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Arts & Life

Two Kansas City Women Created A Musical. Now There's A Film About How It Worked Out

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STEVEN ROSEN
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Friends and family of the playwrights star in "Overture: A Musical."

"Worth Waiting For: Journey of a Musical," is a Kansas City story, a women's story, and a never-give-up story, on stage and off.

When Krista Eyler sent the idea for a song to her writing partner, Barb Nichols, they didn’t know they were taking the first step on a journey that would send them all the way to 42nd Street in New York City.

They didn’t know this one song would become the basis for “Overture: the Musical,” and they definitely didn’t know that their small, scrappy production, cast with friends and family, would end up winning Best of Fest, Audience Choice, for the 2019 New York Musical Festival.

Nor did they realize their four-year journey would culminate in a documentary, premiering on Kansas City PBS Thursday, April 15.

But along the way, with every ending, there was a new beginning. The feature-length documentary, “Worth Waiting For: Journey of a Musical,” is a Kansas City story, a women’s story, and a never-give-up story, both on stage and off.

“’Overture’ has always been this ever evolving, ever surprising story,” says Eyler, who wrote the music, starred in the lead role and co-produced and co-wrote the script with Nichols. “It has just taken so many fun, heartbreaking, and unexpected turns.”

“It was daunting and overwhelming and you kind of fake it till you make it,” says Nichols in the documentary. She directed the musical.

The journey started in 2016, with lyrics jotted down into a notebook adorned with the visage of prolific songwriter Dolly Parton. The song became the inspiration for a script centered on the Kansas City Philharmonic during the 1950s, and featuring mostly real-life historical Kansas City characters.

In summer 2018, Nichols and Eyler produced a truncated version of the musical for Fringe Festival in Kansas City. They premiered the full two-act version later that year, at the Arts Asylum. Then, the musical was accepted into the New York Musical Festival, where Eyler, Nichols and their cast gave five Off-Broadway performances in a whirlwind couple of weeks.

“Barb and I drove to New York, with all the costumes, props, groceries, in my husband’s red truck,” Eyler says. “We drove two days to New York and then as soon as the show was done we literally threw everything in the truck on 42nd Street. I think I still had my false eyelashes on and was in my flip flops, and we just filled the truck and drove back.”

But that wasn’t the end.

Eyler and Nichols flew back to New York for the festival’s awards ceremony. "They had announced all these awards, and we didn't win anything,” Nichols remembers. “So, we were like, 'Can we wrap this up?', scrolling on our phones, when I heard 'Overture.' I think I hit Krista and said, 'Oh. My. God! We won!' Then I think I just started laughing. We couldn't believe it."

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STEVEN ROSEN
Krista Eyler performs the opening song of "Overture: The Musical" at the 2019 New York Musical Festival.

“I saw our story as one that was gritty and hopeful and inspiring…that whatever opportunity is given to you, you go out and grab it…and see how far you can go,” says Eyler.

She realized that, in their struggles and successes, they had the makings of a whole other story, and they could tell it with the help of an unexpected cache of footage.

Back in 2018, when “Overture: The Musical” debuted at the Arts Asylum, they partnered with a young filmmaker, Jashin Lin, who filmed rehearsals and performances at the theater. “They wanted to practice video and we thought we could have this video for home movies, just to remember someday what we did, who was involved, just for fun,” says Eyler.

Eyler herself had a fair amount of footage, shot on her phone. “I was always documenting what Barb and I were doing,” says Eyler, whether it was putting set pieces together, loading in, loading out, attending meetings, writing thank you cards, and more.

Eyler also asked the cast and crew for any videos they took throughout the process.

Making the documentary was a continuation of the musical’s “do-it-yourself” vibe. Eyler, who has a background in television news reporting, interviewed the cast and edited the film herself.

In “Worth Waiting For: Journey of a Musical,” viewers get a sense of the musical, through songs and snippets of the play. But the documentary focuses on the real-life characters who made it happen.

Along the way, they experienced plenty of parallels, life imitating art imitating life. “’Overture’ is about financial hustle, and the love of music, and the love of making art no matter what,” says Eyler. “We kept sitting there shaking our heads going ‘man, this is crazy, we are doing exactly what we’ve written our characters to do.’”

All their fundraising for the musical was grass roots. They ended up raising around $15,000 for the Kansas City shows, and then had to raise $64,000 for the New York Musical Festival.

Unfortunately, the festival announced bankruptcy in January of 2020, so “Overture” never received its cut of the box office receipts. Though disappointed, Eyler, Nichols, and the cast and crew recognize they were part of something special. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us,” says Eyler.

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Steven Rosen (left) and provided by artist (right)
Barb Nichols (left) and Krista Eyler co-wrote and co-produced "Overture: The Musical"

With all the ups and downs the experience had offered, finding its way to Kansas City PBS was relatively straightforward. Producers at the station were immediately impressed with their uniquely Kansas City story and quality of their video. Eyler’s biggest challenge was trimming the length of her original documentary nearly by half to adhere to the PBS time frame. She headed back to the cutting room, continuing the editing process that had taken them from first drafts, to Fringe, to New York, and now, to broadcast.

Not every aspect of that journey makes it into the PBS cut. One cast member had major surgery, and they worried not only if she could join them in New York, but about her life. Fifteen members of the cast stayed in a unairconditioned rental house in Brooklyn during a heat wave. "It was like theater camp for adults,” Eyler laughs. And Eyler’s brother, who played keyboard during rehearsals and performances, met his now-wife, then a cast member.

The musical has already been licensed twice, on its way to its next life, as other groups produce it, fulfilling the next step in Eyler and Nichols’ dream.

“I think this is a time when we need hopeful, inspiring stories,” says Eyler. “We have had a lot of darkness and our story is one of light. Granted, we had some stuff happen in it that was disappointing, but making this documentary helped me see this in a different way. I wouldn’t have changed this experience or traded it for the world.”

Worth Waiting For: Journey of a Musical” premieres on Kansas City PBS Thursday, April 15 at 7 p.m. For a full schedule, visit Kansas City PBS.

The full-length version, on Vimeo, is available for one year for on demand 24 hour rental.

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