Shaping in Action: Kait Kerrigan

The Shaping in Action series is where we get to know inspiring women who are pioneering and shaping what’s to come.
In the ever-shifting landscape of pop culture, musical theater is once again hot with a bullet. Fueled by the let’s-put-on-a-show mentality of “Glee,” the runaway success of Broadway shows like “The Book of Mormon” and the cult popularity of figures like Neil Patrick Harris, musicals are enjoying a renaissance moment.

And few figures better symbolize the genre’s burgeoning rebirth than Kait Kerrigan.
The Brooklyn-based lyricist/writer and her partner, composer Brian Lowdermilk, are forging a new frontier in an old-fashioned art form. By mixing social media savvy with top-notch songwriting skills, they’ve already got five musicals on their belt, and they’re pioneering the way writers get paid and how writers can raise their own funds.

In another time, Kait — a playwright and violin-playing former English major who fell in love with musical theater when she was asked to write a show in college — might have focused only on writing plot and dialogue for dramas. “But plays don’t hit that emotional chord that musicals do,” she says. “Musicals have that silver bullet of music that swells and impacts you.”

At age 30, Kait has already racked up impressive achievements. She and Lowdermilk have collaborated on a variety of shows and made their Off-Broadway debut with “Henry and Mudge,” a musical based on the popular kids series, now on its fourth national tour. In 2009, their song “Say the Word” was performed by Miss New York at the Miss America pageant. That year, Kait won the Edward Kleban Award as the most promising musical book writer in the country. The duo are currently working on a new musical called “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown,” a story about a high school valedictorian struggling to grow up.

Such achievements might not have been possible without the pair’s trail-blazing efforts in creative production, through which artists and audience form a direct bond and the line blurs between artistic effort and artful entrepreneurship.

“Musical theater is about audiences,” Kait explains. “All the social media that we participate in is also about connecting to audiences. In some ways, it is all one idea.”

For starters, she and Lowdermilk launched the e-commerce site NewMusicalTheatre.com, which allows musicians and composers to self-publish and sell sheet music, connecting new music directly with aspiring performers.

“Sheet music is being traded, no matter what,” says Kait of their game-changing effort to get writers paid for their work. “So if you don’t sell your sheet music online, people will get it, but not directly from you. Most people are really happy to support people who are writing music that they like.”

For eight years starting in college, she and Lowdermilk have courted fans with a web site and Facebook page, getting more than a million hits on their YouTube channel for their homemade videos. Fans gushed over the emotional honesty of songs like “Run Away with Me” and clever, topical lyrics as in “Last Week’s Alcohol”: “Grinding to a German techno beat/Shots all around/I’m drafting you a text/I’m typing sorry.”

But just how far would those fans go?

Kait and Lowdermilk put this to the test. Using Kickstarter, a funding platform in which users pledge money for artistic projects, they asked for help raising money for an album of their songs performed by other artists. The goal was to raise $10,000 in a month. Only if they hit that mark would they receive any money at all.

They raised that $10,000 – in the first 48 hours.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Now what do we do?’” recalls Kait. “We had 28 days left in our campaign.”

The answer: Keep going.

The pair eventually raised $35,000 for their self-produced “Our First Mistake” (available through www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com) and for a live concert album to be released later. “It blew us away,” she recalls. “I have never been more humbled and shocked.”

At a time when theaters struggle to attract younger audiences, Kait has connected with young admirers who, she believes, will carry their musical tastes forward into adulthood. Seventy percent of those who watch Kerrigan/Lowdermilk videos, she claims, are between the age of 13 and 24.

“I know that my entire career is based on the Internet and our fans,” says Kait. “We completely rely on them. The reason that people are interested in working with us is because we have a large fan base and because there are people who want to hear what we have written.”

Not that this is easy. Kait says she alternates between waves of “stressing about money all the time” and the satisfaction of making a living doing what she loves. Most of her friends, she concedes, have “weird jobs” that support them while they pursue their artistic passions.

“The thing that musical theater has going for it is that you can’t replicate it online,” she says. “It’s never going to be better on a recording. People want to see the ‘The Book of Mormon’ because it is the thing to do. The recording is great, but it’s not as good as being in the room with it. The fact that we’re a little bit old school and antiquated is actually to our benefit.”

And that’s Kait’s real silver bullet.
Photo Credit: Kait Kerrigan