About 10 years ago, I heard this song for the first time.
The way I remember it, I was crammed into the back seat of my friend Becca’s car, as we were driving home from a night on the beach. After a day of playing in the waves, the night spent sitting around the bonfire, we were all tuckered out, but somehow, there was this energy in the car.
Six musical theatre kids sitting in a car that could comfortably hold four, speeding onto the 405 in the pitch dark night. The music was cranked loud enough to practically shatter the glass, but that was nothing compared to the six of us belting along.
And just as we turn to pull onto the freeway, this song comes on. I’d never heard it before — which, honestly, was the case with most of the songs they were listening to, as I was still fairly new to the world of theatre. But I was so captivated because this song so perfectly captured this moment.
Given how similar this moment is to what’s being depicted in the song, I have part of my brain convinced that this memory is mere construction, a memory that I made up. Maybe I was just scrolling through Tumblr when I found a link? Maybe, but I doubt it.
I like this story better, so that’s what I go with.
Not having a smartphone with Shazam — I’m fairly sure I had a slide phone with a full keyboard — I had to keep repeating part of the lyrics to myself, over and over again, so I could Google them when I got home.
And that’s how I discovered the musical universe of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk. The Woman Upstairs, Henry & Mudge, The Bad Years, The Freshman Experiment, and, my favorite of the lot, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, which would later become The Mad Ones.
Before the days of Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill, they had musicals and songs that spoke to people my age, to real and personal and everyday issues, and they infused those issues with the majesty and grandeur of musical theatre. I wasn’t being asked to dance with the King of Siam or a bunch of eerie streetcats. This was a show for people like me.
And it was somewhere that I could access it, which was just as important. Even though I couldn’t get to the East Coast to see their shows in person, they were good about uploading amazing-quality audio to YouTube. I scoured their YouTube channel, their BandCamp accounts.
Not bootlegs — everything that they put out there into the world. Because they cared about their fans having access — and still do.
And I am so grateful for their work. It carried me through the roughest decade of my life. It was Remember This that gave me permission to apply to Ellen Hopkins’s Ventana Sierra program, who told me that it was okay to want to leave my hometown, my family, the black hole of depression that surrounded me. All of my family was unilaterally opposed to it, were offended that I wanted to leave, that I wouldn’t get in anyway, and if I did, I’d regret it.
But I listened to the song. I got in, and I left.
And a couple of years later, after leaving the program, moving into my own apartment with horrible roommates, working 80 hours a week at a poverty wage job, and failing to succeed on my own, I had to move back home. Kait and Brian had a song for that, too.
It’s also through Kait and Brian that I got my first look at the business mechanics of what it takes to have a commercially successful musical;
how talented an artist you can be, how hard you can work and still not attain the kind of commercial success that comes with the cultural metonym for musical theatre: Broadway.
In short: you could work your ass to the bone, write some of the most beautiful and heart-moving theatre there is, and still never see your name on a marquee.
As someone who’s always dreamed of being a part of that world, it was a real wake up call about it would take — doubly so for someone who isn’t as insanely talented to achieve the full scope of their dreams.
And there, in 2017, there was a break. After years of reworking Sam Brown, it was brought to life by Prospect Theatre Company. Off-Broadway. It was a beautiful chance to celebrate a completely new show, packed with even more heart and feeling than the original. The Mad Ones, as it was now called, was a gem.
Except The New York Times didn’t think so. And for the theatre world, that’s a problem. The life and death of a show hinges on what a NYT reviewer says about it.
And this guy wasn’t kind. He wasn’t even trying to be kind. In fact, I’m forced to wonder whether or not this reviewer spent the entire performance on their phone, because it doesn’t seem possible to watch this show, to listen to that music, and walk away unmoved.
But there’s a time and place for a conversation about how The New York Times has an overblown influence on how theatre works, and this isn’t it.
But even in the face of that shitshow, they persevered.
I don’t know how they were able to.
Frankly, I would have been destroyed. But they kept on keeping on. New projects, new shows, and a new adventure.
And, earlier this week, we got the announcement that fans were waiting for for a long time. The Mad Ones has a cast recording. And the production rights are out in the world.
The Mad Ones has its wings.
This album is more than an album.
For me, this is a chance to listen to songs that I have loved for a long time in beautiful clarity.
There’s something about the new arrangements, the new voices, the new little flourishes of music that you don’t expect.
When certain recordings of a song are imprinted into your heart, hearing variations on that, and such beautiful variations, at that, just make your heart soar. Each new discovery is a marvel, a delight.
But even beyond that, the amount of growth that’s gone into this show is amazing. Miles to Go is a fairly new song in the Kerrigan-Lowdermilk canon, but it’s one of the most powerful numbers I’ve never heard.
While I consciously understand that things are difficult, different, harder for women in this world, Miles to Go brings it to life, to comprehension in a completely different way, makes it ring all the harder for people who will never understand — or have to understand.
But even more than that, it’s a testament to artistic perseverance.
To the kind of working your ass off that’s required to be successful. To learning how to rebound from disappointment. To not resting on the laurels that come with having talent, but constantly striving to do more. To learning not to be satisfied with the status quo of the industry, but to push things in a different — and dare I say, better — direction.
It’s a reminder that success comes to those who do the work, to those who humble themselves as the altar of art, whatever that art might be.
I’m excited to be a Kerrigan-Lowdermilk fan. I’m excited to have The Mad Ones on repeat. I’m excited for whatever comes next from them.
But even more for that, I’m excited to work on my stuff. I’m energized. I’m hopeful. Because, if I keep pushing, maybe I can find myself in their shoes — the failure, the success, the wonder of it all.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer. A native of Whittier, CA, he currently lives in Warren, PA.