Miss You Like Hell tells the story of undocumented immigrant Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega), on the road trip of a lifetime with her estranged 16-year-old daughter, Olivia (Gizel Jiménez). The musical, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes and singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, opened at Off-Broadway's Public Theater April 10. Directed by Lear deBessonet with choreography by Danny Mefford, the show spawned an original cast album, available digitally from Ghostlight Records October 5.
Before the writers and cast celebrate the album release with an October 8 concert at Joe's Pub—benefitting Madre, an organization that works with migrant mothers and families separated by migration—Hudes and McKeowen broke down their score track by track, complementing and sometimes refuting one another's memories of how each song came into existence. Read on below!
“Lioness (Prologue & Prayer)”
Erin McKeown: Opening numbers! Good lord, someone could easily fill a book with thoughts and experiences around writing them. I’d read it! However, when I think of this song, I am reminded over and over again about the importance of instincts in writing. Follow them! It was Quiara and my original instinct to have “Lioness” open the show. We got away from that in our first production, only to return to it when we opened the show Off-Broadway. This song functions on so many levels—a pep talk for Beatriz (and for us as writers) and a ritual to open the space of the show (for characters and audience).
Quiara Alegría Hudes: The thought was to introduce rhythm and rock as a guiding energy in our world, something primal and raw. Before narrative, let there be drums. “You can do this” became the first text of the play, a galvanizing mantra implying Beatriz’s fear. And then out of this rhythmic vortex comes quiet: Beatriz praying. So we establish, early on, contrast as central to our aesthetic.
Q: On Erin’s studio album, Hundreds of Lions, is a song called “Santa Cruz” that I kept insisting had to be Olivia’s first song, but Erin protested, rightfully so, that it was trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. Instead we wrote “Sundays,” in which Olivia’s battling sense of resistance and longing for Beatriz plays out.
E: There were a number of songs on my previous records that Quiara thought had a place in MYLH. I resisted mostly out of insecurity that if I didn’t write all new songs, then I wasn’t a real theatre composer. But I think Quiara actually had a point in drawing a line between our own previous works and what we were doing together with MYLH. She knew what she was looking for in a composer and previous work inspired her to reach out. Not to be discounted! And truthfully, the bones of “Sundays” are still the bones of “Santa Cruz.” I just swapped a few chords out here and there and put it in another key. Shhhh!
Q: Early in our collaboration, Erin sent me a very rough sketch of 16 bars of spiky rhythm and syncopated riffing. She emailed it to me, like, “Am I on the right track here?” I listened to it on earbuds while waiting for the uptown A at 34th Street, and I was like, “Yes! Yes!” She was making a bold rhythmic proposal, and we found the sound of the show. I listened to that sketch on loop all day.
E: I remember that day very clearly too! Sending a sketch is incredibly vulnerable, especially when there’s a chance something can get lost in the translation, or a collaborator might not see the same potential you do. That day, I learned that Quiara is a tremendous musician with big, big ears. She could tell where I was headed! For me, it was the day our partnership took flight.
Q: It took us a few stumbles to find the Internet sound of the show. Overly technological approaches—synth-heavy computer sounds—were cheesy and too literal. We decided the Internet has a comforting warmth to Olivia. It is her safe place, her stuffy, her comfort object.
E: As anyone who has seen Water By The Spoonful knows, Quiara has an exceptional gift for weaving the Internet into “real” life. One of the things I love about working with her is this commitment to warmth, home, and family, especially in spaces that we don’t always associate with those things.
The chiming figure that recurs in all the Internet songs came about by accident and improvisation. My favorite way to compose! For a workshop version of the show, we didn’t have access to a particular synth sound we’d been using, so I imitated it on a guitar in an “off” pattern against another guitar. Putting electronic patterns on “real” instruments creates instant warmth!
Q: We developed a friendship with Shelton Johnson, a Yosemite ranger, as we researched national parks. He inspired in us a sense of vastness and spiritual expansiveness in relationship to nature. He taught us about the National Park system’s deep history. We thought, “The National Parks are this nation’s original slow jam.”
E: The message of this song was always so clear: Pearl’s love for Yellowstone is so true and deep that she can’t help but share it. She is the perfect tour guide extending a glorious invitation. Sometimes I think we forget that seduction and sensuality are not limited to sex!
