It didn’t surprise me that Elden Street Players (ESP) would tackle Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story by Stephen Dolginoff. On their Web site, Past President Rich Klare writes “Our brand of theatre is not for everyone, for which we make no apologies. We try to offer theatre that is challenging and thought provoking, as well as entertaining.”
And that’s why I have been attending ESP’s productions for over two decades because they have produced plays and musicals that other local community theatres would not dare to touch (until ESP had done them) including La Cage aux Folles, Love! Valour! Compassion!, True West, The Weir, The Invention of Love, Boston Marriage, and The Violet Hour.
When I attended the Saturday, March 26th evening performance of Thrill Me …., I was impressed by the performances and singing of the two leads Christopher Smith and Matthew Scarborough, by Scott Richards’ piano accompaniment, and Lorraine Magee’s powerful direction. Chris and Matthew so ‘creeped me out’ that I had a very difficult time watching them. I can’t remember any other time where I had this experience in the theatre. And that’s why I wanted to hear from Christopher, Matthew, Lorraine, Scott and Producer Richard Durkin on why and how they ‘pulled it off’.
Richard Durkin (Producer)
Joel: Why did you want to produce Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Richard: I have produced several other shows for ESP, but Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story offered me the opportunity to work with Lorraine Magee, whose work I had seen in several other shows, and to fill the gap of providing a producer who had Elden Street Players connections and could thus facilitate coordination with other volunteers. It also used my project management skills: delivering a high quality production. Having a small budget and a tight production schedule provided a very effective challenge.
Had you seen the show before?
No, but I read the script, which was quite interesting.
Why was it so important to you that the show be seen by local theatergoers?
The Elden Street Players strive to present lesser-known shows, or shows that present technical challenges such as our recent production of Ovid’s classic tales performed in a 1,000 gallon onstage pool in Metamorphoses. Regional premieres serve such a purpose well, and this show also allows audience members to look at historical events with an eye to understanding what happened 87 years ago. And it is not an abstract topic – the names Leopold and Loeb are well-known today in Chicago, and the “why” is still subject to interpretation.
What was the reaction of the ESP board and Artistic Director when you first brought them the idea of producing this show?
At ESP, the Director proposes one or more shows, and the ESP Artistic Director selects potential shows for the next season. This show was voted to be a good fit for The Elden Street Players, as we seek to artistically challenge the audience.
What has been the audience reaction?
The audience has responded well to the production. While we had two people walk out during the opening night show, one of whom later expressed concern over the difficult subject matter, others have appreciated how well it was presented. In fact, at the April 3rd show, three people in front of me were moved to call out “NO!” when Nathan Leopold agreed to go along with his partner’s plea on the negotiated terms for their going to prison. It is a show that fully engages the audience’s attention.
What are you producing next?
I will be producing Many Moons, an ESP Theatre for Young Audiences show about a princess who wants the moon. It is adapted from a James Thurber story, and promises to be lighter in tone than the current production.
Matthew Scarborough (Richard Loeb) and Christopher Smith (Nathan Leopold)
Joel: Tell me about Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold and how you relate to them.
Matthew: Richard is a “textbook Superman” and considers himself to be “above all of society”, and as such, he feels that whether any given action is right or wrong is entirely his prerogative. He is fully aware, however, of what society considers to be wrong (arson, burglary, murder), and the attention that he gets (even only from Nathan). Committing these crimes ‘thrills’ him. While I have no criminal background, I can certainly relate to Richard’s ambition, his sense of humor, his intellectual curiosity, and his delight in getting attention.
Christopher: I portray Nathan Leopold. This production has a unique challenge of portraying Nathan at the age of 53 and also as a young man of 19. The basic premise of the play is the telling of the story from Nathan’s point of view during a parole hearing.
Although this production is based on the factual murder that took place, this incarnation of the story really explores the relationship between its two perpetrators. Many people would like to believe they’d do anything when it comes to protecting the people that they love. However, this production explores how far one might actually go to be with someone that they love.
Nathan, himself, wants desperately to be loved by Richard. He is definitely intelligent and articulate, but lacks the emotional maturity to be in a relationship. He clearly knows what is right and wrong, but his judgment often becomes obscured by his other emotions. During the course of events, he certainly makes some bad choices and does have regrets which are expressed periodically throughout the play. How many of us in real life have not done something that we regret especially when we have the emotional maturity to examine our adolescent actions as adults?
