Singer-songwriter Krista Eyler may be best known around Kansas City by her alias: Funky Mama. As Funky Mama, she’s released eight CDs and played at kids events around the metro since 2005.
Lately, she’s been up to something new.
“I love the Funky Mama connection to all things, but this is a far departure,” Eyler says of her new project. “People go, ‘Oh, Funky Mama writes orchestral music?’ Well, I do, and it’s very, very fun.”
The orchestral work she’s referring to is a two-act musical called “Overture the Musical.” The first act debuts during the Kansas City Fringe Festival, followed by a full production this fall at the Arts Asylum.
As if performing for children and putting out eight recordings weren’t enough — or perhaps this is how Eyler stays so productive — she and a friend challenged each other to produce something creative every Friday. One week a couple of years ago, Eyler had a sort of vision: She imagined a woman on a staircase listening to an orchestra.
“And I immediately connected with that, because watching the orchestra tune up is one of my favorite things,” she says.
The resulting story, which she describes as historical fiction, is based on the 1953-1954 season of the Kansas City Philharmonic. The philharmonic, which fell apart in 1982, was predecessor to today’s Kansas City Symphony.
Eyler says “Overture,” for which she wrote the music and co-wrote the libretto with Barb Nichols, is mostly factual, though she embellished some details and added a love story.
As far as the facts go, a lot of them come from a book by University of Missouri-Kansas City professor William Everett called Music for the People: A History of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, 1933-1982.
Everett’s main research area is musical theater. So Eyler’s show, he says, is “an absolutely incredible blending of these two passions when it comes to my research: musical theater and the history of the Kansas City Philharmonic.”
Though his research was key to Eyler and Nichols’ project, he’s not yet heard more than one of the pieces. The song Eyler sent him is called “A Kitchen Symphony,” a six-minute piece for multiple voices based solely on recipes written in the loquacious tradition of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from “Cinderella,” and “Modern Major General,” from “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Because Fringe Festival entries are limited to 60 minutes and the “Kitchen Symphony” is in the second act, it won’t be included in the Fringe production.
That technicality, however, fits one of the themes of the musical, which is the idea of “saving something beautiful.”
The original “Kitchen Symphony” was a cookbook sold by the Philharmonic’s women’s committee to save the Philharmonic from financial ruin.
“The orchestra always seemed to have financial issues and was always trying to find creative ways to raise money,” Everett says. “This particular cookbook did a lot to help the orchestra, and the fact that that has actually been incorporated into their musical is really, really wonderful.”
As for the fictional elements, Eyler says the love story she invented is largely a device she used to tie together the behind-the-scenes office work, the giant fundraisers and galas, and the actual stage performances.
The fictional characters are Lily (played by Eyler), who works in the office, and Christopher (Joel Morrison), an assistant conductor.
One of their duets, “Another Hat,” is what Eyler calls “our ‘dream ballet’ song.” In it, Lily confides an important musical memory from her childhood. Lily and Christopher bond over their shared love of music.
Throughout the play, Lily strives to save pieces of herself — she’s a musician who had to drop out of a conservatory program due to progressive hearing loss — while Christopher tries to reclaim his love for music after doing grunt work for the orchestra rather than conducting.
Ultimately, Eyler says, the two save each other.
Because the arts come under attack any time there’s a public funding debate, Eyler says, the thematic “saving each other” will resonate with many in the arts community.
And, Everett points out, Kansas City has a rich tradition of supporting the arts.
“In a very, very important sense,” he says, “with what the Symphony is doing today with the Kauffman Center, the Lyric Opera, and Friends of Chamber Music, is continuing an identifying legacy of Kansas City as being a significant center for the arts in the United States.”
As for Eyler, she says after this summer she’ ll hang up Funky Mama’s red sneakers and diving deeper into both orchestral music and performing for a slightly taller audience.