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Grammy-Nominated Alumna Trades Concert Set for Musical Theatre

February 4, 2022

Since graduating from UNC, Neyla Pekarek ‘09, has lived on a stage. For eight years she traveled across the world performing in front of massive crowds as a member of the highly successful folk-rock band, The Lumineers, a position she secured after answering an ad on Craigslist. 

“It was crazy that it happened the way it did. I feel lucky to have been a part of The Lumineers, but I knew it wasn’t a forever thing for me,” Pekarek said. 

The vocalist, cellist and pianist has since decided to step off the tour bus and say goodbye to her bandmates.  

“I wanted to hone in on my own songwriting skills and be in charge of myself,” Pekarek said.  

She’s not leaving the spotlight, though, just shifting her stage setting to the theatre with the world premiere of her new musical Rattlesnake Kate at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) on Feb. 4. 

“It wasn’t a conscious decision that I was going to write a musical, but I do think the music I grew up on and what I really fell in love with during my formative years happens to lie in musical theatre sound,” Pekarek said. 

Growing up in Aurora, a mere 20 miles from Denver, Pekarek’s parents often took her to see the Broadway tours that came through DCPA. The Buell Theatre is where Pekarek fell in love with musicals, and what drove her to study Music Education at UNC. That’s where Pekarek says she realized she had the grit and guts to write and perform in her own show. 

“The programs are really strong at UNC and equip the students to understand the work ethic that’s required to do this as a career,” Pekarek said. “My courses and experiences pushed us really hard in a way that reflects the real world.” 

It wasn’t just the vigorous rehearsals that stuck with Pekarek during her time at UNC, she also made life-long friends that she continues to collaborate with. Four other UNC alumni are also on the cast and creative team for Rattlesnake Kate, including the musical director and stage manager. 

“The UNC pride is a plenty on this production,” Pekarek boasted. “Being able to connect and build those friendships early on in college is really awesome. You’re in it together.” 

Neyla Pekarek

Neyla Pekarek debuting her solo album Rattlesnake at the Moxi Theater in Greeley in 2017

Neyla Pekarek

Neyla Pekarek debuting her solo album Rattlesnake at the Moxi Theater in Greeley in 2017

Neyla Pekarek

Neyla Pekarek debuting her solo album Rattlesnake at the Moxi Theater in Greeley in 2017

Pekarek’s college experience gave her the drive, the community and finally, her muse. Pekarek first learned about frontierswoman, Kate Slaughterback, the main character in Rattlesnake Kate, in Greeley. As the folktale goes, around 100 years ago, Kate, armed with a rifle and a “No Hunting” sign, fought off 140 rattlesnakes to save her son. Kate's tenacity struck a chord with Pekarek. She knew the story needed to be told. 

“I saw her adventurous spirit and a woman who was unwilling to compromise regardless of the circumstances. That was really inspiring to me,” Pekarek said. 

Pekarek kept Kate’s legacy in her back pocket and shared it with anyone who would listen, and in 2015, she started to write songs about her. 

“I didn’t have a lot of direction at first, I was just enjoying the experience of being creative and the research part of it was fun,” Pekarek said.  

Like venom coursing through the body after a snakebite, Pekarek quickly realized the songs she wrote about her favorite frontierswoman could be made into something more. In 2019, Pekarek released her first solo album, Rattlesnake, which she then developed into lyrics and a score, Rattlesnake Kate. 

“I’m feeling more excited than ever before,” Pekarek said. “It’s amazing to be in the theatre that I still hold as such a revered place. It’s an honor to be here.” 

Performing in a new light with new creators and some former classmates, Pekarek is thrilled to enter the next stage of her career, musical theatre.  

“Who knows what the future will hold, but right now this feels like a really good place to be,” she said.  

Rattlesnake Kate is a joint effort by Pekarek, who wrote the music and lyrics for the production, and playwright Karen Hartman. It runs through March 13 at the Wolf Theatre. Pekarek will also be playing the role of ‘Brownie.’ 

- written by Sydney Kern


More Performing and Visual Arts Alumni Stories

In the early 2000s, two eager University of Northern Colorado Theatre Arts majors had their eyes set on New York’s biggest stage. Taking dance course after dance course and performing in multiple student productions, Jason Veasey and Aléna Watters achieved that dream, using the skills they perfected on campus and eventually showcasing them on Broadway. Now the pair is back, sharing the knowledge they’ve learned with today’s students and taking leading roles behind the scenes in UNC’s production of the popular Broadway musical Rent.

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