Kevin O’Donnell remembers all too well the frustrations he experienced playing music in local bands from the mid-1990s to 2002. “I’ve had the records that didn’t sell and the tours where no one showed up,” he admits. “When you’re on tour and you play Cleveland on a Monday night and it rains and four people show up, it’s a waste.”
More recently, though, O’Donnell has found larger audiences for his music with a second career as an in-demand composer for local theatre companies. This month, his music will be featured in Lookingglass Theatre’s Hephaestus and The House Theatre’s new version of The Wizard of Oz. (He’ll perform songs he has written for various plays at the Hideout Block Party on September 17th.) Later in the fall, his compositions turn up in two more shows: American Theater Company’s Orpheus Descending and 4.48 Psychosis by The Hypocrites at the Steppenwolf Garage.
A New Jersey native who studied music at Northwestern University, O’Donnell became a fixture in the city’s band scene after graduation, playing drums in groups including Mount Pilot, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, and his own swing-jazz-pop ensemble, Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six. At the same time, he was writing music for a local dance company, which led to his first theatre job, Redmoon Theater’s Salao: The Worst Kind of Unlucky, in 2002.
These days, Andrew Bird, Neko Case, and the bluegrass band Nickel Creek call on O’Donnell to accompany them on tour in between his theatre jobs. But O’Donnell says he’s more excited writing for theatre-and, judging by his busy schedule, the admiration appears to be mutual. “He’s this extremely talented rock-jazz-pop drummer,” says Nathan Allen, artistic director of The House Theatre. “He’s got a real great edgy contemporary thing that he brings to the music.”
“When I was working as a musician, I found myself threatened by other bands and other people-whereas doing it for theatre, not being the star is fine because I’m the only person doing what I’m doing,” O’Donnell says. “If the show doesn’t do well I don’t have to worry, and if the show does well I’m a part of it.”