I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk with and write about a lot of talented, creative people over the past three decades as a journalist in the La Crosse area. They don’t come any more impressive than Karen Multer.
As a student at Onalaska High School, she was known as Karen Luehne, and in high school she already showed all the signs of being a star, adept at acting and singing. For more than a decade after she graduated from OHS she traveled the country, making her living as a theatrical performer. She met Steve Multer in one of those productions — “Phantom of the Opera,” in which she was Christine — and they’ve been partners in life and art for almost 20 years.
Long based in Chicago, Karen and Steve performed together in TONIC Vintage Vocals, a jazzy ensemble they formed for which they wrote some of their own songs. That songwriting blossomed into something bigger, with the Multers aiming to get their songs placed in films and TV shows.
Last time I checked in with Karen, it was about 10 years ago and she and Steve had just pulled off a cool coup — one of their songs had been picked up for use in a scene on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” At the time it was one of the most popular shows on the tube, so having their song used in a “CSI” episode — “The Case of the Cross-Dressing Carp” — was a big deal.
Little did I know then that 10 years later I could hear Multer & Multer compositions on TV shows all the time. Their songs have been licensed for used in TV shows and films shown on ABC, CBS, HBO, Netflix, Disney Channel, Starz/Encore, Hulu, USA, Univision, and MGM/ABC Family. Most recently, they had music included in two new Amazon Originals shows, “The Interestings” and “Written Off.”
They’ve twice been honored in the jazz category in the Billboard World Song Contest and are three-time winners in the Great American Song Contest put on by Variety.
But that’s not even the most impressive part.
Karen and Steve have written two full-blown musicals, and both were picked for the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival. Their first musical, “codename: CYNTHIA,” was part of the festival in 2015 and went on to have a full production staged that year by the Pallas Theatre in Washington, D.C.
That musical, as the title hints, boasts a story steeped in espionage and complexity with lots of plot twists. It got a very nice review from The Washington Post, which called it “a tight, effective musical. A diverting and solidly crafted show... whose romance, glamor and high-stakes suspense seem gifts from the espionage-tale gods.”
The Multers were rewarded with two BroadwayWorld Awards for “codename: CYNTHIA,” including one for Best World Premiere Musical, and the show won DC Metro Theater Arts’ 2015 Best Musicals at Professional Theaters honors.
The next step for “CYNTHIA” is to get it published and licensed for further productions, but meanwhile they’ve got another musical in the development pipeline that had a reading in late summer in the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival.
This one’s called “Buried in Prosperity,” and it’s about as different as can be from their first musical. This one is set in a small downstate Illinois town in the 1950s, beset by economic and cultural shifts, with the story pivoting around John Perdu, the only black business owner in the all-white, farm-dominated county. Ultimately, it’s a heroic tale of finding one’s way home, in the spirit of Homer’s “Odyssey.”
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While “Buried in Prosperity” is set in 1954, Karen told me it’s a “deeply American story” that is very much relevant to our times, dealing with themes of racism, socio-economic and class disparity, and the difficulty of adapting to social change. Karen and Steven have been working on “Buried in Prosperity” for a couple years and have hopes of the musical getting its first production within six months, possibly in Chicago or maybe even in Wisconsin, given the Dairy State roots shared by Karen and Michael Cotey, a director with whom the Multers are working.
Both the Multer musicals have been through lengthy development processes, with Karen and Steve honing the shows each step of the way. As Karen explained, there is no shortcut to excellence.
“The development cycle is crucial in the life of a new work,” she said. “Many writers rush to production — as if it were that easy — without the tedious, often mind-numbing task of rewriting and shaping a show until it’s ready to be put before a paying audience. What results is something that may be decent and even entertaining, but rarely is as good as it can and should be. Steve and I strive for something better than good.”
Given that approach and the success they’ve had as songwriters in general, I won’t be one bit surprised if I one day get a chance to write about a Tony Award winner who grew up in Onalaska.
Rock on …
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