By Pat Launer
You find serial killing funny? I didn’t think so. But what about if the killer sings? (Hello, Sweeney Todd!). Not that amusing either, huh? Well, what if the guy’s committing deliciously wacky murder, mixed with music, mayhem, royalty and romance, wrapped in cracklingly clever wit? Now you’re talkin’. Welcome to “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
When the brand new musical opened at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage last October, not only were audiences rolling in the aisles, but critics were positively giddy. In The New York Times, Christopher Isherwood called it “delectable … a splendidly realized new show” that “inspires full-throttled laughter” and “ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”
Isherwood singled out lyrics by co-writers Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak that “truly enchant … with their witty wordplay.” He liked the “winking, satirical tone” of the book by Freedman and loved Lutvak’s “stylish pastiche score … inspired by [Noël] Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan, with a little Chopin, a little Stephen Sondheim and a bit of…Lerner and Lowe… [that] bears worthy comparison with his inspirations.” The musical made the Times’ list of “Hottest Tickets of the Year.”
For the amusingly effervescent Lutvak, the icing on this calorific cake came when he received an unsolicited note from legendary producer-director Harold Prince that said, “Have I ever read a better review for a new musical?” It doesn’t get any better than that.
The merrily murderous plot
The setting is Edwardian England, where Monty Navarro, a recently orphaned only son, discovers that his mother was a distant relative of a snooty British family that disowned her when she married below her class. While lamenting the poverty of his past, he’s told that only eight other relations stand between him and the dukedom. In a fit of pique and carefully calculated revenge (plus the additional motivation of a girlfriend who’s only interested in marrying a man of means), he sets about systematically dispatching his competitors in ever more inventive ways.
In the riotous conceit, all eight doomed relatives, male and female, are played by one astonishingly versatile actor — Jefferson Mays, who cut his acting chops in San Diego and went on to garner a Tony Award for his magnificent multi-character performance in “I Am My Own Wife,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse before moving on to Broadway acclaim. The 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (according to Total Film magazine, among the greatest British films of all time), was inspired by the same 1907 novel, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” by Roy Horniman. In the movie, the multi-character role was famously played by Alec Guinness.
Lucky for us, Mays and the entire original cast will be at the Old Globe for the second half of this co-produced world premiere, helmed by the gifted Darko Tresnjak, former co-artistic director of the Old Globe, now artistic director of Hartford Stage.
The creative creators, part 1
“I’m out of my mind with joy,” crows amiable lyricist/librettist Robert Freedman, who was born in Harbor City, Calif., raised in Gardena and bar mitzvahed in Anaheim at Temple Beth Emet. During his high school years, his passion was USY (United Synagogue Youth), through which he spent the summer in Israel at age 16, working on a kibbutz and on an archaeological dig (“an experience I’ll never forget”). He later became president of the Pacific Southwest region of USY, which included six states.
“USY was a very important part of my life,” he says, “where I made some of my very best friends, who remain so to this day.”
Freedman’s parents are from Eastern European background. His wife’s parents are Brooklyn Jews who moved to L.A. The couple, married 29 years, met in New York but were surprised to discover that their parents belonged to the same Temple (Beth Am) in L.A. Obviously, their relationship was bashert (meant to be).
Dramatic from the get-go, Freedman actually proposed to Jean Kauffman at the top of the Empire State Building. The family business is theater; his wife is a singer/actress, and their son Max, 24, is a Brooklyn-based writer, director and producer. In a delightful San Diego connection, his wife’s acting mentor was the father of David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre. The Freedmans remain close friends with David’s brother Peter, also a director.
Over his successful 30-year career, Freedman has written “mysteries and true crime, biopics and adaptations of novels, heart-warming and gut-wrenching things.” He’s taught screenwriting at New York University and the University of Southern California.
He doesn’t favor one medium or genre, either.
“I think of myself as a storyteller first,” he says. “Writing book and lyrics is an extension of that. What grabs me about a story is something highly theatrical with interesting characters. And ‘A Gentleman’s Guide’ has that in spades.”
The show itself has a local link. In 2010, the plan was to premiere it at the La Jolla Playhouse. But that production was canceled after a rights dispute with the copyright holders of the film. After that, the musical’s creators went back to the original source, the Horniman novel.
“It’s not surprising that the reviews invoked Oscar Wilde,” Freedman says. “Horniman was part of Wilde’s circle of literary friends. He had a very similar sensibility and penchant for social satire.
“This show really sings,” Freedman continues. “A musical works best when the characters reach an emotional peak when words just aren’t enough. Here, the stakes are high; the emotions are high. There’s no one alive who hasn’t fantasized about revenge, maybe even murder. What’s so intriguing about this story is that here’s this guy who commits all these murders, and yet, you root for him.
“Of course, the way his royal relatives are written, they’re not only rich, they’re vile. Part of the fun of it is, they’re all played by Jefferson, who’s been with the show since 2009 and has made significant contributions to it. His performance is astonishing, brilliant and breathtaking.”
A killer creative team
Freedman met his collaborator, Steven Lutvak, when they were fellow students in the very first class of the graduate program in writing for musical theater at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.
