Welcome to our Music + Lyrics interview series, where we sit down with composers and lyricists of notable contemporary musicals. Read on as we dive into the careers of these artists, get rare insights into their work, and perhaps, even help you discover a new favorite musical.
In this first interview, we sat down with Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond, the creators of song cycle Homemade Fusion, exciting and inventive new musicals Dani Girl and Judge Jackie: Disorder In The Court, and the newly-anointed songwriters for Disney Junior’s animated favorite Vampirina. Recognizable by their eclectic, contemporary musical style and unforgettable lyrics that are often simultaneously hilarious, devastating, and profoundly human, Kooman and Dimond continue to make waves in the industry. We chatted to them to find out more about their process.
You are both multi-award-winners and grant recipients, with your musicals and song cycles performed all over the world. Recently, you found success at Shakespeare’s Globe with Romantics Anonymous and now you’re the songwriters for Disney Junior’s Vampirina, which will be many children’s first experience of storytelling through song. What was the first musical you ever experienced? What do you remember about it?
Chris Dimond: The first musical that I remember seeing was a production of Big River at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. I was pretty young, so I don’t remember a whole lot specifically about the experience, other than a pretty distinct mental image of the actor who played Mark Twain. The moustache apparently made quite an impression.
I had always loved the stories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and really enjoyed seeing their adventures play out onstage. I can’t say that I immediately knew that I wanted to write musicals at that point, but I do think that the early theatrical experiences my parents exposed me to played a vital role in my development as a writer.
Michael Kooman: My parents took me to see musicals frequently when I was growing up, so I don’t remember exactly what my first musical was, but I remember some of my first Broadway musicals, which totally dazzled me. I really loved the spectacle and the simplicity of Annie Get Your Gun, the catchy pop score of Footloose, and I vividly remember walking into the Winter Garden for CATS and loving all the trash-heap set that bled into the audience section. Something about musicals has always transported me to another world and it sparked a love of the form.
Where did a life in musical theatre begin for you? What led you to write for the form?
Chris: Like a lot of writers, I first really got the theatre bug as an actor. My older sister dragged me kicking and screaming to a theatre camp when I was in eighth grade, and I was hooked. I acted all through high school and college, and gradually became more and more interested in telling my own stories. That, and a lack of ability to sing or dance made for a pretty natural transition to the writing side of things.
I applied to a number of graduate playwriting programs and eventually got into Carnegie Mellon, in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Musical theatre was my primary interest at the time, but I didn’t really tell anyone that right away, incorrectly assuming that musicals would be looked down on in a more traditional playwriting environment. As it turned out, the head of the program, Milan Stitt, was incredibly supportive of my desire to write musicals.
Michael: I started out plunking tunes I heard on the radio on the piano that I inherited from my grandmother. I would sit at the piano for hours figuring out harmonies and melodies, and then arranging them into different styles. I ended up writing my own songs, and that eventually led me to a composition major at Carnegie Mellon.
There, I was writing orchestral music, choral music, chamber music. It gave me a great musical foundation, but I always had this love of musical theatre inside of me. Thankfully, Carnegie Mellon has a fantastic theatre program, and I started taking every class they’d let me take. Playwriting, acting for non-majors, and eventually a lyric writing class, where I met Christopher Dimond. I knew I liked his writing immediately, and we began collaborating shortly thereafter.
When and how did Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond become Kooman and Dimond? How would you describe your working partnership?
Chris: We first met in a lyric writing class at CMU, where I was a graduate playwriting student, and Michael was an undergraduate composition major. We spent an entire semester ignoring each other, until Michael asked me to collaborate with him on a fundraising project for the senior actors’ showcase trip. I had admired his work from across the classroom all semester, and was thrilled to get the chance to work with him.
Michael: We met up and brainstormed some ideas for original self-contained songs, and quickly discovered that we had similar sensibilities, most notably a somewhat twisted sense of humor. One of those songs ended up becoming “Random Black Girl,” which we wrote to be performed by our classmate Patina Miller. The YouTube video of that song ended up being one of the first ways that people discovered our work.
