Crimes of revenge, crimes of passion, crimes of opportunity—even comic crimes—misdemeanors and felonies of all types have provided fuel for drama since the days of Greek tragedy. The same is true today, and criminal activity can be found even in the relatively lighthearted world of musicals. Aside from the obvious, like Parade, The Scottsboro Boys, Assassins and others, police reports and news stories have provided the inspiration for more than one songwriter to take to the piano.
John Kander and Fred Ebb based their musical on a 1926 play of the same title by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune crime reporter whose own coverage of two sensational real-life murder trials for similar crimes proved irresistible as the subject of drama. The first was the 1924 trial of Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer charged with shooting her married lover, Walter Law, in a car and then abandoning the body next to a pistol and a bottle of Prohibition-era bootleg gin. Police tracked her down, but Gaertner said she had been drunk and couldn’t remember a thing. Her attorney convinced the jury that Law might have shot himself and Gaertner was eventually acquitted.
Watkins combined that story with one that occurred just weeks later when Beulah Annan, who was married to another man, jealously shot and killed her lover, Harry Kalstedt, as he was walking out on her. She also eventually was acquitted, having told the court that she fired in self-defense because “we both reached for the gun.” Though Gaertner and Annan did not know each other beforehand, they met in the Cook County Jail and became became rivals for tabloid headlines.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler based their 1979 musical on a play about the revenge-seeking barber who cut the throats of his customers, then handed them over to his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, to become meat pies. That play has antecedents in penny-dreadful novels and plays of the 19th century. Though his research has been scoffed at, historian Peter Haining claimed to have found “The truth about the real Sweeney Todd.” He claims Todd was born October 26, 1756, in Brick Lane, East London. Todd grew fascinated with the instruments of torture displayed in the Tower of London as a warning to miscreants. When his parents died young, the 14-year-old Todd became apprenticed to a cutler—one who makes and repairs knives and other cutting tools—who specialized in razors. When Todd landed in jail for petty theft, he attached himself to the prison’s barber.
Upon his release, he made his living as a street corner barber, opening a small shop and shacking up with a young woman whom he regularly abused. One day, a customer regaled Todd with the story of his previous night’s sexual adventures—describing a woman who matched Todd’s common-law wife. Enraged, Todd interrupted the man’s shave by slashing his throat from ear to ear.
The story might have ended here had Todd been caught, but he wasn’t—not yet. He began to kill prosperous-looking customers in order to rob them, but disposing of the bodies became a problem. Enter Margery (sometimes listed as Sarah) Lovett, who added the meat pie-baking dimension to the story. As in the musical and play, the smell from the shop soon attracted official attention. Mrs. Lovett was arrested and fingered Todd. Todd was tried and hanged for murder on January 25, 1802. Ironically, his body was turned over to the Royal College of Surgeons, who cut him up as neatly and professionally as he had done illegally so many times.
The Producers (2001)
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—with the unenviable job of defusing land mines in the fight against Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich—Melvin Kaminsky, later known as Mel Brooks, worked at a number of jobs in show business before breaking in as a standup comedian and later comedy writer. Among them was working for a down-at-heels would-be producer named Benjamin Kutcher, who raised money for his inevitably doomed projects by romancing elderly wealthy women. The job also gave Brooks the chance to observe other producers who maintained themselves in luxury by cooking the books while their shows failed around them. Brooks believed that the best way to “win” against monsters like Hitler was to ridicule them and take away their scary power. Somehow these ingredients—crooked bookkeeping, seducing elderly women for their money and laughing at Hitler—combined to give him the idea for a novel, later changed to a play, then a movie that ultimately became the Broadway smash hit The Producers.
Thou Shalt Not (2001)
This short-lived musical with music and lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr. and book by David Thompson, was adapted from the Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, which caused a sensation when it was published in 1867. (A non-musical adaptation of the novel appeared on Broadway earlier this season.) The novel was based on a simple newspaper story about an unhappily married woman and her lover who conspired to murder her husband, and then found themselves consumed with guilt. Zola changed the details of the story considerably, taking the reader inside the heads of the both the killers and the family of their victim. The musical took further liberties.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (2013)
The Tony Award-winning musical with book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by both, closely tracks the plot of the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets, which in turn was suggested by a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman, based on a real case. All deal with the same subject: A young man who murders his way to a title. The Jewish serial killer, Rank, becomes the half-Italian killer Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts, and finally the half-Spanish Monty Navarro in Gentleman’s Guide. The hard-edged, melodramatic and (some have said) anti-Semitic calculations of Rank were smoothed and made devilishly charming in the screenplay, an approach the Broadway writers adopted.
American Psycho (2016)
The musical, with a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and a score by Duncan Sheik, is based on the novel of the same title by Bret Easton Ellis, about a wealthy young investment banker during the Wall Street boom of the 1980s. By day, Patrick Bateman pursues a quiet, dull life, but by night he goes out on the town looking for victims to murder in increasingly grisly ways. Ellis said in an interview that he based Bateman’s isolation and alienation on his own during the period. He told an interviewer, “I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself, but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself.” Instead of committing murders, Ellis made up the idea of a serial killer based on a spate of serial killings at the time, including those of Ted Bundy (who raped and murdered 35 women) Richard Chase, “The Vampire of San Francisco,” whose exploits Ellis researched at the New York Public Library.
Bright Star (2016)
Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, who collaborated on this new musical, have said that show is based on the unsolved true story of the so-called “Iron Mountain Baby.” In 1902 a farmer named William Helms was passing a train trestle in rural Missouri when he heard a sound he took to be “field mice squeaking,” according to one account. Instead he found the sound was coming from a worn valise. Inside the valise was a crying, badly injured baby. Helms deduced that the valise and the baby had been thrown from a passing train. Helms and his wife raised the baby as their own child. But they always wondered: Why had the baby been thrown from the train, and by whom? Researchers have been unable to answer those tantalizing questions, but they inspired Martin and Brickell to fashion the musical that provides one fanciful answer.