The murder mystery Perfect Crime has been running Off-Broadway since 1987, and a lot of things have changed in the last 30 years. So what happens when a show was very much a product of its time? Most theatre folk would say to leave it in its time, but author Warren Manzi wanted the show to remain contemporary. So over the years, first the author (until he passed away in 2016) and now general manager and star Catherine Russell continued to make changes to the script and staging to help it remain current.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Russell herself, who earned a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records for playing Margaret Brent at every performance of the show since its opening (except four, when she helped with her sister’s wedding). Who better to walk us through the Top 11 things about this Off-Broadway phenomenon that have kept its creators jumping. The list offers lessons for all long-running shows
The Tape Recorder
The show used an old-fashioned (even in 1987) reel-to-reel tape recorder to record a key message from a character who was dying. Replacing it with cell phone message or something similar would seem to be a no brainer—but it turned out not to be quite so easy.
“The technology after someone dies is very strange,” Russell says. “It’s hard to unlock things if you don’t know the password. Our company treasurer’s husband died last year and she’s having terrible trouble getting the information she needs from his phone. But we need to be able to hear that recording right away. So we changed the line in the show. Now, we say, ‘I notice you still have a reel-to-reel tape recorder.’ And she replies, ‘It belonged to my father.’ It’s the same Akai GX-4000D machine we’ve been using for a long time. We lost one along the way, but this one has been here for years.“
The Smoking Gun
The literal gun that is fired in this murder mystery hasn’t changed much itself. But people’s reaction to it has.
“At the beginning of the play I shoot someone,” Russell says. “I used to to come onto the stage and shoot [blanks] out to the audience, directly into the house. Bang! Bang! Bang! Well, you just can’t do that anymore. We’ve changed the blocking so I now point it into wings, house left. But people still jump a little bit when they see it.”
The TV Set
Television references and technology has changed a great deal, and Perfect Crime has updated to keep up. “We used to wheel out a big old television set on a cart. We decided that everybody has flat-screens now, so we got one and put it in the bookcase. It makes more sense.”
Similarly, in one scene the audience sees Russell’s character watching herself being interviewed on TV. “I used to say I was taping it; now I say I’m DVR-ing it.“
“Originally we used a dial phone,” Russell says. “I used to ask the operator if she could find someone on their car phone, because in 1987 people had car phones. Now, of course, it's all cell phones, which became widely used about four years into our run. When they first came out, they were the size of a quart of milk. This play takes place in Windsor Locks in rural Connecticut. My mother lives in Connecticut and I can tell you that frequently the cell phone service is really bad. So it's not unlikely that someone might still have to use a land line to reach someone there."
TV Talk Shows
To indicate how important the Margaret Brent character was supposed to be, she originally said she was getting interviewed about her book on The Phil Donahue Show. When that went off the air in 1996, it was easy to switch over to Oprah Winfrey. But when Winfrey’s show went off network TV in 2011, no one took a similarly iconic place. In the end, Perfect Crime went with doing the interview on "the morning shows.“
The Cost of Things
Inflation since the 1980s has been steady but slow. The changing cost of things has tended to sneak up on the show as the decades have crept along. “For years we had a line saying, “You wear $10 pants and $5 shoes.“ A writer from Cornell Alumni News who came to see the show to interview me said that it stuck out as being a little too low. We changed it to $15 shoes.”
A scene in which a character is offered money to go into a pond and search for a dead body originally mentioned $50, which seemed reasonably enticing in 1987. The amount has gradually been increased to $200.
Similarly, the amount of income considered impressive has gradually increased.
Margaret’s husband’s fortune had increased from $10 million to $50 million. Now it’s $600 million.
“People will send an email, when something doesn’t sound right. Sometimes it will just strike one of us. But a lot of changes come out of discussions in the lobby after show.”
What was chic in 1987 definitely isn’t in 2017.
“As time has gone on, my eveningwear especially has undergone a change,” Russell says. “I originally wore a terrifying, bizarre, long white dress that was definitely 1980s. I’m playing someone who is supposed to have a lot of money, and at the time it was appropriate, I guess.
“Now I wear a really pretty white and silver Dolce and Gabbana dress that is a hand-me-down from my sister, who bought it for work. It looks like money but it’s actually more like Salvation Army.
“Also, my hair has changed a lot. I was brunette when the show opened. Now I’m a blonde covering up the gray. I tell people I’m not getting older, I’m getting blonder. The wonderful thing about theatre is that you can age more gracefully than on television.”
The Performing Space Itself
Though Perfect Crime may seem like it’s been at the Theatre Center on the corner of Broadway and 50th Street forever, it has actually moved nine times over the years. From the Courtyard Playhouse on Grove Street, the show moved to Second Stage for the summer, then to the 47th Street Theatre, then to INTAR, and to the Harold Clurman Theatre, then back to the 47th Street, then to Theatre 4, then back once again to 47th Street. The show then lived for more than a decade at the Duffy Theatre in a converted strip club at the corner of 45th Street and Broadway in the middle of Times Square until 2005 when it was demolished to make way for the current skyscraper there.
“When we took over the lease we found a mixture of crucifixes, KY Jelly, condoms, and Mothers Day cards all thrown together,” Russell says. “We took out the runway, cleaned it up, and it was a great location.“
They named the theatre after Father Duffy, the World War I hero priest whose statue stands in the north quadrant of Times Square. What better way to quell the space’s salacious stigma than to name it after a priest? “He never did anything wrong so no one is every going to try to take his statue down,” Russell said.
Perfect Crime has made its home at the Theatre Center, a former beauty school, since 2005.
When the show first opened they used tickets literally made out of construction paper by hand in the box office. Russell remains grateful that when she would bring the extra tickets to TKTS discount booth manager Jimmy Gates, “He didn’t laugh at me, didn’t make fun of me.”
Perfect Crime has long since switched to printed or electronic tickets.
Bonus: But Some Things Don’t Change
Four pieces of the set, including the fireplace and bookcase, were inherited from a previous show, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, and have accompanied Perfect Crime on all its peregrinations.
And of course Russell herself continues to play eight performances a week. Would she ever consider letting an alternate play matinees, like some other grande dames of the stage? “I wouldn’t think of doing it. That’s for sissies.”