BY LORI ACKEN
When Joe Kinosian was a preteen, his family saw a performance of the musical “A Chorus Line” at Wauwatosa East High School. Already smitten with the piano, courtesy of his paternal grandmother, Kinosian recalls how “the effect it had as this incredibly beautifully written piece about people who want to be recognized for what’s special about them really struck me. … I loved the idea that you could actually write something that would move and entertain people like that.” An ensuing trip to see “Annie” tuned the boy into the mechanics of composing — and the idea that he may have found his life’s calling.
“That was what led me to write music for the first time,” says Kinosian, whose warm eyes and deft comic timing make him instantly, enormously likeable. “I remember, immediately after seeing that play, running to the piano and grabbing some blank manuscript paper and having a whack at it.” Post-college, Kinosian made the requisite move to New York, dividing his time as a playwright, pianist and actor. Last seen locally in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of “Murder For Two,” an award-winning mystery farce Kinosian created with his longtime creative partner Kellen Blair, the Tosa native returns to the Rep in the funny and touching “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” which opens Sept. 8. Currently at work on a pair of new productions, Kinosian tells us about his MKE roots, his inspirations and more.
What resulted from that first, post-“Annie” music-writing experience?
It resulted in The Great Forgotten Musical Theater Song Of All Time. It was so forgotten I can’t even remember the name of it or what it sounded like. [Laughs] I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just like “Oh, that ‘Easy Street’ sure is a fun song!”
What were next steps after you realized that theater might be your future?
The piano was my way in — to everything. I was comfortable behind the piano. I knew I could play. So I went to Milwaukee High School of the Arts, and freshman year, I didn’t audition for the musical, but I told them I could play piano and I wanted to be in the orchestra pit. That was how I got to know the people and got to be involved with the show in a smaller way. The next year, with that comfort established, I could audition for the musical and be in it as an actor. The exact same thing happened in college. … I still hate auditioning, for the record.
So you wrote your own roles!
Exactly. If you look at “Murder For Two,” which was the first show [Kellen and I] wrote and my first produced show, that is exactly where it came from. I wouldn’t put myself on the line as an actor playing wacky characters and switching voices and playing old people and women and young kids and doing all this crazy stuff — but I’m totally comfortable doing that if I can be by the piano. The wonderful gift I got from doing the show was — beyond all of the wonderful exposure and starting my career off as a writer and an actor — doing “Murder For Two” made me feel like I was going to be OK if I didn’t have the piano as a crutch.
What was it like to bring “Murder For Two” back home to Milwaukee?
They asked me to write the program notes and I made my whole note about my adolescent obsessions with [veteran local actor] Jim Pickering. Jim was well known enough where people would come specifically to see him, to see his performances and perhaps introduce people to the theater scene who might not otherwise come see something. I don’t think I really picked up on this as a kid, but now I can see so clearly that he really was a true repertory actor. … He was there to be part of the troupe.
I loved that.
Tell me about “2 Pianos 4 Hands.”
It’s about the lives of two classical musicians who are struggling for recognition, struggling to compete with the very best of the best and making personal sacrifices for potential professional success — not even guaranteed success. And the peace that they have to make with the role music has in their lives. It’s certainly nothing I can relate to. [Laughs]
You also work with young aspiring actors …
In the summer I teach nine to 13-year-olds at a summer theater intensive on Long Island. And then usually in the winter, I teach college students, which is a whole different skillset.
I love teaching. If I wasn’t so drawn to writing, and that didn’t require so much of my time, I’m sure I would make more time for that. MKE
My 5 Favorite Things
1 “A Night at the Opera,” The Marx Bros. movie from 1935. If you haven’t seen it, toss this article aside and hop to it.
2 “Putting the Damage On” by Tori Amos. It’s a sad song, but it makes me happy.
3 My summer job: putting on a musical with 9-13 year olds
4 Alaska, the drag queen
5 Creating things I like with people I love