In some ways, I believe that we all can relate to Nathan. We all have the need for validation and acceptance by those we love and admire. In Nathan’s case, he needs that validation and acceptance of his “close” friend Richard Loeb. It was a very co-dependent relationship.
Joel: Why did you want to play Richard and Nathan?
Matthew: After seeing the film adaptation of Cabaret in college, I pointed out that I’d love to play the Emcee onstage one day; a friend of mine chuckled and said that I was too “nice” to play a character with any sort of sinister qualities. Playing Richard has been, among other things, an opportunity to see if (1) he was correct, or (2) if I could indeed shed the “disturbingly wholesome” impression that folks had of me.
Christopher: I’ve always believed that the journey of discovery, the preparation process of acting, allows for the exploration of a character and his motivations. As actors, we look for those emotional contexts that we can connect with and bring to the character. For Thrill Me… I was attracted to the complexity of the character and the challenge of learning about the history and motivations of Nathan. In addition, a small show in terms of cast (size: 2) was very attractive. Working with a small ensemble can provide a wonderful opportunity to work with the cast and artistic staff for the exploration of the script and characters.
Joel: What were auditions like and what did you sing and perform?
Matthew: We were all asked to sing individually; I performed both “I Hold Your Hand In Mine” from Tomfoolery and “Once In Love With Amy” from Where’s Charley? Our next step was reading two scenes from the show and singing through two songs – “Nothing Like A Fire” and “Roadster”.
Christopher: Lorraine and Scott provided an atmosphere where each person who auditioned was given the opportunity to present their very best. As a performer, my goal is to perform well enough to get to a call back. Therefore, I typically use the song “Tonight” from West Side Story. Although this selection might not be related necessarily to the role for which I am auditioning, it does show a vocal range and a basic musicality. If I’m selected for callbacks, that is the real opportunity to shine and put your best foot forward.
Joel: What were some of the challenges you faced preparing for your performance?
Matthew: Most of the roles that I’ve played in the past – a singing waiter in an Italian farce, an Oscar Wilde leading man, a Gilbert & Sullivan contralto – have all been, to a certain extent, caricatures. Richard, on the other hand, needs to be a character rather than a caricature. My primary challenge in playing him was seriously asking the classic question: “What’s my motivation?” and having an answer ready for his every word and action.
Christopher: Being part of a two character musical, there is a lot of material to explore and learn. As a result, it took quite a bit of time to get an understanding of the story and characters. In addition, Nathan is portrayed at two different ages. This requires attempting to find a characterization the links the two together yet has enough distinctions by which the audience can easily identify the different ages.
Joel: How did you prepare for your role?
Matthew: I read a number of articles and accounts describing both Richard and Nathan and the crime itself. This included Nathan’s confession to the police, which was remarkably detailed. I also pored through photographs of the two in order to observe how they dressed and carried themselves.
Christopher: I spent a lot of time working with the script and score. This was the primary source material by which I created the character. However, I did spend a little time online researching the real Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Joel: What advice did Director Lorraine Magee give you that helped shape your performance?
Matthew: Lorraine had no shortage of useful advice to impart, but one particular example stands out: she had us read through the lyrics to every song as if they were dialogue, which helped me a great deal in putting equal emphasis on both the words and the music. In one instance, I ended up speaking a lyric with a completely different emotion than when I sang it. We agreed that the former emotion served the lyric better, and I made sure to incorporate it while singing from that point onwards. Lorraine also lead us through a very meticulous process of determining the motivation behind each of our characters’ words and actions, which was a great help to me in making Richard a living, breathing entity.
Christopher: Lorraine and the artistic staff provided an emotionally safe environment for exploration of the characters. We were all able to collaborate together by having general discussions of the characters as presented through the script and score. It is like a puzzle to examine the information provided by the author and composer in order to understand the characters and the story. Lorraine allowed us as actors to come to our own conclusions about the motivations and actions of the story. She would guide us through making our choices as actors and challenge our decisions to ensure that we all understood the characters in the same manner. She once described to me that her job as a director is like a gardener where if you provide the correct environment (rich soil, sunlight, water, etc.) along with the nurturing (pruning, weeding, planting, etc.), you end up with a beautiful landscape for all to see and enjoy
Joel: What’s it like playing Richard and Leopold? Are there times in the show when you have said to yourself, “This is too creepy. Why am I playing this psycho?”
