How to Write a Merry Murder Musical
Inside the creation of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak like a challenge. That’s why they wanted to musicalize Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, Ray Horniman’s 1907 novel about a serial killer. “There were some inherent challenges that we thought would be fun as writers—how likeable can we make a serial killer and how odious can we make his victims while keeping it all funny and frothy and light?” Lutvak says.
Freedman adds, “Every show has somebody you can root for, and the odd thing about our show is that you actually root for a murderer.”
Over ten years after they started the project, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, after productions at Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe. (Lutvak wrote the music, Freedman wrote the book, and they co-wrote the lyrics.) In the show, impoverished Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) unexpectedly discovers he is a member of the noble D’Ysquith family, and what’s more, there are only eight people in front of him to be the next Earl of Highhurst. So naturally, he kills them off one by one.
This could be very dark stuff, but Freeman and Lutvak have several strategies to keep the material buoyant. They help us cheer for Navarro, for instance, by making him an underdog and a victim of the class system. Plus, they have Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays play all eight of Monty’s victims, ranging from the haughty Lord Adelbert D’Ysquith to the globe-trotting do-gooder Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith.
“By having one actor play all the parts, you don’t take the murders seriously,” Lutvak says. “You know he’s going to come back. And part of the fun is waiting to see who he’s going to be the next time he comes onstage.”
For Freedman, writing eight parts for the same man wasn’t that different from writing for multiple people. “They all have their own personalities and occupations and traits and ages,” he says. “We knew [Mays] would dive into anything we asked him to, and he was an incredible asset in the development process because he has helped us flesh out all of these characters to become more than they would be if they stayed on the page.”
However, Lutvak did have to make sure that all the D’Ysquiths sing in Mays’s vocal range: “They use different parts of his range, but they all have to be comfortable enough for him to sing eight times a week.”
The music evokes the Edwardian England of the story and is influenced by the English music hall tradition, but Lutvak listened exclusively to Mozart while writing, specifically Cosí fan tutte. “I really wanted to study and get immersed in his use of ensembles, and our score is filled with duets and trios and quartets and quintets and ensemble numbers in that way,” he says. “I wanted to have a sense in that way of how one of the masters handled that musically.”
When Lutvak and Freedman—who met in the first year of the graduate musical theatre program at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and whose teachers there included Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jule Styne—write, the music usually comes first. “Because so much of the texture of this is in the faux classical world, I wanted the music to breathe and have a kind of elegance and shape of its own and then fit lyrics to that rather than create music that would conform to the dictates of the lyrics,” Lutvak says.
They start a song by discussing the dramatic situation and what the characters need. Then they talk about musical style. “When we figure out a hook or a line, Steve runs to the piano and becomes inspired and starts to write the melody, and we put together a dummy lyric based on that,” Freedman says. Dummy lyrics help Freedman know where the emphasis of the words should be, and then the pair can start crafting lyrics based on what the characters need to say to move the story forward.
“It’s been really gratifying for us because we crack each other up,” Freedman says. “We have such a good time doing it, and then when the audience laughs, it’s quite a thrill.”
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science
Photo by Joan Marcus