"Miss You Like Hell” started life as a play called "26 Miles" by Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes.
But the stage drama, which tells the story of a mother and a daughter road-tripping through America, seemed destined to be a musical. While the mother anticipates a court hearing concerning her immigration status, her angsty teenage daughter witnesses an America that is both vast and diverse. But Hudes didn’t realize this coming-of-age story needed a soundtrack until she heard the music of Erin McKeown.
McKeown, a touring singer/songwriter for the past 20 years, has made it her life’s work to study the regional music of the United States. When she sat down with The Frame last week, she talked about why this musical in particular aligned with her writing style.
On her collaboration with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes:
The nature of our collaboration has evolved. I'm not married, but Quiara is. She suggests that writing a musical with someone is a sort of marriage — it's extremely intimate and long-ranging. We do a lot of listening to each other and we give each other a lot of freedom to try out ideas before we shut the other one down. It brings out the best in both of us.
On writing the song, "Now I'm Here":
What Quiara and I do is we have these conversations: What is Olivia experiencing right now? Where is she at the beginning of the song and where is she at the end? And then for this song, we did a three-page word dump of ideas. This word dump was like American modes of conveyance and literary modes of conveyance. It was everything from the Wright brothers' airplane to the Chattanooga Choo Choo to going to Graceland to the tractor in "The Grapes of Wrath." Then it's my job to take that mound of stuff and find the song in it.
What happened really was we took one thing from one page — the monarch butterflies — and then we have Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" on the third page and we were like, What if those go together? What about the Joad Family Airshow? The Donner Party Drive-Thru? That's how we made that song.
On the variety of musical genres in "Miss You Like Hell":
Probably one of the root reasons why Quiara asked me to compose the show is because I've always been really excited and interested in lots of different genres of music. The music does change as we go across the country. But I think what our show proposes, and that I'm also really interested in, is that there is not a one-to-one relationship between ethnicity and the kind of music that someone sings or listens to; there's not a one-to-one relationship between, for example, the region of the country and what people are listening to. I think that it would be too easy a connection and it's not truthful to how I think of people experiencing music. So even though the mother in our story is Latina, she also really loves Jimi Hendrix and she loves FM radio and so she's going to sing a '70s rock song as much as she's going to sing a folk rhythm from Oaxaca.
"Miss You Like Hell" is at the La Jolla Playhouse through Dec. 4.