Neyla Pekarek Trades the Concert Set for Musical Theatre 

Ever since graduating, Neyla Pekarek ’09, has lived on a stage. For eight years she traveled across the world performing in front of massive crowds with 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. 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 Performing Arts (DCPA) Feb. 4 through March 13.    

“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 in my formative years happens to lie in musical theater 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 stopped at DCPA. The Buell Theater is where Pekarek fell in love with musicals, and what drove her to study musical 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.”   

UNC is also where Pekarek first learned about Greeley frontierswoman, Kate Slaughterback, the main character in the musical. 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 intensely stuck 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.    

The creation of “Rattlesnake Kate” is a joint effort by Pekarek, who wrote the music and lyrics for the production, and playwright Karen Hartman. The music is inspired from Pekarek’s solo debut album, Rattlesnake, released in 2019.    

–By Sydney Kern

Read the Lumineers Luminary article from the Fall/Winter 2013 edition.