A product of U.S. ingenuity, American musical theater was created by and for working-class people. Beginning in the nineteenth century with minstrel shows performed in seedy storefront theaters, the art form evolved into raunchy musical comedy, then family-friendly vaudeville.
In the twentieth century, the musical moved from storefronts into temples of opulence. Producers like Florenz Ziegfeld combined musical theater’s comical style with upper-class European aesthetics, including large chorus lines of women—thin, symmetrical, long legs, white skin. Audiences followed suit, shifting from proletariat to middle- and upper-class patrons who were, with some exceptions, exclusively white (even when the performers weren’t). Today, hit musicals are packaged with tickets that can cost hundreds of dollars, further ostracizing the “average Joe” from attending.
But the storefront musical isn’t dead. For twelve years, Kokandy Productions has presented high-quality musicals designed for wide appeal and shallow pockets, with tickets as low as $25. Known for producing Chicago premieres of cult-status film properties, they’ve been changing minds about what a modern musical can be and who it is for.
While serving on the Joseph Jefferson Awards committee, founder and executive producer Scot Kokandy, had an epiphany. “I had seen Broadway in Chicago shows,” says Kokandy, “but when I was on the Jeff committee, I said to myself, ‘Wow, there are theaters in Chicago with twenty seats and no bathroom!’ I realized that theater doesn’t have to have 1.500 seats; a show can happen anywhere.”
Kokandy, along with co-founders John Glover and Allison Hendrix, put on their first musical—“The Great American Trailer Park Musical” at Theater Wit in 2012—and have since garnered critical acclaim, including nine Jeff Awards.
Artistic director Derek Van Barham says that, “There can be a perception about musical theater, that it needs a certain degree of pomp to be deemed worthy. The non-Equity, storefront theater scene in Chicago proves them wrong.” Barham turns caveats into creativity, saying that “It changes the kinds of shows that we pick and the way that we approach them, knowing that the audience is only a few feet away, not a hundred.”
Productions don’t shy away from serious topics. Divorce is the subject of “The Last Five Years” (2013), which tells the story of a failing marriage told in reverse via two actors on dueling pianos, and “Tomorrow Morning” (2016), contrasting a budding marriage with one soon ending. They dabble in the macabre, as in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” (2014), about the motivations of presidential murderers, and “Sweeney Todd” (2022), starring the cannibalistic barber of nineteenth-century London. If your impression of musicals is that they’re only ebullient and whimsical, Kokandy Productions’ repertoire makes you think again.
Dark themes may refresh those already hip to the scene, but the process of attracting “non-musical-theater people” is a different challenge. Solution: the cult-movie-musical—popular films converted into the musical-theater format. “We certainly don’t shy away from musicals based on movies,” says Barham, “They’re entry points.”
Barham banks on the cult status of these properties to bring in new audiences. Past productions have included “Cruel Intentions” (2022) featuring sexually deceptive college students; slasher-dramedy “Heathers” (2016); “The Full Monty” (2015) about blue collar workers turned male strippers; and “The Wiz” (2017), the non-whitewashed alternative to the “The Wizard of Oz.”
“A lot of these have a ‘cult’ aesthetic, a ‘queer’ aesthetic, which I often feel go hand-in-hand,” says Barham. “In queerness, we seek out the things that are representative of us—we find our chosen families, we find our tribes, we find the art that speaks to us… That’s what ‘Cruel Intentions’ is, that’s what ‘Heathers’ is… Even ‘Assassins’ is like cult-Sondheim.”
Though proud of their “queer aesthetic,” Kokandy states that the only agenda is to reflect reality. “We’re always holding ourselves accountable to a variety of diverse thoughts and experiences.” Regarding their creative teams, directors, cast, choreographers and show selections, Kokandy states that “Our goal is to ensure that we are not labeled as X, Y or Z. We always want to bring diverse humans to the table to create the best art while continuing to improve.”
Kokandy and Barham planned their 2023 season—bookended by kid-friendly “SpongeBob The Musical” and the stage adaptation of mature-themed “American Psycho”—based on lessons learned during the pandemic about how people have become habituated to consume entertainment in private at the expense of their mental health. “What we learned was that our audience wants a live experience,” says Kokandy. “If we’re asking people to get off their couch and spend a few hours with us, we need to focus on that feeling of having an experience.”
The philosophy of theater-as-therapy is especially present in “American Psycho,” with the ostensible protagonist, Patrick Bateman, acting as a stand-in for mental health awareness, depression, oligarchy and white privilege. “There’s a lot of isolation and internalized feelings that we as a society are dealing with,” says Barham. “‘American Psycho’ is about the failure to communicate and the potential consequences of that depressed, anxious panicking inner monologue that a lot of us have right now.”
The production takes a spoonful of sugar approach to help the bitter reality of touchy subjects go down smoothly. “The show hits at what people experience every day—are we thinking this is the best day ever or the worst day ever, and we’re going to burn it all down.” Despite singing, dancing and a synth-pop soundtrack by Duncan Sheik, Barham says that the show tackles head-on the seriousness of the material. “It’s a show that’s really, really funny… Until it’s not.”
Kokandy Productions takes us back to a time when anybody could feel at home in the theater, that despite hardships things weren’t so bad if you could sing about them. “Musical theater takes you to a mysterious place,” says Kokandy. “Even when the subject is serious, when there are people singing about it… It’s a more fun, more joyous experience.”
“American Psycho: The Musical” begins performances September 14 at the Chopin Theatre.