Chris: We had such a great time working together that I was able to convince Michael to stay in Pittsburgh for a year after graduation in order to write my thesis project with me, which became Dani Girl.
Michael: After that, we moved to New York, and have been working together ever since.
Your album Out Of Our Heads demonstrates how dexterous you are both when it comes to navigating — in both music and lyrics — a whole spectrum of human experiences. Beyond the album, what themes do you pursue in your writing?
Chris: Thanks for the kind words! We had an absolute blast creating that album, and were incredibly fortunate to get a chance to collaborate with so many tremendous artists on it.
Michael: We tend to be drawn to projects that are comedic in nature with a good deal of heart underneath, and hopefully part of that heart involves exploring a bit of the human experience. Thematically, I think there are a number of common threads that run through a lot of our work: the dangers of emotional repression, the meaning of faith, grief, and loss, and making sense of a nonsensical world.
Chris: If there’s one theme that holds our work together collectively, I’d like to think it’s the idea of finding hope and human connection in the face of despair.
Dani Girl is a prime example of your ability to write a musical with weighty subject matter (the story follows Dani, a precocious nine-year-old girl, who is battling a life-threatening disease) that also happens to be outrageously funny. What was the inspiration behind Dani Girl and how did you find humor in the darkness?
Chris: Dani Girl was loosely inspired by the life of my cousin, Daniel Naccarelli, who battled cancer at a really early age. We knew early on that we wanted to tell the story in an upbeat way, and that we’d have to find the humor in it to keep it from becoming an overbearingly dark piece.
Treating the subject matter in that way also felt like the most honest way to take on such heavy material, because, if you’ve had any experience with kids dealing with life-threatening illness, they often take on their diagnoses in incredibly upbeat and inspiring ways. And they do tend to find a lot of humor amidst all of the pain and anguish.
In a strange way, I think that sick kids live more fully than healthy adults do, and so we tried to capture that in the creative ways that Dani and Marty go about battling their diseases in the piece, which gives rise to a lot of the show’s comedic material.
Michael: Dani Girl challenged me to write f
rom a kid’s perspective. The priorities and attitudes are different when you’re that age. Things that we know as an adult have weighty consequences are things that are no big deal, or even trivial, to kids. And then the reverse is true as well. Writing Dani Girl never felt like a burden or difficult because I felt like I just needed to approach it from a child-like perspective.
Judge Jackie: Disorder In The Court, on the other hand, is much more over-the-top by nature. Where did this show begin for you? What do you want audiences to take away from the musical?
Michael: Judge Jackie was a commission from the Pittsburgh CLO, where it originally premiered. Van Kaplan, their Artistic Director, came to us with the idea for creating a musical parody of reality television courtroom shows like Judge Judy or The People’s Court that used a lot of audience participation. We thought it sounded like an incredibly fun idea, and leapt at the chance to write it.
Chris: More than anything, we hope that audiences walk away from Judge Jackie having had a really fun evening in the theater. It’s silly, light-hearted fun, and we really just want them to forget about whatever else is going on in the world for a while, and laugh their faces off for an hour and a half.
What do you both think makes a great musical?
Chris: That’s a really hard thing to define, but I’d say that, for me, it all starts with a great story. For me, great musicals are all about the story that’s being told. A story that hopefully takes us somewhere we’ve never been before, moves us, makes us laugh, makes us think, makes us question, and hopefully reveals something about what it means to be a human being. Bold, passionate characters with big wants who actively pursue those wants in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Ideally, that story is also told in a well-structured, innovative, theatrical way that takes us out of our daily lives and immerses us fully in the world of the musical for as long as the journey lasts. The music, the lyrics, the design, the direction, the choreography, everything should be in service of telling that story.
And, in a perfect world, it’s a story that is best told on a musical stage. Not necessarily a story that cannot be told through any other medium, but that there’s a clear reason that musical theatre is the optimal way for the story to be told.
