Previews of “Murder Ballad,” a new rock musical about a love triangle gone horribly wrong, commenced on Tuesday at the newly re-launched Studio at Stage II at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Set in New York City, the show opens Nov. 15 and is scheduled to run through Dec. 2, and features a combination of traditional and cabaret-style seating, with the actors moving throughout the entire 150-seat space during the performance.
“Actors in the action with you,” is how Juliana Nash described it. “It’s really exciting.” The Amagansett resident should know: Julia Jordan, who conceived the musical, a Jonathan Larson Award winner and two-time Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist, invited Ms. Nash to collaborate on the project.
Ms. Nash’s former band, Talking to Animals, was a popular alt-rock outfit in the 1990s, and was signed to the Columbia and Velvel labels. With Ms. Jordan, she reworked some Talking to Animals songs and composed new music for the show. The result, says Ms. Nash, is an authentic rock ’n’ roll sound that is uncommon in theatrical productions. “This is actual ’90s alt-rock,” she said.
In June, the Manhattan Theatre Club announced the Studio at Stage II, an initiative to support new plays and one of the organization’s two Off-Broadway homes. Manhattan Theater Club also announced the Writer’s Room, a partnership with the not-for-profit group Ars Nova, which develops and produces performing artists in the early stages of their careers. The staging of “Murder Ballad” is the first result of these initiatives.
In 2009, Ms. Nash and Ms. Jordan, who lives in Westchester County, attended a workshop at New Dramatists, a “new play laboratory” founded in New York City in 1949. “We were waitresses in the early ’90s in SoHo,” Ms. Nash said of her collaborator. Today, “she’s a successful playwright. Manhattan Theatre Club took us on quickly, in April 2010. They hosted us to write one week a month for over two years, so we wrote it at Manhattan Theatre Club — they’ve been incredibly supportive — and at our kitchen tables.”
As the title suggests, “Murder Ballad” is based on the song form in which the events surrounding a crime of passion are typically described. “Delia’s Gone,” famously recorded by Johnny Cash, is one example. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released an entire album’s worth of them (“Murder Ballads”) in 1996.
“You never know who’s singing,” Ms. Nash mused. “Is this person dead, is it the killer?” In this production, she said, “We have a narrator who’s singing a murder ballad that’s all cut up between the action. It’s about a love triangle, about making decisions. It’s for people my age — 40s — and about choices you’ve made in life, what road you are going down and why, regret, and longing. It’s about that journey, how things can undo you, or you can rise above them. It’s your basic love triangle murder plot, but it’s really about relationships.”
“Murder Ballad” stars Karen Olivo, who won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for her performance as Anita in a revival of “West Side Story,” Rebecca Naomi Jones, who has appeared in Broadway productions including “American Idiot” and “Passing Strange,” and Will Swenson and John Ellison Conlee, both of whom have numerous theatrical, film, and television credits. Trip Cullman, a Drama Desk Award nominee, is the director.
Ms. Nash’s former bandmates are also involved, she said, including the guitarist Thomas Juliano and bassist Greg Porter. “My music director, Justin Levine, is unbelievable,” Ms. Nash added. “He’s on Wurlitzer [electric piano].” Mr. Levine, she added, served as music director for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which was staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2009 and 2010 and later at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
A surround-sound system complements the 360-degree seating, Ms. Nash said. “There’s no stage, it looks like a bar and you’re not sure where the action would be. One of the people standing at the bar is one of the actors. And it rocks!”
Tickets for the 90-minute show, which cost $30, are available at nycitycenter.org.