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Summer Guide: ‘It Came from Outer Space’ musical, inspired by cult classic film, touches on timely topics 70 years later
Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, the musical theater team behind the hit show “Murder for Two,” transform the film, which was based on a Ray Bradbury story, into a new stage musical.
By Mary Houlihan
June 2, 2022
Before there was “Alien,” before there was “Star Trek,” before there was “Star Wars,” there was “It Came from Outer Space.” The 1953 sci-fi film may look cheesy by today’s standards but that, and its Ray Bradbury pedigree, has only added to its status as a cult classic.
Now Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, the musical theater team behind the hit show “Murder for Two,” have met the challenge of transforming the film, which was based on a Bradbury story, into a stage musical.
Yes, Kinosian (book and music) and Blair (book and lyrics) have been spending a lot of time thinking about aliens. “It Came From Outer Space” is a flying saucer tale that examines society’s fear of outsiders. When a spaceship crashes by accident into the Arizona desert, the aliens inside are benevolent and mean no harm, but the small-minded citizens of Sand Rock feel otherwise and form a posse to hunt them down.
Because of the pandemic, the musical’s opening was extended and extended and extended, says Kinosian. Originally it was to open in the fall of 2020 but was pushed to winter 2021, then summer 2021.
That long wait ends in late June when the musical makes its world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater under the direction of Laura Braza. The Sand Rock couple determined to help save the aliens — scientist John Putnam and schoolteacher Ellen Fields — are portrayed by Christopher Kale Jones and Jaye Ladymore. The remaining cast — Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Veronica Garza, Alex Goodrich and Sharriese Hamilton — each portray multiple characters, both human and alien.
Blair says in 2016 they had the opportunity to look through the Universal Pictures catalog to “see if anything jumped out at us for adaptation.” Around the same time, they saw “It Came from Outer Space” in all its 3-D glory on the big screen at New York’s Film Forum movie theater.
“It was a blast,” Blair recalls. “We walked away thinking there were hokey elements, but it was the height of the 2016 presidential campaign and a lot of the subject matter, particularly what Bradbury brought to the table, felt familiar and ahead of its time in terms of being a story about the fear of otherness.”
While the project was thrown off course over the past two years, the duo along with editor Daniel Schloss got creative last summer with a virtual film mockumentary, “We Are Out There,” which introduced the events that occurred in the town of Sand Rock and starred Chicago actors.
The side project gave them a good jump start on casting and the chance to work on the music and orchestrations. Kinosian admits at the beginning, it took him awhile to find his way into the music.
“How do you do a sci-fi musical without relying on the hokiest go-to options,” Kinosian asks. “We’re all familiar with that eerie theremin sci-fi sound. It’s a minefield of cliches and limited imagination.”
Kinosian says since the musical is set in the ‘50s, the golden age of musicals, he wanted to include that type of “reassuring sound.” And since the story takes place in the “wide open spaces and endless desert of the West,” he was also listening to a lot of Aaron Copland for inspiration.
But with the music representing the aliens, he says it can be anything you want: “In creating that, I was thinking along the lines of Laurie Anderson’s music, simplified, repetitive with meaningful changes, a multi-layered tapestry of both organic and electronic sounds.”
Kinosian (from Milwaukee) and Blair (from Seattle) met at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in 2008 (“It’s basically speed dating for musical theater writers,” Blair says with a laugh.) It was here where they teamed up to create the Jeff Award-winning musical “Murder for Two,” which premiered at Chicago Shakespeare in 2011 and went on to a successful Off Broadway run.
The amiable duo agrees the first draft of “It Came from Outer Space” was the best first draft they’ve ever written.
“I don’t expect this to ever happen again,” Kinosian says, laughing. “The movie just provided a solid foundation for it all to come together.”
“I think it was kind of a perfect piece for us because ‘Murder for Two’ is escapist and we like writing comedies, we want to always write musical comedies,” adds Blair. “But this was an opportunity to give a much needed bit of substance to what is otherwise a kind of silly and fun sci-fi thing. It allowed us to mature a little bit while still remaining somewhat immature.”