NTC Presents a True Crime Drama THRILL ME, 4/3-14
On April 3, Newnan Theatre Company again steps boldly into risky territory by staging Stephen Dolginoff's "Thrill Me," a musical drama that tells the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a teenaged boy in 1924.
When it happened, this shocking story dominated the news for weeks. It was so hard to understand. Why would two privileged college students do such a thing? They were soon caught and pleaded guilty. At their sentencing hearing, Clarence Darrow argued eloquently for their lives. They were sentenced to life in prison, where Loeb was murdered, but Leopold survived to be paroled in 1958.
The story has been retold in books, movies and plays: the 1956 book "Compulsion," by Meyer Levin, later made into a movie; Alfred Hitchcock's movie "Rope"; Tom Kalin's black and white film "Swoon" (1992); and John Logan's play "Never the Sinner" (1997). "Thrill Me" is the first musical version.
Paul Conroy, formerly NTC's artistic director and now General Manager for Serenbe Playhouse, has returned to NTC to direct this show. Nick Silvestri is serving as music director, which he also does for professional theaters throughout the area, including Stage Door Players and Serenbe Playhouse.
The actors playing Leopold and Loeb are Jacob Demlow and Devin Johnson, both students at Columbus State, Georgia, studying theater. They have each played a leading role in an NTC summer youth production, Johnson in "Spring Awakening" and Demlow in "Urinetown."
"The whole show is just the two of them and a piano," said Conroy. "This will be the first ever musical in NTC's Black Box. I think it's a good place for a small musical. The singers won't have mics. The majority of the story takes place in a warehouse, so that's why I really want to do this show here - because it feels like a warehouse. The props will be wooden crates and pallets and maybe a couple of wooden chairs, and that's it."
Author Stephen Dolginoff is an award-winning playwright-composer. He shared his thoughts in a recent interview.
"Musical" and "murder:" can the two co-exist in a single play?
"Sometimes when people hear the term 'musical,' their minds automatically go to comedy. However, there are many musical dramas - the biggest one I can think of is "Les Miserables." Half the cast dies in it. That's the most dramatic musical you can imagine. People are also familiar with "Sweeney Todd" and "Phantom of the Opera." The fact that "Thrill Me" is a musical about a murder does not make it frivolous."
Why did you choose to write about the Leopold and Loeb story?
"I was interested in the ever-changing dynamics in a relationship: factors such as co-dependency and power plays. I also wanted to write about a true crime story. While pondering how I would approach this new project, I came across the story of Leopold and Loeb in a book about famous crimes and criminals, and I realized this story incorporated both my ideas: a true crime story and a relationship."
What do you think attracts audiences to this story?
"People are able to relate to it. Although the plot is about a horrible murder, what the characters are feeling seems to be universal. And it's just a good old-fashioned thriller. The bad guys get punished in the end. No one gets away with murder. And it's historical - a true story."
How does Frederic Nietzsche's concept of the superman figure into the motivation for the crime?
"This is a very important part of the true story, which is very much a cautionary tale. No one is above the law. We all know that. One of these guys was psychologically disturbed. It's one thing to read the writings of a philosopher such as Nietzsche and quite another try to apply his theories to the real world. So it's certainly something fascinating to see, and I think that while you empathize with at least one of the characters, the other one who is pushing this superman concept gets his just desserts. The scheme certainly backfires in his face. He discovers that he is not a superman and not above society and the law.
What became of these criminals after they were sentenced?
"Leopold, the 'weaker' of the two, the follower, survived prison and was eventually paroled. He's the one who dropped his glasses, which became an incriminating clue. Loeb is more of the leader, although the dynamics of that are questionable. In reality, he was stabbed to death in prison after about eight years. The 'Thrill Me' story is told in flashbacks through Leopold's eyes during his parole hearing.
"Leopold was granted parole in 1958 after 30 years in jail, and lived until 1974 in Puerto Rico. Ornithology was his hobby when he was young. In fact, he is depicted as bird watching in the first 1920s scene in the play. One of the excuses the two came up with when his glasses were found near the body was that he must have dropped them while bird watching. When he got older, he allowed himself to be a government test subject for vaccines. He did a lot of humanitarian things. He lived a very quiet life. "
How do you feel about "Thrill Me" being produced in Newnan?
"I'm just over the moon that the Newnan Theatre decided to do the show because it's a little on the risky side. Paul Conroy, who saw one of the first productions back in 2004 or so, was always interested in doing it. Now he has finally been able to make that happen at Newnan Theatre Company where he talked about doing it for years. So I'm very excited to see him able to pull that off. I think the audiences you have there are sophisticated and discerning, and I think they will really appreciate it. I thank everyone for coming to see it."
Like author Dolginoff, director Paul Conroy has pondered the subject of why audiences are drawn to stories about terrible crimes.
"I recently saw a production of the musical 'Chicago.' The whole point of that show is that we, as a society, sensationalize things that perhaps we shouldn't. We make celebrities out of people who don't necessarily deserve it. So I think that even though 'Thrill Me' is a story that took place eighty years ago, it's still relevant, and it's the type of thing that we watch, because if we didn't, there wouldn't be all those forensic shows. We wouldn't have the names of killers ingrained in our memories: Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley, Adam Lanza.
"That such a crime was even a possibility had not entered many people's minds before 1924. Since that time, it's become the basis of a lesson all parents teach their children. Leopold and Loeb just murdered that boy for the thrill. Now we know that behind such crimes there is some sort of brain disturbance and some sort of pattern that we can follow, but people couldn't follow it then. The whole show asks why we do the things we do."
"What is going on with Leopold and Loeb? There's a changing balance of power between them. When you think one of them has the power, the advantage switches to the other, back and forth. That's where the story gets into the gray area. What's the relationship between the two of them?
"The murder is the black. That's the period. But everything leading up to that is gray. We know that violence is wrong. But every one of us at some time has hit someone or pushed someone down. So on a smaller scale, you start to think, now why did I do that? So maybe there's a little bit in these two characters that will cause the audience to say, in a small glimmer, I see a piece of myself because I've done something similar for reasons I don't understand. As college kids, we all thought we could live forever and do no wrong. And these are just two college kids who thought the same."
"It's not a toe tapper. It's not happy. It's just the subject matter that is mature. But if you watch the History channel, you'll see the exact same thing."
"Thrill Me" opened Off-Broadway at the York Theatre in 2005. Dolginoff won an ASCAP Music Award for the score of the show, and was nominated for New York's Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and Best Music Score, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Best Off-Broadway Musical. In 2009, Dolginoff received a Los Angeles Garland Award honorable mention for the music and lyrics of "Thrill Me." The Los Angeles production was nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Musical in an Intimate Theatre.
The musical has been performed at regional theatres throughout the U.S., with Dolginoff appearing as Leopold in productions staged in Seattle and Buffalo. Internationally, the musical has been produced in Toronto, Canada, Seoul, South Korea (in Korean), Athens, Greece (in Greek), Melbourne, Australia, Tokyo, Japan (in Japanese), and Datteln, Germany (in German).
The show opens at Newnan Theatre Company on Thursday, April 3 and runs through April 14. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased through the NTC website, www.newnantheatre.org, or via phone by calling 770.683.6282.