Partners in life as well as over a piano, Smith, a longtime Washington musical-theater actor, and Conner, a composer who studied at Shenandoah University, can together make the satisfying declaration: Mission accomplished. With “On Air,” their newest original musical, now being staged at Creative Cauldron in Falls Church, Smith and Conner have fulfilled their impressive show-tune commitment.
As a result, they have to be counted as perhaps the most prolific writers of musicals in the Washington area who consistently get their work produced — locally, anyway. Although their shows are occasionally done elsewhere, they have firmly established themselves on their home turf.
Three of Conner’s own musicals — “Nevermore,” based on the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe; “The Hollow,” adapted from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; and the railroad musical “Crossing” — have been staged by Signature Theatre, two of them by artistic director Eric Schaeffer. Smith, for his part, has been a Signature mainstay performer for years, singing in such productions as “110 in the Shade” in 2003, “Assassins” in 2006 and “Titanic” in 2016.
But their musical teamwork seems to carry even more personal satisfaction. They’ve written more than a dozen children’s musicals; adapted the classic horror flick “Night of the Living Dead”; and in 2016 collaborated with Washington playwright Allyson Currin on an original Christmas show, “Silver Belles,” for Signature.
“It’s more fulfilling,” Smith says of the writing process. “Instead of being a citizen of the town, you’re creating the town.”
At Creative Cauldron, which was founded in 2002 by producing director Laura Connors Hull, the pair has built a small city of musicals, on a diverse array of themes. Their five-year, $50,000 commissioning project, “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages,” began in 2015, with an adaptation suggested by Hull of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” with music by Conner, book by Smith and lyrics by both. The following year, Creative Cauldron produced their gothic “Monsters of the Villa Diodati”; in 2017, “Kaleidoscope,” about an actress suffering from Alzheimer’s, played by Florence Lacey; and in 2018, “Witch,” focusing on women persecuted for their beliefs through the centuries.
It’s not unusual for a musical to be in development for years. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorker, for instance, spent more than a decade working on “Next to Normal,” which eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. Every time has its own pace. For Smith and Conner, that tempo seems to qualify as breathless.
“You have to make sure that what you’re cranking out is not just quick, but is actually thought out,” Smith said, adding that he and Conner maintain a folder full of ideas. At the moment, there are about 15 in the file.
A slightly complicating factor is that as a composer, Conner is intuitive rather than technical. “Matt does not write music,” Smith explained. Fortunately, several years ago they teamed up with a musician and orchestrator, Warren Freeman. “He definitely does complete us in some ways,” Conner said. Smith added: “He’s a great organizer of ideas, because we can have a million of them.”
“On Air,” the final contribution by Smith and Conner to Creative Cauldron, grew out of Smith’s fascination with radio and such notorious events as the panic that Orson Welles provoked with his 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast. The musical tells the little-known story of the radio broadcasting pioneers Frank and Flora Conrad, who created station KDKA in their garage in Pittsburgh and, in 1920, broadcast the results of the presidential election between Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James M. Cox.
“I have forever wanted to write something about the night of the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast because my nana played it for me when I was a child, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since,” said Smith, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
“We started having discussions and decided: What if it’s not just about ‘War of the Worlds’? We started Googling different highlights of the history of radio.”
With their piles of research, they’d bundle off to unlikely workplaces. “We found this steakhouse we go to, even though neither of us likes steak,” Conner said. “We would go there if we needed time away. Stephen spread all this stuff on the table, and there was all this stuff about Frank Conrad and his radio station.”
Doubtless, “On Air” is only the latest meal on a menu rich in songs and stories. Plans are in the works to record the score of “On Air,” and Smith and Conner are eager to find a theater for a second production. Or, for that matter, any of the other myriad projects they have in mind, in folders or on notation paper.