Suburban musical theater artists integral to Chicago premiere of 'Gay Card'
Actress Sophie Murk credits her arts-loving parents for her profession.
The Elgin native grew up attending theater with her parents. Her first experience was a Chicago production of "Starlight Express" followed by children's shows at the Hemmens Cultural Center and multiple performances of "Wicked" and American Girl revues.
At the age of 8, Murk -- currently co-starring in PrideArts' Chicago-area premiere of "Gay Card" -- began performing with the Christian Youth Theater. By middle school, she had decided on theater as a career.
She sang in choirs and performed in plays at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake. And in their spare time, she and an older sibling spent their time in Chicago seeing shows at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass theaters, The Neo-Futurists and The Hypocrites. Murk dreamed not of Broadway, but of performing with her favorite Chicago ensembles.
"I wanted to work with (Lookingglass ensemble member) Mary Zimmerman and the folks at Steppenwolf," said the Crystal Lake resident, who graduated from Webster University's Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts in St. Louis in 2018. "I had more of an obsession with down-to-earth work that happens in Chicago."
Following college, she briefly returned to CYT before accepting an acting internship with Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Coming across PrideArts' audition notice for "Gay Card," a musical about identity, belonging and queer culture by composer Ryan Korell and writer/lyricist Jonathan Keebler, Murk was intrigued.
"This is a show for me," she said to herself. "I think I'm supposed to tell this one."
"Gay Card" is the first collaboration between Keebler and Korell, who grew up in Naperville and currently lives in Winfield.
Music has been part of Korell's life since he was a child. He played piano at 6, wrote songs at 11 and composed his first musical at 12. After earning a music degree from Vanderbilt University, he attended graduate school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts where he met Keebler.
"Gay Card," which they began writing in 2013, was their master's theses. They continued to develop the show over subsequent readings, which culminated in its 2016 premiere in North Carolina followed by a 2017 cast recording (available on YouTube).
Korell describes the musical not as a coming-out story but as a coming-of-age tale.
"In this world, it's cool to be gay," he said, "but our main character Logan (played by Ben Ballmer) is not cool at all, so no one believes he's gay."
Logan imagines everyone has it all figured out, Korell said, "but really we're all figuring it out as we go."
"Once you're out, that's the beginning of the journey, not the end," he said. "That's what this show is about."
At its core, "Gay Card" is a love story, Korell said, but not between Logan and his romantic interest Graham (played by Freddy Mauricio). The love story is about Logan and his best pal Melanie, played by Murk, who as "a textbook brainiac" struggles to find her identity apart from her best friend.
"Their friendship, that's the central relationship," Korell said, adding, "there are universal elements that make it enjoyable for anybody."
Korell said he and Keebler strive to give audiences "something to talk about on the way home."
The composer says he looks forward to PrideArts' production.
"I'm excited to see what they do with it," he said.
"To see it come to life," he continued, "sometimes I forget how magical it is."
• • •
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26 through Sept. 24. The show opens Monday, Aug. 28
Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, pridearts.org