More than five years of writing, composing and creating will come to fruition when the curtain raises on the highly anticipated "Miss You Like Hell" at the La Jolla Playhouse this month.
The story started more than five years ago, when Pulitzer Prize winning Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the musical's book and lyrics, first wrote a play called "26 Miles".
"I think she was happy with it, but not totally satisfied with it's ultimate end point," Erin McKeown, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics, said.
The musical, commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, follows a smart and creative teenager who agrees to take a road trip across the country with her free-spirited Latina mother as a custody battle unfurls.
More than five years ago, Hudes approached McKeown and asked her to help her make the show a musical. It was in an email, McKeown said, she first heard from her future writing partner.
"It was as if she was saying, 'I know you’re being asked to make ten other musicals, but you should really make mine,'" McKeown said, laughing. "And I've never ever been asked to make a musical before."
When McKeown got involved to help turn the initial piece into a fully-fledged musical, the pair worked out a way to collaborate.
Hudes wrote the book, McKeown wrote the music, and the pair co-wrote the lyrics.
"But the fact of doing the lyrics together means we do all the rest of it together," McKeown said.
That manifests itself in different ways: sometimes Hudes will show McKeown a scene from the show, and McKeown will have a specific question about why the scene is written this way, or something she may be missing. And vice-versa, McKeown said she would would come up with a musical idea and show it to Hudes, who would give her feedback.
"So in that way where we toss ideas back and forth, we’re kind of both working on all of it at the same time," McKeown said. "Like I said, we each have our own responsibilities. At the end of the day, she has to sit at the computer and write the scene, and I have to go write the melody."
The resulting piece is something unlike anything McKeown has ever produced, she said.
"I've really never made anything with anyone quite like this," McKeown said. "I've written songs with people before and I’ve been in bands and I've helped other artists create their music, but I've never made something that is so much a product of me and someone else, which is great."
As audiences are watching the mother and daughter take a transformational road trip, there's a separate narrative pushing the story forward: the mother is involved in a deportation process.
And the resulting story people see on stage this fall is one that may resonate with many San Diegans in a city so close to the border, though the creators behind the musical do not necessarily want the piece to send a message.
"We are not interested in telegraphing a message about the show, in that we’re not interested in telegraphing a political message, or an emotional message," McKeown said, adding that Hudes often said this about the show. "There's no way you should feel at the end of it, there's nothing that we want you to do when you leave the theater."
McKeown said she hopes they are telling a story where people want to know what happens next - and one they can relate to with their own families.
"But yes it matters, definitely, that we’re in Southern California and that we are 15 miles from the border and that this is a really diverse city with a lot of people, with a lot of different family structures and backgrounds and ethnicity's, and it felt like a good place to land with a story like this," McKeown said.
McKeown says her influence on the show is the unique addition of drums and percussion that is not as common in classical musical theater.
"For me, the songs, all of them, begin with that, even though if in the end it’s just a person and a guitar singing," McKeown said. "I'm still, from the beginning, thinking of about the momentum of it."
When Musical Director Julie McBride came in this summer, she said, her job was made easier by the fact that she was handed a fully fleshed out score.
"It makes it easier for me to relay that to the ensemble: this is what its needs to sound like, not, let's figure out what it's supposed to sound like," McBride said. "We know what it's supposed to sound like, it's about figuring out how to get there."
When she first pitched the production by Hudes and McKeown this summer, McBride said she was instantly drawn to the music.
"I just thought it was so awesome, and I liked listening to it and that’s what drew me in, music that I liked hearing. I wanted to be a part (of it)," she said.
There are so many different sounds in the show, McBride said: folk, R&B, musical theater - in a voice that McBride describes as McKeown's own.
"It’s not your typical musical theater score," McBride said. "You’re not going to come to the show and hear a bunch of songs and dances with big, flashy dances. The music is more understated than a typical Broadway show, and it’s so unique. Every song has its own feeling to it."
And though the musical may not sound like what some would expect, both McBride and McKeown agree: when you listen to it, you hear a wealth of sounds.
"I love musicals, so I think you can like musicals and listen to this music and hear that we like musicals, too," McKeown said.
When opening night rolls around, McBride will be standing tall in front of the orchestra, ready to conduct.
"By the time opening night rolls around, usually, we all know that the show can happen, that the technical kinks have been worked out, people know their lines...and that’s usually just like a Hail Mary," McBride said.
"We hope everyone likes us, but if not, I like us," McBride said.
Miss You Like Hell opens at The La Jolla Playhouse on Oct. 25 and runs through Dec. 4. Books and lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes, music and lyrics by Erin McKeown. Directed by Lear deBessonet and choreographed by Danny Mefford. Musical direction by Julie McBride. Buy tickets here.