'Gentleman's Guide': Where every murder is a comic gift

In this exclusive video interview, John Rapson and Kevin Massey tell DCPA NewsCenter viewers about ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.’

By Sylvie Drake
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Today’s Quiz: What’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder?

(a) A directive on how to avoid commitment
(b) An unserious evening of silly theatre
(c) A multiple 2014 Tony Award-winner, including Best Musical
(d) A veiled tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan
(e) A lesson in “offing” inconvenient heirs
(f) An inspired rip-off of Agatha Christie meets the Marx Brothers, with a whiff of Noel Coward. Set to music.

Take your pick. You’ll be right every time.

But talk to the creative team that put this show together, and you’ll find the outcome wasn’t always so inclusive. It took 10 years to get this farcical thriller in shape and the man who helped most joined the venture at halftime.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder“Robert Freedman, who wrote the book for Gentleman’s Guide, saw my production of The Women at The Old Globe in San Diego,” volunteered Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director of Hartford Stage and the directorial mastermind who scored his own Tony® Award for coming up with some of Gentleman’s Guide’s choicest silliness.

“Something about The Women convinced Robert that I was the guy for the job. Then I met Steve Lutvak, who wrote the music and was co-lyricist, and we hit it off. It was four years leading to the production we mounted in Hartford — and a fifth year to get the show to Broadway.”

Of course, there was more.

Freedman and Lutvak, newbies to Broadway, avoided watching Kind Hearts and Coronets, the 1949 hit movie in which Alec Guinness played all eight heirs to an English
fortune, each of whom meets an untimely death at the hands of the ninth, just for being, you know … in the way.

Gentleman's Guide quoteThe film was based on the same 1907 Roy Horniman novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, and while the premise held plenty of promise, Freedman and Lutvak lacked rights to the movie and mined the novel instead.

Tresnjak, who’d seen the movie in high school, also declined to watch it again, relying instead on his own sly sense of humor and instinct for the right casting.

“I champion great comic actors,” he said. “They’re underestimated. Grad schools don’t teach the craft. I was lucky. I directed Paxton Whitehead. I directed Dana Ivy. It’s like a science experiment to watch Paxton get the laugh and next night figure out how to subdivide the laugh and get three laughs out of the audience without pushing…

“The older I get, the more it seems like comedy is the perfect response to the absurdity of the world. I wish there were Joe Ortons for our time. Satire is the perfect tool to
deal with stupid politics.

“One of the really appealing things about Gentleman’s Guide is its structure, the fact that you have to have a spectacular actor in the revolving-door roles, playing all eight of the aristocratic d’Ysquiths. Every murder’s a gift, because you know that actor’s got to come back in another role. I thought it was really naughty because, like, wow. Monty d’Ysquith kills his whole family and the show ends in a three-way (love affair). I was like, cool! Sign me on. It’s a hand-in-the-cookie-jar kind of show.”

Tresnjak, who’s staged a good deal of opera, fell in love with Lutvak’s offbeat score. “It’s not ‘American Idol.’ It’s hard to sing,” he said. “The two women’s roles are precise. There’s no back phrasing. You need crystalline soprano voices. That was a big part of it for me.

“The moment when I knew it was going to work was the ending. It hadn’t been written when I came on board and there was a logistical problem. What happens when you kill the star? When the last victim bites the dust? Umm. You find … a ninth relative! Robert and Steven were, What…?

“I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a janitor who works in the jail. They let me add that. At that point I knew the show was going to be playful. The best thing was we took huge liberties. Some ideas came from the book, but the more we made up our own, the better it got.

“The best moment came when we had to redo one of the murders. [We tried] a car going over the cliff, then a plunge off a Ferris wheel. Didn’t work. I was listening. It was like … the famous skating waltz. I said, ‘start skating…’ ”

That time it worked. 

“Over lunch that day, Robert and Steven were passing napkins to each other, rewriting lyrics. Kept the tune, changed the words. Then they showed me:

As I’m cutting, I am contemplating
And the truth is it’s a tad exhilarating, 

With the rhythm of a violinist 

I’ll be sawing where I think the ice is thinnest.

“Now that is talent,” said Tresnjak, “and it’s buried. But it’s the most sophisticated lyric in the entire show. Steve and Robert write lyrics together. Not one fake rhyme. No cheating. They’re completely rigorous.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder“You have to believe in a musical,” he summarized, “because nothing takes as much (effort). I didn’t work on the show all of the time. I directed 20 productions during those five years. But this was really fun.”

John Rapson plays the eight victims to Kevin Massey’s Monty. Both men were in the Broadway company.

“After directing 25 Shakespeare plays, I also can say Shakespeare’s plays are not good. Great, but not good. Who cares? It’s theatrical logic. In Merchant of Venice months seem to be passing in Venice, but in Belmont, it’s the next day. So what?

“It’s theatrical logic.”

So, you’re about to discover, is Gentleman’s Guide.

Sylvie Drake served as Director of Media Relations and Publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1994 – 2014. She is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to culturalweekly.com. 

Photos above: Lesley McKinnell as Miss Barley and Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,’ top of page. Above right: Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Massey and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D’Ysquith. Photos by Joan Marcus. To see more production photos, click here.

A Gentleman’ Guide to Love & Murder: Ticket information

  • Feb. 16-28 at the Buell Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.
  • Accessibility performance: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28
  • Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the only authorized online ticket provider for ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.’

    Our previous NewsCenter coverage of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder:
    Video: A Gentleman’s Guide to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
    Video: Kevin Massey sings the national anthem at Broncos game
    Official show page

    'A Gentleman's Guide' in Denver Our photos of ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’ in Denver, to date. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To see more, click the forward button on the image above. 

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