Matthew: Part of fleshing Richard out into a real character onstage has been finding as much common ground with him as possible; while it’s no fun to acknowledge that you share certain character traits with a murderer, I’ve accepted that Richard and I are indeed alike in a number of ways. Ultimately, however, I’m not above society, so playing him has never felt too creepy or unsettling.
Christopher: I think what Nathan and Richard did in real life is creepy. However, there has never been a time where I thought playing the character was creepy. I tend to be a physical actor as opposed to a method actor. Therefore, getting into and out of character for me starts and ends with a change of physicality rather than an emotional context. I’ve enjoyed participating in the process of creating the character along with the artistic staff and the challenge of bringing Nathan to life on the stage.
Joel: Talk about Stephen Dolginoff’s score.
Matthew: The first thing that struck me about Stephen’s music was the stylistic variety from song to song: “Everybody Loves Richard” is a rollicking piano boogie, and “Way Too Far” is a gorgeously melancholic ballad. The second thing that struck me about Stephen’s music was what Frank Zappa would have called its “conceptual continuity”. In addition to the standard musical fare of reprises, I truly appreciate how different songs with similar thematic content occasionally share musical material. For example, Richard tries to lure a child into his grasp in “Roadster,” and he tries to lure Nathan into his grasp in “Keep Your Deal With Me” and he sings the same melody in both songs.
Christopher: Stephen’s music is fascinating. It provides a backbone for the entire piece. The use of minor keys helps to set the mood by providing an uneasy feeling. It moves the story forward by providing an emotional context within the phrasing and dynamics of the music. In addition, the use of various musical styles provides a rich experience for both the performers and the audience.
Joel: Which one of your songs was/were the most difficult to learn and perform?
Matthew: All of my songs were equally difficult to learn, but “Afraid” remains the most difficult to perform; it is the only song in which Richard lets his guard down and allows his crippling fear to come through (and only because he surmises that Nathan is asleep and cannot hear him). It took a fair amount of guidance from Lorraine and Scott for me to let my own guard down and sing from a place of fear rather than anger (which was my initial inclination given the song’s placement in the show).
Christopher: The most difficult song for me is “Way Too Far”. Most of the theater roles that I have had the privilege of performing do not need to dig into the dark emotional context that is necessary for this particular piece. Finding and presenting the emotions required by this song in front of an audience is not an easy thing to do, at least for me.
Joel: What have you learned from Musical Director Scott Richards?
Matthew: Three words: ‘diction, diction, and diction’. Scott is a formidable stickler for detail, and we worked a great deal on enunciation to ensure that every syllable in every song was clear as crystal. What good are lyrics if you can’t understand them? In addition, Scott frequently shook things up within rehearsal of a song (e.g. asking me to sing with my eyes closed, asking me to sing every single syllable staccato) in order to help my delivery, my appreciation for why certain elements of the music were written the way they were, etc.
Christopher: Scott brings an immense love for the piece along with an incredible musical talent. I’ve been aware of his work for many years and have always hoped for an opportunity to work with him. He brings and shares his quintessential understanding of the musical genre to the table. He implicitly realizes the importance of phrasing and dynamics in support of the story as well as the technical needs of the singer. He really helped us as actors to understand the authors’ intent in the score and story through the use of dynamics and musical composition.
Joel: What has been the audience reaction?
Matthew: I’ve been hearing almost unanimously that the production is terrific and that our audiences want to go home and take a cold shower and/or throw up. I work during the day as an instructional assistant in two elementary school autism classrooms; co-workers who have come to see the show have been blown away, but thankfully still trust me to work with children.
Christopher: Most of the time from the stage it is very difficult to gauge the audience reaction as I am unable to see them because of the lights and because the piece is to be performed without eliciting applause. However, there have been a few moments where I have heard audience reactions to certain choices that Nathan makes which I find fascinating. In particular, there is a scene where Nathan decides not to betray Richard and to stand with him instead of saving himself. One night, I could actually hear a lady in the audience say – “Don’t do it. Save yourself. Why would you do that?” This is a great compliment because it means that the audience is genuinely interested in the story and what is happening to the characters.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Matthew: If all goes according to plan, I will be working as a teacher come this September, which will necessitate a brief hiatus from auditioning for shows while I acclimate myself to the profession. My dream, however, remains to produce, direct, and star in a one-man production of The Vagina Monologues.
