For Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, creators of the world-premiere City Theatre musical Long Story Short, their big career epiphany wasn't so much about playing music as it was about listening.
In more than a decade with their three-piece band, GrooveLily, they'd plied college radio and courted record labels. Their witty lyrics and a unique violin, drums and keys sound got them some airplay and constant touring to festivals and little "listening rooms." They tried sounding more folk; they tried sounding adult-alternative. But label reps said, "It sounds a little Broadway," says Milburn in a stage whisper. "It sounds a little theatrical."
After Vigoda's stint as electric-violinist in touring rock spectacle Trans-Siberian Orchestra -- and after an actual theater director told them, "You guys need to do this in a theater" -- they changed their tune. With Putnam County Spelling Bee playwright Rachel Sheinkin, they wrote Striking 12, a holiday musical based on "The Little Match Girl." It made sense: Milburn has a master's in writing musicals from New York University. And it was a hit, now become an annual event. Meanwhile, "That was the ticket to getting signed," says Milburn, 37, whose band resides on the PS Classics label. "Doors started to open everywhere," says Vigoda, 41.
One door opened on City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden, a fan. Brigden sent them Infinite Ache, David Schulner's play about a romance -- 50 years, starting with the first kiss. They loved its story (it recalled their own, shorter version) and audacious jumps back and forth in time. Challenges included writing dialogue. "Ohh -- it's so much harder" than tightly structured song lyrics, says Vigoda.
Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik's 2006 Broadway success, Spring Awakening proved there's room to move beyond traditional stage-musical aesthetics. Milburn and Vigoda's tunes have singer-songwriter lyrics (both love James Taylor), while the music mixes in elements of jazz, folk and Ben Folds-style rock. The 15 tunes are played by a four-piece combo, with Pearl Sun as Hope, and Ben Evans (from City's The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron) as Charles. Brigden directs.
Milburn and Vigoda live in Brooklyn with their 3-year-old son, Mose. In Pittsburgh for five weeks to shepherd Long Story to its Oct. 29 premiere, they remained bemused by their career trajectory. "It does seem like it was intentional," says Milburn. "It just wasn't."
Long Story Short continues through Nov. 16. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $17-70 ($15 ages 25 and under). 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org