“The Kai’s the Limit”: a Q&A with Creators Marie Inniss ’23 and Hannah Sobel ’22

photo courtesy of Hannah Sobel

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Anatole Shukla: How did you decide to team up on writing?

Marie Inniss: I was gonna write everything and then I found out I can’t write music. And I was just on the phone with [Hannah] and I was like, ‘Oh, this sucks! I can’t write music!’ and [Hannah was] like, ‘I can write music.’
Hannah Sobel: I’ve never written musical theater before, but I’ve been told that the various kinds of songs that I write when I’m just writing songs on the piano, or ukulele, pop songs or whatever sound more musical theater-y than normal pop songs do so I was like, ‘That’s probably something I could do.’ And then we just kind of did it.

AS: Can you tell me more about the writing and composing process and how long it took from the point you started writing to when you had a finished book and started casting?

MI: I started January 2020. And then I didn’t write for a couple of months and the pandemic started, and I had time …  We finished the first draft by the end of that summer.
HS: Which was very different than what happened on stage. I think I hadn’t finished all the songs. And then we did a reading of it on Zoom.
MI: And we asked for feedback.
HS: And then we edited everything, and I think the almost final draft happened last spring semester … because that’s when we were starting to cast.
MI: [I was] still editing as we were casting. My final final version was from August of this year. And that was when I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t edit anymore. Just stop. We’re done.’

AS: What are some things that changed between the first draft and what we saw on stage?

HS: Bif wasn’t part of the original idea or concept at all. We just needed another character and Marie was like, ‘Okay, there’s a guy named Bif now. And he doesn’t talk to people.’ And then we were trying to explore this character Bif, and I was like, he needs to be like a dancer/singer.
MI: All I knew is that he existed and he didn’t talk. At first. Yeah, it took me forever to figure out why. Like, why not? Why not? I just put this guy in and he doesn’t talk, and I don’t know why. And then I was like, puns. [Bif did not speak for his first three years of college because kids in high school always made fun of him for making puns of his name, like “bifficult.”]
HS: I think we liked Kai a lot more [in the final iteration]. … Kai was just an asshole all around. And then eventually, we realized we needed to redeem them in some way. So we gave Kai more of an arc. Kai really didn’t have much of an arc before.

AS: Marie, you wrote in the program for the show that you grew up in a marching band family and you were disappointed coming to Swarthmore that we don’t have a marching band, so how much of the musical was based on your own experience versus total fiction?

MI: Before I got here, I had a plan. I was like, ‘I’m going to get there and I’m going to start a marching band and it’s gonna be great.’ I was talking to someone else who had been a color guard person and he was like, ‘I’ll team up with you.’ It was gonna be a whole thing. And then we got here and like just didn’t happen because …
HS: Swarthmore crushes your dreams.
MI: Yes. It crushes your dreams, but also I was busy with other stuff happening. It just wasn’t on the forefront of my mind. And then I got into theater and I was like, why start a marching band if I could just write a show about starting a marching band, and then I still get what I want, sort of.

AS: What were your favorite and least favorite parts of working with a cast and production crew that was all students?

MI: My favorite part is how committed everyone was. First of all, the actors were always early to everything. It was bizarre, actually. Swat seven? It was like Swat negative 30. But everyone was really committed to making it a good show and showing up and also having a good time. So that’s something I liked about it.
HS: This was really big and new for everyone. At least for me, because I’m learning to [conduct and direct music] and I’m also writing music. This is the safest I’ve ever felt teaching people music. So I really appreciated the cast for doing that for me and picking it up.

AS: Is there anything you would go back and change about the show if you could?

HS: The original music was for a full wind band. We were getting so much pushback on like, ‘Wait, you want an ensemble of like twelve people? You want fifteen people singing on a stage without masks?’ … [The show] was scored for twelve people, trumpets and trombones, and I had to rescore it in the middle of the summer because people blowing into instruments on a stage was not going to happen. So it was piano, double bass, [and] a synth that was playing on the ‘Full Band ‘setting.
MI: We like to play it safe here. So the theater is never very big, like the shows we put on here. Everyone acts like it’s because ‘Oh, we’re a small school. We don’t have a lot of interest.’ But we had so many people audition. We had to reject people and we didn’t want to. There’s this attitude of like, ‘Oh, look, if it’s too many people, it’s too hard.’

AS: What inspired you when composing these songs, Hannah?

HS: It really depends on the song. All the gay songs were easy for me because they were just based off of middle school lesbian Hannah trying to figure it out … I was just writing a lot of music at the time, like, over the pandemic. That’s when I really started to compose things. So I just feel like I had so much music in me that it was pretty easy to come up with a concept, especially when I had this play in front of me.

AS: In your perspective, how do you think the show went and what kind of reception did you receive?

MI: It was a good, good weekend. I mean, it really just came together.
HS: I didn’t realize it would come together so beautifully. … I think a lot of that feeling is happening now. We were so stressed up until Sunday, really just trying to make everything perfect. And making sure everyone was on the same page. 
MI: I did cry because it looked so good. And I was like, this is it. This is amazing. … I think in the eyes of the adults, we did a major thing because our cast was so big and it was a musical.
HS: There were just so many moving pieces.
MI: There are a lot of moving pieces and I was annoyed at the beginning of the semester because there were a lot of adults telling me ‘Oh, you should just do a staged reading, it’ll be so much easier. You realize how hard it is what you’re trying to do?’ And I’m like, I don’t understand why I wouldn’t do something because it’s hard. … I’m just confused by this notion that if it’s hard you should not do it.

AS: What does it mean to you to have created a piece that celebrates not only queerness but also queer happiness, especially for lesbians? 

MI: When I decided to write a musical, I didn’t know what it would be about, but I said there has to be lesbians. And that was a no brainer…  Just because there isn’t enough representation. It’s annoying.
HS: That’s why we didn’t want to have a typical male lead, like Kai’s non-binary. … Also, like, I write music based on me, and it can be very loosely based on me … things that I’ve felt and things that I’ve experienced, and I don’t understand straight people, and therefore could probably never write a song from a straight person’s perspective.
MI: I want[ed] this to be a happy show with happy lesbians. Happy, happy, happy. The world is a terrible, depressing place, and I’m not in the mood for that.
AS: Is there anything else I should know?
HS: There’s the real-life Kai [Jamal Dillman-Hasso ’15], … who tried to start a marching band. Andrew Hauze told me about him. … He, many years ago at Swarthmore, attempted to start a marching band without a football team and succeeded in doing so and then he was really into Polish marches. … Everyone got to marching band practice, he passed out the music, and everyone was like ‘What?’ And Swarthmore to this day does not have a marching band.

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.

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