An Old Globe Musical Puts An Aristocratic Spin On Murder
CAVANAUGH: There's something intriguing about English murder stories! Where else can you find culprits with a teacup in one hand and a sledge hammer in the other? Combine that with clever song, inspired sets, and you've got the new production called a gentleman's guide to love and murder. Ken Barnett plays the murderer, welcome! BARNETT: Thank you for having me. CAVANAUGH: And Jefferson Mays, the murderee. MAYS: Thank you so much. CAVANAUGH: Actors either get the style of this piece or they don't, the creator says. He says both of you do, of course. How would you describe the style? BARNETT: It's a tricky balance. It is a musical comedy, and it's a period piece taking place in the Edwardian era alike a Downton Abbey time. So there's a certain awareness of the body and posture and mannerisms and that kind of thing. But there's also the specificity of working on a musical, and for my character in particular, playing a serial killer, and also trying to keep it light and keep the audience's sympathy and understanding a character who is behaving in dark ways. It necessitates a certain tone and style. CAVANAUGH: Jefferson, can you give us a brief idea of the plot? MAYS: Yes. Well, it's about this fellow, Navarro, who discovers early on that he is 8th in line to the Earl dom. Coming from a very local impoverished existence. His mother was of this exalted family, and he finds out he's 8th in line. And the only way of course he can achieve the Earldom is to bump off the eight people in between. CAVANAUGH: And you -- MAYS: I'm the serial victim. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Over and over again! Like groundhog day! MAYS: I never enjoyed dying on stage so much. CAVANAUGH: As the murderer, you dispatch your victims in a number of creative ways. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: Critics say you're the type of murderer that audiences root for! [ LAUGHTER ] BARNETT: Well, I think he's sort of the underdog. He's been denied his inheritance. And I think everybody can relate in some way to the experience of feeling like, for whatever reason, you've been denied what you deserve. And in this story, we see this guy get what he deserves, and there's something so delightful in that. And the plot finds him in addition to murdering Mr. Mayes, also in a complicated love triangle. So I think also the audience roots for him in that circumstance as well. CAVANAUGH: And let's face it, they are not exactly loveable. MAYS: No, they're thoroughly repellant. [ LAUGHTER ] (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: These songs are very clever, and they're very beautifully written. Are they fun to sing? MAYS: Oh, indeed they are! The musical among other things is this glorious love letter to the history of the musical and light opera. Because there's so much in it that's Gilbert and Sullivanesque, and tips its hat to Noel Howard, and Sondheim. CAVANAUGH: Are they also difficult? BARNETT: Well, the roles are very demanding. Both of us are fortunate enough to play here. And the songs, it's amazing, with the writing of any kind, when the writing is good, it's not hard. In my experience. And this -- we are so rucky that the writing here is so skilled that it certainly takes a great deal of technique and practice and rigor in the performance. But it -- but it's easy. You know? It's in the actual performing of the thing, the writing really takes you where you need to go. CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you, Jefferson, technically speaking, how do you manage all the costume changes? Do you have tearaway costumes? MAYS: I do indeed. I can't imagine what theatre was like before velcro. [ LAUGHTER ] MAYS: But yes, it's a singular position for an actor to be in. Because generally, you're quivering in the wing waiting to come on stage, but now I'm afraid to go offstage! Because what happens in the dark I've never experienced before. I run offstage and am set upon by three muscular women who tear my clothes off and put me into a new costume and literally shove me back onstage. CAVANAUGH: Sounds strenuous! MAYS: It is strenuous! But I would love for there to be a camera backstage to show you the other drama that's going on. CAVANAUGH: It seems like in a play like this with so many costume changes, the backstage crew must be very important. BARNETT: Very important. They work as hard as we work on stage. The wardrobe department, the scenic department backstage, as you'll see in the show there's the setting that's constantly changing, and there are these incredibly stealthy crew running around backstage resetting everything. And the show runs as a very smooth, tightly run machine. And that's purely because of our exellent backstage staff. MAYS: The scenic elements of the play are so delightful. It's modeled after an Edwardian children's theatre. It's like an elaborate Victorian toy ticking away. CAVANAUGH: Now, Jefferson, San Diego audiences last saw you play nearly 40 characters in "I am my own wife." You can play multiple character, we all know that, but you're now in a musical, and you're not known for being in a lot of musicals. MAYS: No. CAVANAUGH: Is this is a challenge for you? MAYS: This is new territory, yes, and it is a glorious challenge. And I've had such fun doing it. Doing a musical is not hike doing a play. Doing a play, you're sort of responsible for the pace and rhythm of the thing. And quite often starting a play feels like dead lifting a lot of weight. A musical is like stepping onto a magic carpet that carries you on through the rest of the evening. The problem being you have to stay on, you can't fall off the train as it were! But there's something so exhilarating about it! And I've never experienced this. You have, being the expert that you are, Ken. But standing behind the curtain in the dark and hearing the orchestra tuning up, and that just raises every night the gooseflesh on my arms. CAVANAUGH: I can imagine that it would, yes. How about the choreography? Has that been -- how does that add to the play in your estimation? BARNETT: Choreography is -- it's very funny. It's very subtle. This is not a show with a big dancing chorus. But there are a few numbers that are choreographed very specifically. And because of the style of the piece, the specificity of the physical life of the actors on stage is very, very important, and that's -- that was really the work of our wonderful choreographer. CAVANAUGH: Now, this play came into existence in Hartford; isn't that right? And now it's here, and it is intended to go on; isn't that right? Are you expecting to go to Broadway? MAYS: I don't expect anything until my cue light goes off. [ LAUGHTER ] MAYS: But it is our fervent hope, yes, that it will have a life beyond here. CAVANAUGH: I'm curious, when you have a play like this, when if debuted in Hartford, I think it already landed on one New York critic's 10-best list. So obviously people are excited to see this play progress. But are you still changing it in any way? MAYS: Yes, absolutely. We tinkered with a lot of its elements. I think it's gotten tighter, a bit shorter, and funnier, I think. BARNETT: Yes. MAYS: And we're still scrutinizing things that we can perhaps judiciously prune or improve in some way. But by and large, it's the same production that we did in Hartford. The orchestra has grown, we have a string section, and the cast has grown too. CAVANAUGH: We could hear the audience reacting in those clips, laughing. Is that part of what helps you to hone this not only your performance but the entire play? BARNETT: Absolutely. As actors on stage, we always have our partners, but this is always a third partner in the audience. And the audience changes every performance. We learn especially in a comedy like this, we learn so much from the feedback we get from the audience every night. So we've really learned from them, and every night, we want to hone what we're doing so we can further the experience with the audience. CAVANAUGH: A gentleman's guide to love and murder continues its run at The Old Globe through Sunday, April 14th. Thank you so much. MAYS: A pleasure, thank you. BARNETT: Thanks for having us.
Ambition can be a dangerous thing. Especially if you are in the way of a certain young man bent on becoming a member of the British aristocracy. "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at San Diego's Old Globe tells the story of one Monty Navarro and the eight unfortunate relatives who stand in his way.
The new musical marks the return to San Diego of Jefferson Mays, who won acclaim playing multiple characters in the play "I Am My Own Wife." Now, he plays all eight inconvenient heirs who are subject to a relentless process of elimination.