“My Bell’s Been Rung”
E: We wanted a simple, sweet song for Mo and Higgins, something playful and tender from these two lovers. We didn’t think of it as unexpected to have two older bikers sing a song like this. For us it made perfect sense: we are not defined only by our outward appearances and our toughest obstacles.
“Over My Shoulder”
Q: Sometimes they come out fully formed. This song took very few drafts or lyrical rewrites. It fit Daphne Rubin-Vega’s musical and storytelling talents. A moment for her to shine.
E: I agree! I think this was the first song to get completed. And once we heard Daphne sing it, we never touched it again. I am always struck by the clarity she brings to Beatriz, and this song is the finest example of it.
Q: It was good fun brainstorming an alphabetical list of Olivia’s favorite books. We decided she’s a sponge, page-turning highbrow and lowbrow books alike. Thus, Justin Bieber alongside Fitzgerald. For some letters we had many options. We did the brainstorming in my apartment in Washington Heights, then Erin drove back home to Western Mass and a few days later sent me the musical idea. The pizzicato sound was a mesmerizing take on Olivia’s panic attack.
E: This was definitely one of the most fun days we had working on the show. What a luxury to sit in Quiara’s apartment, reclining on comfy chairs, listing books Olivia would like. I could have stayed there forever!
I use music like Olivia does—things that are rhythmic and repetitive soothe my anxious mind. But I very rarely let myself open up and sing, as Olivia does in the middle of this song. “But what have I missed, who have I longed for like this?” is one of my very favorite of our lyrics. It’s a place where I get out of the technical demands of writing the show and ache along with Olivia.
E: In our first production, the show was two acts, and we wrote this song as kind of a big, traditional Act I finale (though one very heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder and Kirk Franklin). Once we decided to cut the act break, the song could breathe more. It’s both a ticking clock, taking us through a complicated series of legal scenes, and an exuberant reunion. A hint at the grace that might be available to Beatriz and Olivia if they just keep going.
E: When Quiara and I first met, she gave me a copy of 26 Miles, the play MYLH was originally based on. One of the first things I did was read the play and circle the parts of it I thought should be songs. In particular, there was a monologue by a roadside tamale seller that was simply gorgeous—lyrical, mysterious, evocative, and yet at the same time a practical recipe. Peak Quiara Hudes!
Q: I love the major sevenths, ninths, and seconds in the melody. They are tender and delicate, to match the memory of late-night cooking with two middle-aged lovers. Erin nailed the gentle guitar riff early on, but our first lyrics were too busy, too many syllables. We rewrote the lyric to move more slowly, one ingredient at a time.
We wrote this in Chris Ashley’s studio apartment in New York, which he lent us so we could work together. We were finished writing the second chorus thinking, “OK, now what, how do we end it?” Then Erin hit this wrong chord and I was like, “That’s it, do that again, just play that on loop!” I improvised over the “wrong chord” and she could instantly hear where I was going with it. To me, the ending has a burst of surprise and freedom—Monchita’s spirit being released—that only an accident could help us find.
“Now I’m Here”
Q: I think of this song as Malvolio finally smiling. None of Olivia’s armor works in this moment of simple enjoyment of life. Erin and I brainstormed, once again, all of Olivia’s literary references to the great American road. It was a very long lyric we wrote together, far too many to include. Then a few days later, she sent me the song composed beginning to end, and it felt complete.
E: Yes, I finished this one the night before our first workshop. Nothing like a deadline! There’s a tremendous tradition in American music of the “traveling song”—a song that gives you the feeling and visual picture of being on the road. Sometimes the road is literal, sometimes the road is a relationship. This is our unique contribution to that tradition.
E: We played around with a lot of ideas for this song—both where it would happen and exactly what would be happening within it. At one point it took place in a bar in South Dakota! But we always knew we wanted a “drinking song” and song that would, in a playful way, make a connection between the living and the dead. I was out on a hike in my woods one day and the melody and form came to me whole. I hastily sang them into my iPhone and sent it on to Quiara.
Originally, the car crash that precedes the song took the life of a deer. Eventually, we decided that was too big and too gross, so a turtle it became, resulting in Quiara’s priceless, sure-fire laugh line, “That’s one tough Tortuga.” It was a no-brainer to use the language of New Orlean’s parade music for this moment.