Christopher: I do not currently have anything on the horizon.
Joel: Why should audiences come to see Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story?
Matthew: It’s often tempting to dismiss people like Nathan and Richard as monsters, given their unfathomable actions. To dehumanize the two of them, however, is to deny that, given the right circumstances, we all are capable of doing despicable things. This show serves as a cheery reminder of this fact. Also, the music is damned catchy.
Christopher: I think audiences today tend to enjoy the investigation of the criminal motivations. Just look at the success of television series like Law and Order, CSI, or Bones. Anybody who enjoys watching these programs would enjoy this well crafted theatrical piece.
Lorraine Magee (Director) and Scott Richards (Musical Director)
Joel: Why did you want to direct and musical direct Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story?
Lorraine: I tend to seek out shows that (a) have not been produced yet in this area and (b) deal with issues that make many people uncomfortable (the last 2 plays I directed were area premieres about families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer). When Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story came to my attention, it seemed to meet those preliminary requirements. Plus, I was intrigued; I’ve been fascinated by murder/murderers since childhood, am a huge fan of Assassins and Sweeney Todd, and was drawn to the idea of this very intimate musical about the infamous Leopold & Loeb.
Then, I got the script and CD. I was blown away by the dark but very musically varied score, the clever text/lyrics, and the fearlessness with which Stephen Dolginoff expresses the boys’ fears and desires, via both the words and the musical choices. And, frankly, I admired the chutzpah it took to create this spellbinding piece. I wanted to encourage that effort by introducing the show to a new audience.
It was clear that the script took some liberties with the facts, but, overall, it expressed a truth that was not clear in other versions of the story. And, in the end, that story, as told in Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story is more universal than its title suggests. At its most obvious, it is about how Nathan and Richard came to commit the murder and how it affected them, Nathan in particular. On a more universal level, however, it’s about how far a person, any person, can go to impress or win the love and acceptance of another. Who among us hasn’t done something for someone we “love” or admire, only to find, later, that we are ashamed or full of regret for doing that thing we knew, deep down, was wrong?
This story also touches on the idea of exceptionality/superiority, which I find particularly relevant/interesting in light of current events. There are people in this world who, like Richard, deem themselves and/or their causes to be so superior to others that they behave as if the rules don’t apply to them. The thing is, the Richards of the world are rarely able to accomplish their selfish ends without some assistance from others. They charm and suck the Nathans of the world into their schemes and the Nathans don’t realize what they have gotten themselves into until it’s too late. By then, they are changed forever.
So, for me, the piece provided an opportunity to explore some very interesting themes in a theatrical context that was a bit outside my norm. I’d directed small cast plays before that dealt with difficult issues, but never a cast of only 2 and never anything so dark. I’d directed musicals before, but never anything with a solo piano and never anything that didn’t involve a lot of choreography. Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story presented a challenge I found irresistible.
Scott: I love “dark” shows – as a Musical Director, not only do I find them to be more musically interesting than the standard “boy meets girl, happy ever after” musicals, but they are often much more challenging to pull off. I often tell people that I can usually gauge whether I will find a show musically “interesting” after literally listening to just one measure of the Prologue/Overture. And once I heard the first 4 notes of “Thrill Me…”, I said “that’s my type of show”. Plus, I am a pianist at heart, and I love doing solo piano work with singers. So coming off of Music Directing “West Side Story” where I had a 21-piece orchestra to manage, to being able to do an intense, challenging solo piano piece was very appealing to me.
I also relished the opportunity to get to work with Lorraine, who I have admired for years as a performer, choreographer, and director. hen she approached me, it had been 6 years since we had worked together (I was the Asst. Music Director of a show that she acted in), and I was thrilled (pardon the pun) that she asked. We’d never before worked as Director/Music Director, so that was a huge draw for me.
Joel: How did you prepare to direct and musical direct the show?
