Kate Nash keeps getting back up. This time, Off-Broadway.

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Kate Nash keeps getting back up. This time, Off-Broadway.
Kate Nash in New York, Sept. 16, 2022. After the twists and turns of a pop career, the British singer-songwriter adds a new string to her bow: musical composer. Dolly Faibyshev/The New York Times.

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- What stuck out at a recent rehearsal of the new musical “Only Gold” was how little Kate Nash stuck out.

It wasn’t just that her hair was not its signature fiery red anymore, but a shade of auburn. Nash, who wrote the score and plays the narrator, quietly melded with the rest of the cast, as director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, of “Hamilton” fame, fine-tuned a couple of numbers. When not actively participating in a section, she tended to stand against a wall, her eyes intently tracking the dancers.

The London-born singer-songwriter spent a decade and a half releasing records and touring the world — in 2007, her debut single, “Foundations,” was No. 2 in Britain while her debut album, “Made of Bricks,” hit the top spot of the charts there — and she also acted in the Netflix wrestling comedy “GLOW.” But despite “Only Gold” being her first experience in theater, Nash was at ease, maybe even at peace.

“Being here, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this feels like home for my music,’” she said happily, sitting in the empty mezzanine of MCC Theater, where the show is currently in previews before opening Nov. 7.

The show is, as Nash put it, “about having the courage to follow your heart. And we’re telling that story through Paris in the 1920s and the royal family from Cosimo.” (She is referring to a kingdom invented for “Only Gold.”)

The period musical, which involves a king trying to marry off his daughter, may sound like a stretch for an artist known for an incisive, personal style anchored in the here and now. But Blankenbuehler, a three-time Tony Award winner and longtime fan of Nash’s, grasped early on that her sensibility and craftsmanship would fit the story he had dreamed up and arranged a meeting in 2010. “The thing I liked about Kate’s lyrics were that I found them to be poetic and funky and weird, but at the same time rhythmic in a way that really catered to my choreography, because I like to be offbeat all the time and syncopated all the time,” he said. “I also liked that there was equal parts of low and high — like, she would write really high, quirky stuff and really low, nasty, badass stuff.”

But it didn’t just take clicking her heels together three times to find that artistic home. Nash’s life and career had taken a few turns since she burst onto the pop scene in 2007, fully formed at just 20. Since that early success, Nash has been through a personal and professional wringer that could have easily derailed her.

Born in a middle-class family (her father worked in information technology, her mother was a nurse), Nash was barely out of the BRIT School, a London arts institution whose alums include Adele and Amy Winehouse, and working at a sandwich shop when her Myspace page caught the attention of record executives. When “Foundations” came out, its prickly, evocatively personal storytelling established her as a bracing new voice. In 2008, she won the BRIT Award for best British female solo artist and began touring extensively around the world. But in 2012, her record label unceremoniously dropped her. This barely slowed down the singer, who released her third album independently the following year.

Then, in 2015, bad news came: Nash, then living in Los Angeles, discovered that her manager had been defrauding her. She was pretty much bankrupt.

“I was selling all my clothes and having to move out of my apartment because I had no money,” she said. “I packed up all my things, I sold everything, I moved home to England and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ And then I got this audition for ‘GLOW.’”

She was eventually cast as the street-smart Rhonda, a struggling model who becomes a wrestler with the nom de ring Britannica. The opportunity was a lifeline as well as a dream coming true for Nash, who had long dreamed of being an actress.

In a joint video chat, the “GLOW” creators and showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch zeroed in on Nash’s team spirit and doggedness. To win them over during the casting process, she filmed herself performing guerrilla-style moves, “being like, ‘I’m auditioning! I’m coming! Don’t forget about me!,’” Mensch said. “She entered one of the most perfectly bonkers tapes.”

“There’s something kind of gonzo about her,” Flahive added, admiringly. “Even as a musician, she has a real kind of punk-rock spirit and has been doing her own thing outside of the system for so long, and you get that feeling from her.”

In the documentary “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” (2018), Nash’s indomitable grit is plain to see. “She just keeps getting up every time she gets knocked down,” said Amy Goldstein, the documentary’s director. (The two met through their mutual hairdresser in 2014.) “That is why I made the movie: to see a woman who just won’t fall down.”

Netflix canceled “GLOW” in 2020, after three seasons. But “Only Gold,” which had been in the works on and off for a decade, was finally ready to taxi to the runway.

Initially, Blankenbuehler, who wrote the show’s book with Ted Malawer, had wanted to retrofit existing songs to fit the concept of a period fantasy involving three couples with relationship troubles. “I was just kind of like, you want to make a musical with my music, knock yourself out. Have fun,” Nash said.

It quickly became obvious that this approach had creative limits, so they both agreed that she would write original material. (Beloved oldies do appear in the show, including “Mouthwash,” from “Made of Bricks.”)

“Kate’s the kind of person who — and this is a compliment — writes what she wants to write,” Blankenbuehler said. “If she’s feeling it, she writes it, so she’s always in her own music. To be in somebody else’s story was hard for her because she’s not those personalities. One thing she’s worked really hard at is wearing the character’s clothes, writing the song from the inside of the character.”

Nash found that particular experience liberating rather than constraining. “Oh, my God, writing for male characters — it was euphoric,” she said. “I understand how rappers feel now, because it feels amazing: Big yourself up and talk about masculinity and power. It was really fun to start writing for characters. It was just another string to my bow.”

Now she can do more of that in other mediums: Earlier this year, she released the irresistibly catchy “Imperfect,” which she wrote for the Netflix series “The Baby-Sitters Club.” “I think that I’m able to dive fully into things like that because of ‘Only Gold,’” Nash said. “I was like, ‘OK, teenage girl, pop power, scene in their bedroom during a fashion show about embracing imperfections — give me five minutes!’ How I would express that for myself as a 35-year-old woman wouldn’t be ‘Imperfect,’ but now I can write and enjoy that and not worry about it.”

In the musical, coming up with a batch of new songs for, well, a king (played by Broadway veteran Terrence Mann) was only part of what awaited Nash, she discovered fairly late in the process. “Even our first workshop, I naively thought I was just going to do music on the show,” she said. “Until I got my contract and it said ‘actor’ and I was like, wait, why does it say ‘actor’ on my contract? And I suddenly got so scared.”

For Blankenbuehler, having Nash in the musical was a no-brainer. “I felt like the mechanism of the show was the beat, the music,” he said, “and so it only made sense to me that this quirky voice — and nobody sounds like her — should narrate the show.”

Her experience learning to wrestle for “GLOW” made figuring out choreography less daunting. Another point of entry was finding an unexpected connection with the other cast members, many of whom were trained dancers.

“Someone in a workshop once told me, ‘Every dancer knows who you are because of “Nicest Thing,” because every girl performs it at dance competitions across the USA,’” Nash said, mentioning a track from her first album. “I wrote that in my living room on an acoustic guitar when I was 18, pining over wanting love,” she added, chuckling.

Those days feel remote now, as Nash settles into her new life on the New York stage. “Every time I see the opening sequence, it brings me to tears,” she said, then laughed. “There’s going to be times when I’m going to have to really clench my jaw and not cry.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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