Q: I remember “Dirtiest Deed” very differently. In my recollection, we had zero. Nada. Nothin’. We were like, “We’re making a song in the room, together.” It was like pulling water from a stone, but we did it. Erin improvised chords at my 88 key digital piano and slowly we built something. By the way, this is not a correction—just me enjoying letting you know my spotty memory.
E: I love this! At some point in any good collaboration, memory gets blurred, the mind meld happens. And I think both memories can be true!
“Dance With Me”
Q: Olivia is so resistant to touching and hugging her mother. But their relationship can’t progress any further without a laying on of hands. Beatriz lives in her body, she’s trying to get Olivia to let loose. The song is Beatriz’s attempt to say, “Screw it! Don’t be afraid, girl! Have fun! Move!” But Olivia has so much anger. Finally Beatriz pulls her daughter into a slow dance and that’s it. The touch they’ve been waiting for. They don’t have to agree on anything. But a mother and daughter touching, there is undeniable healing in that. Olivia has felt unloved for so long. She remembers what it feels like to be loved.
E: There was a strange and miraculous day in this process where I came up with the bones of four songs at once. “Tamales,” “Miss You Like Hell,” a song that eventually became the “Epilogue,” and “Dance With Me.” That could only happen because Quiara and I had gotten so clear about what each song could be.
We never wanted Beatriz’s music to be “too Latin,” in the sense of reducing her to a musical stereotype. She’s a person who loves all kinds of music! But there is something important in the nod to a Texas two-step or Tejano tradition that felt right for her here. A joyous abandon in a music that Beatriz would have been very familiar with. As Quiara says, “Screw it!”
Q: Erin’s house is beside a babbling brook and there laying out in the grass, we knew “feminine divine” had to be a guiding lyric in Beatriz’s worldview. We brainstormed words and images that might be part of Beatriz’s prayer world. Lioness. Warrior. Fight. Grace. Witness. Ancestors. Just lots of words on a page, no order to it. Then, Erin threaded them together with a ferocious energy. “Back me up, bitches” was Erin’s lyric, and I nearly fell out my chair when I heard it. At first, I was like, “It’s sacrilegious to speak to the spirits that way!” But then I realized Erin’s wisdom: Beatriz’s sense of humor is not at odds with her sense of god. They live together, inhabit the same space.
E: It’s funny that I have no memory of coming up with that line, but it’s true of Beatriz, and I think true of our show: Life is complicated, we’re all capable of holding many things, and nothing is too sacred for reverent irreverence. It’s a vision of spirituality that I think Quiara wove into MYLH from the beginning, and that I very much believe in too.
“Miss You Like Hell”
E: I am always interested in simple phrases that can be read a number of ways. They just enrich a lyric so much. So “She was always there” was a touchstone for us. I really wanted the show to be called “Miss You Like Hell”, so I thought if we wrote a song called “Miss You Like Hell” that was really good, then we’d have to name the show after it! Once we wrote the song, Quiara went back and reverse engineered the beautiful images that form the “Castaway Comments” you hear throughout the show.
Q: We wanted the song to incorporate lies that nonetheless felt true. Olivia is using her readers’ memories as well as her own to testify on her mother’s behalf and give the impression that Beatriz was a textbook mother. The emotional discovery Olivia makes during this “lie” is how mom was “always there,” even in their estrangement. Mom was both the heart and the broken heart. “I’d rather be by her imperfect side than be alone” is, to me, the moment when Olivia goes from petulant child to mature adult. Olivia finds grace.
Q: While workshopping the piece in San Diego, we spent our day off visiting the border wall. What we witnessed was communion—loved ones and family on both sides of the wall reuniting, conversing. This visit showed us how our play needed to end, with an assertion of resilience. Olivia and Beatriz, separated by deportation, are farther apart than they've ever been and yet are emotionally closer than ever. The music represents the butterflies in their stomachs as they anticipate their reunion, even if through a wall. The two final lines they sing are from “Dance With Me,” the moment of their slow dance.
E: A friend of mine had told me about Friendship Park, so we knew we had to visit while working in San Diego. The music here comes from a cut song called “Rio Grande,” which had been sung by Beatriz as she reflected on her own journey to the United States. For many reasons, the song as written didn’t work, but the music turned out to be just the right feeling for the end of the show. We struggled a bit to find a lyric to end with, trying out many options from earlier songs in the show. But when Quiara suggested, “You are the bread and I am the hunger,” we exhaled. It was the perfect last statement.