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Q&A with the composer and writer of the 'badass new musical' Rattlesnake Kate

The true story of Colorado's own Kate Slaughterback comes to life at DCPA's Wolf Theatre.

DENVER — Neyla Pekarek, the former cellist for the Lumineers, wrote and performed the album Rattlesnake based on the true story of Greeley's Kate Slaughterback, who killed 140 snakes in 1925, and then made a dress from their skins. 

Pekarek always thought the album could become a musical, and New York City playwright Karen Hartman was inspired to write the book for the show that is making is world premiere in Denver. 

Are you excited? 

Pekarek: I think we’re very excited.

Hartman: We’re very excited.

Pekarek: It’s been a long time coming because everything was pushed a year, so I think we’re excited but we’re really ready for this show to be out in the world and for our show to be out there. 

When the pandemic paused everything, you didn't just lay back and relax? 

Pekarek: No, much too anxious for that. 

Hartman: We were going to go from a concert to a full musical in a year and a half, so two and a half years was actually, I think, a better amount of time.

Pekarek: I don’t know what we would have put on stage in 2021 if that had happened, but this feels much more epic than what I had imagined when we first started this. 

What's something about the show that amazes you? 

Hartman: The set is wood sourced from all around Colorado – including Greeley, where Kate’s farm was. 

How do you describe the show?

Hartman: It feels like this contemporary western campfire -- crazy harmonies, a woman at three stages of her life played by three different people, so it’s very intimate but very grand. 

Neyla, you had it in your head that this story needs to get out there, and at first, it started as a story you would tell people. What’s the journey been like from telling your friends, to the album, to now the musical?

Pekarek: It feels like a party trick that got really out of hand in a really glorious way. It was it was just this story that I would share with folks.

Credit: History Colorado
Rattlesnake Kate

Karen, what was it like looking at this album and taking that and turning it into a play, and adding dialogue and using that as inspiration?

Hartman: The album spoke to me on a level that was primal and kind of below even understanding what Neyla was getting at politically … I had never been to Colorado, I had no particular connection to this part of the West. But on another level, the story just speaks to the way that women now are missing parts of our history and reclaiming those ancestors gives us more power … I also saw pretty directly how she could become -- Rattlesnake Kate could become the myth we need for today, and the icon that we need for today, and that’s what got me super excited. 

Neyla, what was it like transforming your album into a musical?

Pekarek: Writing songs for a musical are so different than writing it for a pop record, where it’s like you got to get from point A to point B. We’ve got to feel differently at the end of the song than we felt at the beginning, and I had to learn all of that … There are 13 songs on the record and I think our song list is at 35 musical numbers, which includes reprises and things, but there are at least a dozen more brand new, from-scratch songs from the show.

When people see the show, they'll see more than just a rattlesnake attack, right? 

Pekarek: The rattlesnake encounter is the hook that brings you in, but for me, it was the research I did beyond that about Kate that made me know this was not just one song, this was not just an album, this was so much bigger … especially in 2020, this idea of resilience around this woman. She got struck by lightning, she had six husbands, you know, she tended to 640 acres pretty much on her own. She raised a son by her own. All these things she just kept bouncing back from. Really inspiring, and I think we all could learn from that resilience. 

This is the premiere of this musical. What does it mean to have it in Denver?

Pekarek: Being able to tell a real piece of history in the place where it happened feels so unique and special … So many things now are reboots, or they're stories that we’ve heard, or movies turned into something, and this is a brand new story that feels really exciting to me.

Where could this go after it closes at DCPA on March 13? 

Hartman: It could go anywhere and everywhere.

Pekarek: I’m keeping expectations low with optimism high. So if Denver’s the end of the road, this was beyond everything I could have hoped for this project, but even beyond this production going elsewhere, the story will live on. And that feels really exciting that people will know this story beyond me and those people I told at the parties. 

How could this show get to Broadway? 

Hartman: To go to Broadway, someone has to have $20 million and a Broadway theater. So, could that happen on March 14th right after we close? It could. It’s not impossible. Could it happen that another theater that’s outside Denver, but not in New York, wants to share this story? That could happen. Could that happen in a year? Could that happen in three years? Could that happen tomorrow? Any of those things could happen. 

What do you want people to know about this show? 

Hartman: One of the deepest and most profound experiences for me in watching the show is watching these three very different women, three ages, three races, be one spirit. And tell one story together. And I think that’s what the audience is responding to as well as a potential for a kind of unity that’s not conformity, it’s harmony.

What do you think Kate would think of the show?

Pekarek: I think about what Kate would think because I think she had an odd relationship with fame in that it was like, I want to be famous but I don’t want to be famous. I hope that we’ve done her justice in terms of, we read through these letters she’d written in trying to kind of grasp her voice and really honing in on that authenticity … I don’t know how she’d feel about it. I don’t know if she’d like musicals.

Hartman: Yeah, she probably never saw a musical.

Rattlesnake Kate is running now through March 13 on the Denver Performing Arts Center.

WATCH: The story of Rattlesnake Kate, a northern Colorado legend

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