Lorraine: In late 2008, ESP invited me to submit a proposal for a show I would like to direct. Todd Huse (Artistic Director at the time) encouraged me to submit a musical, and Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story seemed a perfect choice for ESP’s audience (which is used to things that are more “cutting edge”) and the intimate, flexible nature of the Industrial Strength Theater. I had already shared the musical with Scott and we applied as a team.
My primary source of information in preparing any show is the script itself. I read it over and over, taking notes on, among other things, (a) the text and what it says about the characters, the story, its flow, and choices that we (i.e., me, Scott, the actors) have to make, (b) technical requirements, whether explicit (dictated by the author) or implicit (based on the pictures forming in my head), and (c) random thoughts that pop into my head (e.g., themes, story arc, what I want the audience to feel at a particular point, etc.).
Those notes are revised and updated from the moment I decide I want to direct the show thru dress rehearsals. I look at reviews of other productions to see what other audiences took from the show and where those productions may have fallen short so I can try to avoid the same problems. Scott and I also researched the historical record; we both read several books on the case, as well as what is available on the Internet (which is pretty extensive, thanks to some university archives), and had numerous discussions about it. While all that was going on, I put together the best team of artists/technicians I could find who (a) had the skills and experience to help me make my vision a reality (b) loved and understood the show the way I did and (c) would work well together.
Scott: Lorraine approached me way back in the fall of 2008 and gave me a copy of the script and CD. I had never heard of the show, and embarrassing to say, I had not heard of Leopold and Loeb. But when I heard the CD and read the script, it was “love at first listen/read”. I did a lot of reading about Leopold and Loeb to try to understand more about the actual individuals. Lorraine and I had a lot of discussions about our joint ‘vision’ for the show, and we were completely on the same page. We felt that it was more of a ‘drama with music’ than a musical and that we wanted to treat it as such.
Joel: What were some of the challenges you faced directing the show?
Lorraine: I suppose our greatest challenge was feeling our way through the process we developed for rehearsals. Scott and I had agreed, early on, that we saw this show not so much as a musical, but as a suspense drama with music. As a result, we planned the rehearsal process to proceed in a manner more akin to the process used for a play. Rather than treat music, blocking, and character development as separate entities, we worked on all those things one scene at a time. We spent a great deal of time working on the text, on talking through songs, and on discussing what the score could tell us about character (e.g., where the author’s choice of a quarter note versus a whole note told us something about what was being said). It was fascinating and fun, but different from anything any of us had done before and, thus, challenging.
The other major challenge was dealing with all the transitions. Audiences are used to applauding after musical numbers. We wanted the audience to treat this show like a play and let the tension build without the emotional release that comes with applause. “No applause” was also a specific goal expressed to us by the author. Making that happen without making the audience feel we are ignoring (or, worse, rejecting) them is very difficult and is a challenge we continue to deal with in production.
Joel: How would you describe Stephen’s score for Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story?
Scott: Intense! The first time I heard it, I was literally squirming in my chair – that’s how I knew it was good. After I listened to it the first time, I tried listening again, and I could not get through the whole thing without having to turn off the CD – it just made me too uncomfortable. Finally, after a few weeks, I was able to get through the whole CD again.
When I do a show, I want to find one key emotion and strive musically to have the audience feel that emotion. I knew that this would be an opportunity for me to bring out a very different type of emotion in the audience than I’d ever done before.
Joel: What impresses you most about the score?
Scott: The fact that you know from the very first measure of the Prologue that this is going to be a dark and unsettling show, but then Stephen manages to continue that underlying tension for the next 80 minutes. His ‘directive’ in the score to not allow any applause throughout the show only helps to accentuate this tension.
Joel: Have you gained more respect and more insight into Stephen’s score and lyrics now that you have performed it?
Scott: Absolutely. Throughout the rehearsal process, it was fun to keep coming across little musical “nuggets” that he had buried in the lyrics or accompaniment, and performing it for a live audience was even more gratifying.
Joel: Which song is your favorite? And the most difficult to play?
Scott: My favorite song in this show seems to vary from month to month(!), but overall I think “Roadster” is my favorite. It is incredibly slow, soft, and ominous, and you rarely see that type of number in a musical. Each night, I have to really force myself to keep it as slow as it needs to be, because the tendency, just like in conversation, is to avoid “dead space” (i.e. when the actor isn’t singing and there is just a musical chord ‘lingering’ underneath with nothing else happening.) But to evoke the most musical tension possible, I force myself to keep it slow and plodding, which hopefully adds to the ‘creepiness factor’.
