Mystery, murder and the age-old question of “why?” Each of these criteria is met in Stephen Dolginoff’s crime musical “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.” Recounting the tale of what was the “murder of the century” in 1924, “Thrill Me” takes audiences into the minds of the then-teenaged killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. However, “Thrill Me” contains a twist: it focuses more on the development of the relationship between the closeted young men than other works that focus exclusively on the crime.
To find more about the work, what to expect on stage and what it’s like to recount this tragic story before it hits Lansing’s Wharton Center on Feb. 12, Between the lines caught up with Director Bert Goldstein, Wayne Shuker who will be playing Loeb and Mark Ryan Anderson who will play Leopold.
Beyond the musical format, what’s different between this portrayal of events and the actual crime?
Bert Goldstein: It starts after they’ve graduated college in the spring before they go to law school, which was actually true. Richard left the University of Michigan and went elsewhere and then they got together again during the spring of 1924 and that’s when they started to be in this little plot to do crime and eventually do a murder. For audiences that don’t know the play, I think it’s giving something away to say what happens. It’s a psychological thriller, it’s a bit of a mystery, it has a surprise ending, so I would say see it (laughs).
In this story, Richard Loeb acts as more of the mastermind and Nathan Leopold as more of the conscience. What is it like to portray those personalities in this piece?
Wayne Shuker: I think for Richard, it’s interesting to find the balance between how much he actually loved Nathan and how much needs Nathan and how much he uses Nathan. Because if it was just him using him all the time it wouldn’t be anything interesting, and it wouldn’t be true. There’s an element of him needing Nathan for companionship and he cares about him in some weird, twisted way. So, it’s kind of an arc of reconciling of where did he find love for Nathan and where does he find uses for Nathan.
Mark Ryan Anderson: I think Steven made the problem for Nathan’s character a lot easier in the sense that it’s a lot more of a humanizing quality to do this for another person. The structure play starts off with him as a 55-year-old man applying for parole his fifth time. He’s asked by the parole board, ‘Why did you do it?’ And essentially, he says, ‘I did it for Richard.’ And the entirety of the play starts back when they were 19 going through than. And when they meet in the park again Nathan decides in that moment, ‘I’m going to be with him no matter what, and I’m never going to let him get away again.’ And what I don’t think Nathan realizes in that moment is how far he’s truly willing to go for that goal.
In reality, it’s hard to say why Leopold and Loeb committed the crime because they never really admitted their reasoning. People speculate about their philosophy, privilege and upbringing as factors. Do you think a similar crime could happen today or was this just the perfect recipe?
BG: Yeah, the perfect recipe. The fact that they were privileged, the fact that they had a relationship, the fact that the relationship had to be closeted, their past, I think what the guys have told about who they are and what they want was a perfect storm things coming together that created this terrible incident.
WS: That being said, I do think that one question the show asks and everything about Leopold and Loeb asks is: why? And I mean we have to answer that for ourselves as actors, but that’s also up to the audience. So that element of ‘Why?’ is open to coming to the show and seeing what you think what you leave.
MRA: I think this absolutely is something that could happen in present day. I think we have a plethora of people like they were, have their lives set up like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. And, I mean, the real mystery of the murder is: Do they do it for the thrill? Were they just so bored with their life, that they had conquered everything that they had no more adventure to it? They had to come up with what ended up happening, because that can absolutely end up happening. And that question of nature versus nurture, parenting and the stories that we tell our kids.
What drew you to this work?
WS: For me, it’s very rare that you get this type of material to play with, especially in musical theater. We were actually talking about this today that sometimes an audience can be fooled into thinking that because it’s a musical you’re going to get a happy-go-lucky score about killing someone, and that’s not what this is at all. This is a dark and kind of twisted that is interesting from an actor’s point of view to get to jump into.
MRA: What drew me to this show was that I had the pleasure of performing it about eight years ago. But what drew me in and what was interesting was the psychology of these different characters and the human condition. And from the curtain to the lights out at the end of the play, if things go right, you are essentially forcing a willing audience to be in a room with two terrible people, and you’re forcing them to ask the same question as the parole board asks Nathan at the start of the play, “Why?” I hope they have to think.
BG: For me, I saw it at the Edinburgh French Festival about four or five years ago and it was interesting then. I think the story is fascinating still. People are writing stories about it, there’s documentaries about it, this is over 100 years ago and they’re just fascinating. And then, for me personally, I’ve never directed something in this genre, a psychological thriller. We’re doing the play entirely in black and white to try and capture a 1930s, 1940s film being lit that way by our lighting designer. So this is all intriguing theater. And I have to take my hat off to Steven Dolginoff, I think he’s done a great job in writing this. And he’s been very open and helpful to us on a number of occasions and he’s open via email and I think he’s written an intriguing musical here.
To find out more about the show, find showtimes and purchase tickets visit whartoncenter.com.