January 19, 2020

Making the murderer of ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” the musical currently at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a jaunty tale about a serial killer. But he’s hardly Sweeney Todd.

Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) is an impoverished young man in Edwardian England who has just learned he is actually an aristocrat. Turns out his recently deceased mother was booted out of her snobbish family decades earlier because she dared to marry a poor Castilian. Monty is a likeable gentleman, but the woman he loves won’t marry him because he’s a pauper. So he is beyond intrigued when he discovers that only eight relatives stand between him and the family dukedom.  Heads begin to roll — literally — as Monty starts bumping off those inconvenient next of kin.

One of the production’s hilarious conceits is having one actor (John Rapson) play all eight victims — male and female — from the noble D’Ysquith clan.  

The comedic romp won four Tony Awards in 2014, including best musical and best book for Robert Freedman, who is also the musical’s co-lyricist. Freedman’s fellow lyricist is Steven Lutvak, who earned a Tony nomination for penning the show’s score with Freedman.

During a recent interview at Art’s Deli in Studio City, Freedman described the challenges of making a multiple murderer the good guy. “We had to be sure he came off as the underdog, so you feel for his plight,” said Freedman, who lives in Sherman Oaks. “And we were careful to make every single person he kills so totally odious and hateable.  They’re all privileged and wealthy, rude and hypocritical haves who don’t care about the have-nots.”

Even Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, who aspires to philanthropy, “just wants to use that to elevate her status,” Freedman said. “She has less interest in the ‘poor, disgusting lepers’ of India, as she calls them, than cementing her place in society.”

Having one actor portray all the D’Ysquiths “allows viewers to laugh at the murders, because they know that this character will be coming back,” Lutvak said in a telephone interview from his New York home.

It doesn’t hurt that Lutvak and Freedman went out of their way to make the murders amusing and over-the-top, including when a profoundly untalented actress accidentally gets her head blown off after Morty puts real bullets in a prop gun. Another D’Ysquith’s decapitated head pops off his neck like a Champagne cork. “It’s funny; it’s not like Anne Boleyn,” Freedman said. Yet another D’Ysquith is stung to death by bees chasing him as he frenetically runs back and forth across the stage, while Monty and his wife-to-be sing a tender duet in the foreground.

Freedman and Lutvak, both raised in traditional Jewish homes, said they identify with Monty’s outsider status. “I’m a gay man who just got married, when I had never previously imagined a world in which I could ever get married,” Lutvak said.

Freedman, a longtime member of Adat Ari El, noted that, “As a Jew, you’re always aware of history. And there’s nothing quite as shocking to me right now as the anti-Semitism going on in Europe and on college campuses.”

Lutvak, 56, grew up in a “modern kosher home” in Queens and on Long Island; his greatest sin, as a teenager, was serving Kentucky Fried Chicken to his friends on the family’s dinner plates. His parents came home early and discovered the travesty. “I think we ran the plates through the dishwasher twice,” Lutvak recalled.

As a young man, Lutvak first earned acclaim as a cabaret artist for a comic song he wrote and performed called “Bagel Maker to the Czar.” Some years later, he penned incidental music for a one-woman show about Holocaust partisan Hannah Senesh.

Freedman, 58, was raised in Gardena and Cypress, in Orange County, where he attended the Conservative Temple Beth Emet and became the far west regional president of United Synagogue Youth (USY). He began writing short musicals for USY skits, including a “Wizard of Oz” parody called “The Wizard of UJ” — pronounced “udge” — referring to the former University of Judaism, now American Jewish University.  He continued writing musicals not only as a musical theater major at UCLA, but also as a youth counselor at Temple Ner Tamid in Van Nuys.  Before “Gentleman’s Guide,” Freedman was mostly known as a writer of TV shows and movies.

Freedman and Lutvak met while both were enrolled in the musical theater department at New York University in the 1980s; their teachers included the late, great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. The artists admired each other’s work, but didn’t directly collaborate on a musical until the early 2000s. Their first effort was a project involving Upton Sinclair’s fraught run for governor of California in the 1930s.  Their second would become “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” The musical got its start when Lutvak told Freedman about an epiphany he’d had back in his undergraduate days at the State University of New York at Binghamton. One sleepless night, he chanced to watch the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” about a pauper who knocks off his rich relations. Lutvak liked the concept of a gentleman who also happened to be a murderer. “I sat up in bed, and I thought, ‘My God, that’s a musical,’ ” Lutvak recalled.  “And it’s mine to do.”

Easier said than done. Lutvak said the film’s company put up myriad obstacles to granting him rights to an adaptation; when it briefly relented — before changing course again — in the 2000s, Lutvak invited Freedman to collaborate with him.

“The story makes a sly, satiric commentary about the British class system,” Freedman said of why he was drawn to the project.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the co-writers finally prevailed in a lawsuit the film company had brought against them; they got around the other legal blocks by re-writing the show to make it rely solely on the novel that inspired the film.

In the 1907 novel, Ray Horniman’s “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” the protagonist is ostracized from his upper-crust clan because his father was Jewish. In the 1949 film, the character is half-Italian “because making a Jew a multiple murderer was unthinkable so close to the end of the Holocaust,” Lutvak said.

But, Freedman insisted, “I didn’t want to write a show about a Jewish serial killer. Like many Jews, I don’t want to encourage any negativity toward Jews for any reason. So we made our character Castilian, which is funnier. We didn’t want to pick a group that has been persecuted over the generations, because that’s not funny at all.”

For tickets and information about the show, which runs through May 1, visit centertheatregroup.org