The most difficult to play is probably the title song, “Thrill Me” because of the multiple minor-third descending runs that need to be played at a very fast pace. Stephen uses this musical figure again in the “Finale” and also in the last few measures of the Exit Music (just to keep the pianist on his toes until the very end of the show!).
Joel: Talk about working with Scott on this production. Why did you decide to use just a piano?
Lorraine: Solo piano was not my decision but is dictated by the score. Once I knew that, I knew I wanted to work with Scott. He is an amazing pianist, an extremely detailed musical director (addicted to diction, among other things), and a warm, effective teacher. Based on our prior work together (Scott was Asst. Musical Director on one show I was in and another that I choreographed), I believed we had compatible styles and complimentary skill sets that would result in a successful collaboration. My only question was whether or not he would be as in love with this show as I was. Once that question was answered in the affirmative, the collaboration was total. I cannot think of any decision about the performances that did not involve some input from both of us. We worked together with the actors on every scene, I shared my thoughts on music issues and Scott shared his on the acting & blocking. We were on the same page 95% of the time or more, and the few times we had differences of opinion, we each had so much respect for the other’s point of view that we always, and easily, came to the resolution that we thought best served the actors and the show. Oh, and that jail cell door sound effect at the very beginning of the show: Scott’s idea. Brilliant.
Joel: What’s impressed you about Christopher and Richard’s performances?
Lorraine: I think the more important question is how would you or the rest of the audience describe them? But, anyway…. Aside from the fact that they both sing beautifully, I think Matthew portrays Richard’s intelligence, humor, and selfishness in a way that is truly scary and Christopher brings such sincerity and innocence to “young” Nathan, and such a bitter weariness to “old” Nathan that the twist toward the end of the show is surprising and, yet, completely believable. I am most impressed by what Scott, Chris, and Matt accomplish musically. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I am jealous of their skills in that area.
Scott: This show is a beast for the 2 actors – they are literally onstage from beginning to end, with no break, no time to recharge, and no applause from the audience to give them any sort of feel as to how they’re doing (the show is written to not allow applause until the end). Chris and Matt have very different vocal styles which work great together in this show. Matt impressed me with his amazing consistency in that he took every musical critique I gave him during rehearsal and immediately incorporated it into his performance – and then did it that way every night thereafter. Chris had the added burden of having to sing as both a 53-year old man and as a 19-year old boy – I was greatly impressed at how he was able to adjust his voice to project that distinction while singing, while also adjusting his physical movements to enhance this differentiation.
Joel: How do Grant Kevin Lane’s set, Stan Harris’s sound design and Tom Epps’ lighting design contributes to the ‘mood’ of the production?
Lorraine: This play takes place in two places: The prison/parole board hearing in 1958 and Nathan’s memory of various Chicago locales in 1924. We never wanted the audience to forget that the primary locale is the prison and Nathan’s primary goal is approval from the parole board/freedom, although we spend the majority of our time in Nathan’s memory. Thus, everything on the set relates either to prison, to memory, or to both.
The overall design is an abstract reference to an old attic/storage place, and the asymmetrical shape and use of shades of grey represent the unreliability of memory and the wisdom of maturity; memory is skewed and, upon reflection, nothing is ever really black and/or white. The crates are representative of the weight of memory; we may try to hide the past or put it away, but it remains a part of us, taking up space in and affecting our lives. Surrounding all of this are the prison bars (up-center), the vertical elements elsewhere on the set, and the many lines created by the decking, which not only help to define particular playing areas, but also are constant reminders of prison.
Nathan’s discussions with the parole board/audience are limited to floor and stair spaces that are literally and figuratively between the places in his memory. Tom’s stark lighting and Stan’s slow and deliberate sound design in those scenes highlight the cold reality of the prison. In contrast, the platforms on which many of the memory scenes are played have visible empty spaces on and below them, suggesting gaps in memory. Lights in these scenes are warmer and the 1924 costumes and certain props are vivid colors that contrast with the set, indicating that Nathan’s memory of 1924 may be more “alive” than he is/feels in 1958. Lighting in these scenes also involves higher contrast of light and shadow, both to help define locale (the bright lights of an afternoon in Jackson Park versus the darker woods of the nighttime murder scene) and to highlight the skewed nature of memory (some facts stand out clearly while others are hidden).
