Larson grant recipients Joshua Salzman and Kamala Sankaram in NYC. Photo by David Johnson

Josh and Ryan. How did you two meet?

RYAN: Josh and I met in 2002 in our first year at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Throughout the course of that first year, every lyricist is paired up with every composer at least once. Josh and I were put together and wrote a song of little import or effect–and may it never see the light of day. But we both enjoyed the process of working together, and embarked on a full length musical the next year. The musical had about 15 titles, but it eventually became I Love You Because.

I Love You Because was produced in 4 countries. What made those songs so universally appealing to audiences?

JOSH: I think that I Love You Because has been done by a lot of theatres around the world for some very practical reasons — 6 person cast, contemporary setting, romantic love story. But I think it’s found success because it takes an endearing look at a universal experience: finding the love of your life. While not everyone has done that, everyone’s at least daydreamed about it. Ryan and I were both working through a lot of the moments that are in the show while we were writing it (I had gotten engaged when we began, and Ryan was newly single), and I think the show reflects what was honestly happening to us during that time. That authenticity shines through, and young actors seem to really enjoy living out those moments on stage — and audiences seem to enjoy watching them do it.

Kamala, What are you working on now?

KAMALA: I’m working on a few different things now. Thumbprint is a piece with playwright Susan Yankowitz that will be produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE Arts Center as part of the 2014 PROTOTYPE Festival. It’s based on the story of Mukhtar Mai, the first woman in Pakistan to successfully prosecute an honor crime. I’m writing it using Hindustani ragas and a mix of Hindustani (including tabla and harmonium) and Western instruments. I’m also working on an(as yet unnamed) immersive parlor mystery for Opera on Tap with playwright Rob Reese. This show uses a lot of jazz and tango, and takes place in three different rooms simultaneously. The group is planning on performing the show in actual houses and apartments around NY. Finally, I’m just starting work on a show about mathematician Alan Turing, called Turing and the Machine. I’m working with director Linsay Firman and Zachary James (who was Lurch in The Addams Family). Alan Turing was the genius who broke the Enigma code in WWII and basically invented modern computers, but he was gay, which was illegal in Britain at the time. He was prosecuted and convicted to “chemical castration.” He committed suicide in 1954. I envision this piece as a one-man show. Zach will sing with pre-recorded voices (the ghosts from Turing’s past) and analogue synthesizers that are built into the set.

Your work is far from mainstream. Where does your inspiration come from?

KAMALA: I’m biracial, and have always had very diverse influences present in my musical life. My mother listened exclusively to classical music (Debussy, Rachmaninoff) while my dad always played Bollywood music and Hindustani music. So, my childhood was spent listening to a mix of Indian music, Western classical music, and then Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and later Nirvana and Radiohead. I didn’t really hear them as being different- they were all “music.” I think I draw on all of these influences equally when I’m writing.

Josh and Ryan, your new musical is about the 1977 blackout (The Legend of New York). What inspired you to write about this topic? What are the songs like?

RYAN: After Next Thing You Know, Josh and I knew we wanted to write something bigger. And we also knew we’d had just about enough of twenty-something angst. We wanted something that had size, and scope, and magic — and probably a heavy dose of New York City. So we did what we always do, which is to start reading. And as we looked for big stories that have otherworldly forces at play in them, we turned to the Bible, and eventually to the story Sodom and Gomorrah (which has been twisted to be a story about something it’s not–but that’s another story.) We reset the story in New York, and made it about a man who gets visited by an angel who says: if you don’t bring me three worthy people by sunrise, we’ll destroy the city.

JOSH: We began mapping the story out, and one night Ryan described it to a friend, who said: if you want to make it about the dark side of New York, set it in New York’s darkest year — 1977. Thus began mountains of research on the time period, and a mess of writing, and now we’re finally ready to start shopping it around. The songs are a mix of styles. Our lead character is trapped in the past–he hates ’77 New York. So his sound is a bit more classic; think Rodgers and Hammerstein. But he goes into the city to find worthy souls, and he is faced with the sounds of ’77 New York — but with our own take on it all. So it’s a mix of sounds and styles that capture the city at at that time, and the people we are following thought this journey.

How will the Larson grant help you?

KAMALA: It will pay the RENT! (I’m sure everyone says that…) Seriously, it’s huge for me because, more than anything it’s a validation of what I’m doing. When you’re by yourself, huddled in front of your piano, writing, you sometimes begin to wonder if you’re just deluded… Wondering if the music is actually any good, if you should keep going or if you should give it all up and do something “practical.” Receiving this grant is like getting permission to be creative, to take a different path, and to keep following the dream, really.

RYAN: Financially, the Larson Grant has already helped us because we’ve put some of the award towards making a demo for our new show, The Legend of New York. But more than anything, winning the Larson is an honor that encourages us to keep writing. No matter what level of success you or your shows achieve, acknowledgement from an organization as prestigious as the Jonathan Larson Foundation is a gift. To be associated with Jonathan Larson in any way is the highest value of the award for us.

Did Jonathan Larson’s music influence you?

KAMALA: Yes! I have really great memories of theater friends in college getting together in my apartment to sing Rent together. The whole show. More than anything, I think that Rent expanded the idea of what musical theater could be, both for me, and for many of my friends- that it could be edgy and borrow from rock music while still telling a story.

JOSH: Rent had a profound influence on me. I grew up in Jersey, in a suburb just a short bus ride away from the city. Rent arrived on Broadway when I was in high school, and while I had seen a small handful of other Broadway shows during my teenage years, Rent changed the game for me. It became the first show I was obsessed with. In that first year, I saw it easily a half dozen times, maybe more. It was all I was listening to, and all I wanted to learn how to play on the piano. I hadn’t begun composing at that point, so I didn’t know it at the time, but the multiple viewings and cast album listens of Rent were shaping the way I would ultimately write musical theater. My high school girlfriend (now wife, and mother of my two children) was the one who first bought me the Rent cast album thinking I’d be interested in it, and a pair of tickets. We saw the show together for the first time with the original cast and sat in the very last row of the theater. I am forever in her debt for this.

RYAN: I actually went to see Rent when it came to Boston while I was in high school to impress a girl. I wasn’t a writer then, so I enjoyed it, but I was mostly there to give me something to talk about with this young woman. Actually, Tick, Tick, Boom was a formative musical for me. A friend recommended it when I was in college and so I asked for the CD (remember those?) for Christmas. I must have listened to it fifty times by New Years. It had so many things in it that captivated me–the subject matter, its earnestness, its New Yorkness. It came into my life around the same time as The Producers and Urinetown, which are both fantastic shows, but bathed in irony. Tick, Tick, Boom was something different to me: it had emotions, and it just laid them bare. It’s influenced everything I’ve written since–especially our show “Next Thing You Know”.