Their teachers read like a Who’s Who of musical theater: Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents. And Jule Styne (“Gypsy,” “Funny Girl”), who became Freedman’s mentor. Visiting professors included Harold Prince, Michael Bennett, Stephen Sondheim and the acclaimed orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, the Tony-Emmy-Oscar-Grammy winner who is now the orchestrator for “A Gentleman’s Guide.”
After graduation, the future collaborators went their separate ways, to opposite coasts. Freedman moved to Los Angeles, where he garnered accolades for his teleplays for “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (1997), starring Whitney Houston, and the acclaimed 2001 miniseries “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (featuring Judy Davis), for which he received Emmy Award nominations as both writer and producer.
Lutvak became a celebrated cabaret artist in New York, performing his songs at venues from the Algonquin to Carnegie Hall, and writing the title song for “Mad Hot Ballroom,” Paramount’s hit documentary about dancing inner-city kids. In a Time magazine “People to Watch” profile, the Bronx-born Lutvak was said to have a “crème brulée baritone.”
The creative creators, part 2
“Life is really fantastic, amazing and nervous-making right now,” composer/lyricist Lutvak confessed shortly after the Times review of “A Gentleman’s Guide” came out and offers starting pouring in.
“I first saw the movie, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ when I was in college. I bolted upright in bed and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a musical! And it’s mine to write!’”
In the interim, over three decades, Lutvak carved out a successful career as a singer-songwriter and a vocal coach to Oscar and Tony winners such as Anne Hathaway, Ron Rifkin, Jane Krakowski and Linda Lavin.
“As a cabaret artist, the song that first brought me attention was a comic number I wrote in 1996 called “Bagel-Maker to the Czar.”
Lutvak punctuates the conversation with piano playing and snippets of songs. This one has a catchy melody and very funny lyrics.
It all goes back to Queens and Long Island, where the ebullient Lutvak grew up in a ‘modern kosher’ home (“we ate lobster in the backyard”). He had a bar mitzvah, can speak a little Yiddish. (“When I was young, I always thought that, as you got older, you got gray hair and developed a Yiddish accent.”) Lutvak has a kind of Borscht Belt sensibility and terrific comic timing.
He started playing piano at age 6, the same time he began to “understand funny. I wrote an opera with a dog food commercial break.” But, he’s quick to say, “I can also write dark and complex and psychologically twisted. I thought those were my primary colors, ‘til I realized I could be funny.”
The music for “A Gentleman’s Guide,” says Lutvak, is “unlike anything else I’ve written. It has a singularity of voice, with one foot in classical, one foot in British music hall and one foot in traditional musical theater. I think audiences are dying to hear a melodic score. The humor comes through understatement; it kind of winks at you.”
During “The Troubles,” as he refers to the legal battles over the story rights, Lutvak went to a psychic. He told her he was a songwriter. “‘Please tell me you’ve written a musical,’ she said. ‘It’s going to be very successful.’”
At a 3,000 mile divide, the duo often writes on the phone, though they’ve gotten together at several prominent theater retreats. “One of the best quotes we got,” Lutvak reports, is “‘it feels like one person wrote it.’ I love that.”
They’re tweaking the show for the San Diego run, they’ve expanded the orchestra (from eight in Hartford to 10 here), and there will be “more dazzling costume changes” for Jefferson Mays.
Lutvak also has a San Diego connection: Paula Kalustian, director of the MFA Musical Theatre Program at SDSU, who was a fellow student in the Tisch program. Years ago, she directed a show he wrote in college (“First Star”).
One of his other early works was the music for “Hannah Senesh,” an adaptation of the diaries of the daring and heroic Hungarian-born World War II poet and paratrooper who was captured and killed by the Nazis. The one-woman show, written by his ex-boyfriend, David Schechter, and starring college friend Lori Wilner, played Off Broadway in 1985 “and got rapturous reviews. It went on to be performed at regional theaters around the world. My contribution was setting several of Hannah’s poems to music. In 1986, Lori took the play to Israel, performing it for Senesh’s 90-year-old mother.”
After years of working separately, Freedman and Lutvak got together in 2004 and started collaborating on “A Gentleman’s Guide,” workshopping it in Boston and refining it at the Sundance Playwrights Retreat in Utah. Along the way, the piece won the Kleban Award for Lyric Writing for the Theatre, and the Fred Ebb Songwriting Award. When director Darko Tresnjak first read the piece, he “fell in love with their smart and wickedly funny confection.”
“We had a tremendous amount of fun writing it,” Freedman says. “We laughed a lot. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. And audiences were laughing their heads off in Hartford, standing and cheering at every performance. That spontaneous laughter is music to a writer’s ear.”
Now, Freedman says, “I’m out of my mind with joy” at the reviews, and the prospect of seeing how the piece evolves at the Old Globe. And of course, there is some serious Broadway buzz.
Lutvak marvels about their comparisons to the pantheon of Jewish writers for musical theater, recalling what was said in the excellent recent PBS documentary, “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.” “Every American musical is the story of Jews in America: an outsider who breaks into the inner circle.”
Some do it by love or money. And now, by homicide. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” hilariously tells how.