Joel: What has impressed you most about this production?
Scott: This show was deceptively difficult to pull off. You think “only 2 actors, must be simple”, but it was anything but. The thing that impressed me the most about this production was Lorraine’s incredible passion for the show and the way that she worked with Chris and Matt on the most minute details to ensure that every little thing was done correctly. This is a show that really makes you think, and she spent a lot of time working with both Chris and Matt on really “getting into the heads” of Leopold and Loeb and trying to imagine what they were thinking when they were plotting and carrying out this horrific crime. It wasn’t “go act this scene”, but “do you think Loeb was really sincere when he told Nathan xxxxx”, and “what do you think Nathan was feeling as he was helping Richard do these things”, etc.? This led to numerous lengthy discussions that really helped to meld the characters in the show.
Joel: What has the audience reaction to the show been?
Lorraine: Audiences seem sucked into the story pretty easily, but they are often so quiet once the house lights come on at the end of the show, it’s a bit weird. We hope, of course, that they are quiet because they are uncomfortable. Some shows make you feel happy; some shows make you feel sad. This show, if it touches you, should leave you feeling uncomfortable and kind of dirty. I get the general sense that we’ve accomplished that and the few audience members who have made comments to me have confirmed it. One woman said she felt like throwing up, and I think that’s fabulous.
The thing that surprises me most is how little people laugh during the show. I find some of the lines/lyrics extremely funny, and each night, while I hear a few chuckles and see a few smiles at those moments, I get the sense that most folks feel it’s inappropriate to laugh out loud.
Scott: Because one of Stephen’s goals was to eliminate all applause during the show, this creates a challenge in getting any sort of feedback as the show is progressing as to how the audience is feeling about it. However, the response afterwards has been very positive. A few people have said that they really don’t ‘get’ the show or that the show is “weird”, which is totally fair, since it’s definitely not for everyone. We never expected every single audience member to ‘love’ the show. But even if they don’t like the show or don’t ‘get it’, if they leave feeling ‘uneasy’, ‘creeped out’, or any other unique emotion that they haven’t felt before, I feel we’ve accomplished our goal. And your comment, Joel, that we “creeped out a gay man”, is the ultimate compliment!”
Joel: How many showers have you taken since returning home since performances have begun?
Scott: Now that I’ve actually played the score about 100 or more times, I don’t feel that need any more – but I hope the audience does!
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Scott: I’m going to be taking a break for a while to spend some time at home with my wife and my new puppy. I’m the President of Rockville Musical Theatre, so I will be working with the rest of my Board members to support our upcoming productions of Annie, in July and Kiss Me, Kate in the fall, and helping to choose next year’s season. I think I may need some counseling sessions to transition from Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story to Annie!
Joel: Why should audiences come and see Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story?
Lorraine: Tired of the musicals that have been done to death? Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story is unlike any musical you have ever seen. The Washington area premiere of this Off-Broadway hit has two talented men, an amazing solo piano, a murder, and a surprise ending. We’re not in Oklahoma anymore, Guys and Dolls. (wink-wink)
Scott: You can almost always look in the paper or online and find a musical that will make you laugh or cry. But how often can you go see a show that elicits such unique emotions as you will (hopefully) feel when coming to see Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
And here’s what composer/lyricist/book writer Stephen Dolginoff said he wanted audiences to take with them after seeing Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story: “I want audiences to feel they have experienced something unique and chilling, be surprised by the twist ending, and have a positive feeling about the piece of theatre they have seen – regardless of how they feel about the actual story it depicts.”
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story plays through April 16th at Elden Street Players – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For more information, directions, and to purchase tickets, click here.
From the PBS Broadcast of the 51st Annual Drama Desk Awards. Writer/composer Stephen Dolginoff and Doug Kreeger perform the song “SUPERIOR” from the Drama Desk nominated Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.
Here is Stephen Dolginoff’s bio and links to articles, reviews, and interviews of several productions of Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.
Purchase the Off-Broadway cast CD on the show’s website.