially a known property, an audience has an expectation of what they will be seeing. With an original idea, that baseline expectation is not there. As an example, one of my favorite memories of writing an original show with Jeff [Talbott] is one day when I said, “what if we wrote a song about pirates here?” He totally went along with it, and out of that crazy idea we found the ultimate heart of one of our shows. It’s that type of experience that draws me to original ideas, because you’re charting your own course, so when you hit a dead end, you can turn around and find another route.
Writing Kevin Taylor had two developmental steps at The Village Theatre in Washington state, where Brandon Ivie was your director for a fully produced run, following a more barebones reading there. Were there leaps forward there and rewrites that stuck with the show?
Will Van Dyke: Yes, we made some huge steps forward at The Village Theatre. The biggest shift that we made in that development was removing the song “Wonderboy” from being a framing device. We discovered while we were there that people needed to understand Kevin and Julia in reality, not through the lens of a comic book. That really unlocked something in how the audience was able to relate to the show.
Josh Halloway: Village is also where Julia’s voice really blossomed. We wrote two new songs for her that really centered her in the story and let the audience get to know her on a deeper level. I feel like we came out of the workshop at Village with not one, but three strong main characters who all have big moments and agency in how the events play out. We also cut a bunch of jokes and a couple songs that didn’t quite work.
Will Van Dyke: The show had a production as a part of The Village Theatre’s Beta series of new musicals, which was the Equity premiere. The production at Meadow Brook Theatre is the first full scale professional production, and we’re incredibly excited about it. It’s, of course, our hope for the show to be published and performed more around the country, as it is really a charming, funny, sweet, and small musical.
Any recent changes made to the script?
Will Van Dyke: The character of Tyler is a pop-culture fiend, so with the Meadow Brook production we really went into the script/score and tried to make all of the references evergreen so that the show can be a little more timeless. That said, I think Josh and I will always be looking for the best reference or joke for any given moment.
Josh Halloway: We’re 17 years out from our first draft — it’s hard to believe the show is now older than Tyler! There are still a couple tweaks to the book I might make. For now though, we’ve put our pencils down so the cast at Meadow Brook can make it their own — but that doesn’t mean we won’t pick them up again sometime in the future if we see an opportunity to refine a moment or sharpen a lyric.
Smaller shows like this, with a cast of three, are more attractive to producers. Did you know from the beginning that it would be three people? Is a larger-cast or different version possible?
Will Van Dyke: This question recently came up actually. While the show is really confined to three actors, it recently came up that the gender of Tyler doesn’t necessarily have to be male. We love the interpretive nature of theater and are open to how other people might envision this story!
Josh Halloway: Our goal at every turn has been to tell the clearest version of this story — that was as funny and intimate and accessible as it could be. We wanted the material to be flexible in terms of how you could stage or cast it. There are even some places in the script where we’ve put a note to just say “hey, this is how it’s written but please feel free to take it in whatever direction works best for your production.”
Will Van Dyke: Theaters or directors that are interested can contact me directly, or my agent Ben Izzo at A3 Artists Agency.
The show seems like it would appeal to a couple generations. Who’s the target audience for Writing Kevin Taylor?
Will Van Dyke: The target audience for Writing Kevin Taylor is anyone who loves a good romantic comedy. Tyler is written as a 15-year-old, but can be played by any actor who is youthful enough to fill those shoes. Kevin and Julia could be anywhere from their mid to late thirties to early forties. Ultimately, this is a family-friendly show, but with an edge.
Josh Halloway: We’ve really tried to pack the show with references that bridge the generation gap because we want the story to resonate with a multi-generational audience.
What musical “voice” does the show have, and how are the characters different musically?
Will Van Dyke: I would classify this show as a pop-rock musical theater score. Tyler, being the youngest of the group, has the most pop-influenced music, both stylistically and structurally. Kevin and Julia’s music tends to expand from the pop vocabulary into a more romantic world, since they are the romantic center of the piece. The music allows them to express their wants and desires in a more meaningful way throughout the piece. I don’t know how much sense that makes, but if you’re curious the 2013 concept recording (while out of date in places) is a good indication of the style of the show. (Find it here.)
Will, you have a wide knowledge and pop and theater music. What scores for the stage have most influenced you as a songwriter, and what pop/rock writers most influence you?
Will Van Dyke: I love real singer/songwriters, and the one that has influenced me the most in how I write I would say is Alanis Morissette, mostly because her music is just so uniquely vulnerable. She is unafraid to express herself and that is something I have always completely admired. That paired with my love of contemporary musical theater — Alan Menken, Andrew Lippa, etc. — has allowed me to develop my own unique voice, where a pop sensibility is driven by really vulnerable musical storytelling.
What pop album or artist are you listening to lately? What’s your musical or theatrical obsession?
Will Van Dyke: Oh jeez, this is tough. Every Friday I just go on Apple Music and download all the new albums to my phone and go crazy. I’m a huge fan of the new album from The Weeknd. I’m also completely obsessed with the new “West Side Story” film and soundtrack. Woof, that stuff is good.
How did Meadow Brook Theatre discover the show?
Will Van Dyke: We recently learned it was discovered by the artistic director, Travis Walter, because he had heard the song “You, the Mountain, and Me” from another musical I had written with Rick Elice called Magnificent Climb (if anyone is looking for a four-person musical about mountain climbers). In reaching out to my agent, he discovered Writing Kevin Taylor and licensed it to be produced in 2020. Needless to say, a lot happened in 2020, and we are thrilled for it to make its Meadow Brook premiere now in 2022.
Josh Halloway: “You, The Mountain, and Me” is one of my favorite songs that Will has ever written. I’ve probably listened to it no less than 200 times. We would be so delighted to see Writing Kevin Taylor to have some kind of regional life beyond this current production.