Michael: Well, I feel like my perspective and taste is constantly shifting and changing. In general, I feel like having a strong awareness of the craft is really important (Structure, character, dialogue, melody, rhyme, etc.). Although every now and then a musical comes out where I don’t feel like the author(s) have a huge grasp on such things but end up pulling off a great or thrilling or heartwarming show. But usually the people who have long, lasting careers in this business seem to concern themselves with the large ideas and tiny details of writing, which I think can be illuminated with a close study of the craft.
I also think that it’s quite important to know yourself as both a person and as a writer: knowing what kind of material you respond to, what your tastes are, what feels authentic to you, what kind of ideas resonate to you personally. A strong sense of self-identity can help steer away from puppeting other people’s style, ideas, or aesthetics, and enhances the constantly changing search for one’s own “sound.”
Lastly, theatre is a collaborative art form, and you have got to learn to work with others. Knowing when to stick up for your ideas is important, but even more important is understanding the unique chemistry each collaboration brings. Understanding where you need to back off, when you need to let someone else take the wheel, and when your own work needs editing or rewrites is awfully important in this business. I suppose a lot of that is also keeping your ego in check and trusting the people you’re going through the creative process with.
Where do you see musical theatre going in the future?
Chris: I really hope that we’re going to see musical theatre continue to push boundaries in terms of content and form. It’s a thrilling time to work in musical theatre. With the success of innovative original musicals like Hamilton, Come From Away, and Dear Evan Hansen (just to name a few that are currently running on Broadway), it seems like audiences are hungry for material that stretches the traditionally held beliefs of the types of stories that can be told onstage and the styles and ways in which they can be told musically.
Michael: Coupled with the recent surge in more mainstream musical projects in film and TV, I think that we’ll see new and divergent writers who hadn’t previously considered writing musicals experiment with the form and push the boundaries even further.
Chris: Hopefully producers and theatre companies will continue to take risks and audiences will continue to seek out new work that explores the limitless potential of the art form.
What are your dreams as creative professionals in theatre (and now TV)?
Chris: I think our main goal is simply to continue to create. To tell the kinds of stories that we want to tell. We honestly just really enjoy the writing process, from blank page to full realization, and want to continue to tell all different types of musical stories in as many different forms and media formats as possible.
There’s no greater thrill than writing in the dramatic form. Collaborating with a group of artists to create a world and bring it to life. It’s the best. And then to have the privilege to watch an audience experience that world? It’s an absolute dream come true.
If we can be fortunate enough to continue to do that…there’s not really much more we can ask for.
Michael: I’m having a blast balancing theatre and TV right now. Couldn’t ask for more. I’m quite interested in writing things that challenge me as a composer, particularly sounds or sonic scapes that I’d love to work in. I would love to write a classical-sounding show. Perhaps a show involving a figure like Beethoven or one of his contemporaries. I’m also really into writing material for specific performers these days. I love exploring a singer’s specific range and tone, writing particularly to their strengths, and figuring out what kind of melodies and musical grooves would be perfect with a particular singer. I’m also pretty darn sure I need to write an electropop musical at some point. Love me some electropop.
What’s next for you both? What can we look forward to?
Chris: At the moment, we’re preparing for the world premiere of our musical The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes, which opens at the Village Theatre in Seattle this fall. It’s a show about an average man who wakes up one morning to discover that his life has become a musical. Not being the sort of man who would enjoy such a metamorphosis, he immediately sets out on a quest to escape.
It’s a show that we’ve been working on for a number o
f years, and we’ve just written a couple of new songs for it. We’re really excited about bringing it to life with the amazing team that the Village has assembled.
Michael: We’ve just completed work on the second season of our Disney Junior animated series, Vampirina, and we have some absolutely insane guest stars that we were able to work with. Some fantastic performers from both the theatre and TV world.
Additionally, we’re in talks about the American premiere of Romantics Anonymous, which we wrote with British writer/director Emma Rice. We had a great experience working on the premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe last year and can’t wait to bring it to an American audience. So stay tuned!
To learn more about Michael and Chris, and their musicals, click here.