How do you make a serial killer likable?
One way is by having him sing, which is what the leading character does in the premiere of the “drop dead” musical
, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which begins previews Wednesday, Oct. 10, at
Another is by showing his victims as hideous and revolting characters — especially if they’re all played by
-winning actor Jefferson Mays.
The new musical is based on the 1907 British novel “Israel Rank“ by Roy Horniman, who was a member of Oscar Wilde’s circle of gay wits and writers. The book was also the source material for the 1949 film comedy from England’s Ealing Studio, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,“ which starred Alec Guinness, who also played multiple roles as members of the off’d aristocratic family.
The black comedy centers on Monty Navarro, a poor, very distant, but charming relation of a titled, fabulously wealthy British family, and his efforts to kill off eightmembers of the imperious clan to avenge their treatment of his mother. They stand in his way of a
Mays, who grew up in Clinton and was an undergrad at Yale, is not unfamiliar with playing multiple personalities. He won a Tony Award in 2004 for his performance as East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf — and dozens of other characters — in the solo show “I Am My Own Wife” by Doug Wright.
“However I did not sing and I performed all the characters in that show in a simple black dress,” says Mays, during a recent break in rehearsals.
“This time there will be full costume changes for the characters I play,” he says, “and some of them happen in a blink of the eye. I wish there were an off-stage camera so people could see the artistry of costume changing. I don’t know what we did before Velcro.”
Mays, 47, says it will be an exciting logistical challenge. “I think its going to be a great, sweaty, delirious scramble for a good amount of time. I must admit I breathe a little sigh of relief each time I’m killed because I can cross one costume change off the list.”
Mays plays all the members of the D’Ysquith family “who are despicable representatives of the evil inherant in the [Edwardian] class system. We have one who is a landlord foreclosining on his tenants, another is a sexual predator, another is a gluttonous fellow…well, it’s almost the seven deadly sins.”
Though he performed in an Encores production iof “Of Thee I Sing” in New York and was in a regional production of “My Fair Lady” speak-singing Henry Higgins, Mays considers this show his first big musical role — or roles, rather.
And who would he like to kill?
“On the first sort-of date with my wife, we made out a list on a café napkin of the people we want to rituallly disembowal,” he says. “We discovered that we had a lot of people on the same lists. It was a relationship founded on mutual antipathy — which is a great bonding thing. I’m hesitant to mention who those people are because who knows when an opportunity might afford itself.”
Darko Tresnjak, artistic director at the theater who is staging the musical, says he doesn’t want to kill anybody because he’s just too much in a jolly mood because of the show.
Tresnjak became involved with the musical in late 2005 when he was directing a revival of “Amour” at Goodspeed Musical’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Price Waldman, an actor who was in “Amore” and also involved in readings and workshops of “Gentleman’s Guide,” connected Tresnjak with composer/co-lyricist Steven Lutvak and book writer/co-lyricist Robert L. Freedman who had been working on the project off-and-on for two years. With Tresnjak on board — he brought in Mays — the material was further developed over the next six years, interspersed with the team’s other projects.
“The work was in really good shape,” says Tresnjak. “The big thing for me was to help them be in the moment, be playful and take advantage of Jefferson’s gifts.”
The work went through a series of development opportunities over the years: from
Institute Theater Lab in 2006 (when the composing team won the Fred Ebb Award for songwriting as well as the Kleban award for lyric writing), to workshops at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons and to Boston’s Huntington Theatre.
Two years ago, the show was set for La Jolla Playhouse in California but representatives of the film challenged the rights to the musical — which was based on the public domain book — with legal action. That action was later dismissed, but it derailed that production.
When Tresnjak took over at Hartford Stage last year, he knew he wanted the show for this season. It is the first regular-season musical at the theater since “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm” in 1997. The show is a co-production with Old Globe in San Diego where it will play March 8 to April 14.
Tresnjak says the tone is light-hearted,
and thoroughly comedic. His visual idea — the sets are by Alexander Dodge who designed Hartford Stage’s “The Tempest” and “Bell, Book and Candle” — “is like a beautiful pop-up greeting card or like when you open a little door on an advent calendar, but one where, in the end, the berries start to bleed. I keep calling it a comic version of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’
Ken Barnett (who was Peter Pears in
’s “February House”) plays Monty. Also featured are Heather Ayers, Chilina Kennedy, Lisa O’Hare, Kendal Sparks, Rachel Izen and Waldman. Jonathan Tunick, famed for his work with Stephen Sondheim shows, is orchestrator. Paul Staroba is musical director. Peggy Hickey choreographs.
“Watching Jefferson die over and over is wonderful,” says Tresnjak. “Killing people on stage is fun. I think audiences will be rooting for Monty.”
But what makes him sing?
“Passions run very deep and hot in the story,” says Lutvak, who is also a leading cabaret performer and composer, “and what is a song but an expression of very deep emotions? But the characters are also of a distance, too.”
“We can tap in musically what’s inside the lead characters head through song,” says Freedman, an Emmy nominee for “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella. “It’s not just the story about a man and these murders, but it’s also a love story — a very complicated love story that turns into a love triangle. That’s why the title is ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’ “
“The show’s original score is not a send-up of a particular musical genre, say the composing team, though there are some numbers that evoke such classic genres as Gilbert & Sullivan and operetta “because we’re in a society [of the period of the story] that’s all about surface and veneer,” says Freedman. “[The score] has a faux classicism about it.”
For Lutvak and Freedman, much of the fun was creating killings that were different than some of the more complicated murders in the book. (The ending is entirely their own invention, they say, careful not to give awar the string of surprises at the show’s conclusion.) “But it’s not Grand Guignol,” says Freedman.
“‘Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down!’ says Lutvak, repeating a
advertising slogan about the egg-shaped toy. “We all want to kill our families but the fact that it’s one actor [playing all these characters] we know that he’s always going to come back.”
Besides, says Freedman, these charactrers are so loathsome “the audience is ready to kill them themselves.”
>>"A GENTLEMAN"S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER"