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Guy Retallack: A musical retelling of the ‘thrill killers’ crime

By | Published on Saturday 26 July 2014

Thrill Me

The true story of Leopold and Loeb, the so called ‘thrill killers’ of 1920s Chicago, has inspired several films and plays, perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of ‘Rope’, a play written just a few years after the original crime. Though a more recent stand-out work based on the case is Stephen Dolginoff’s musical ‘Thrill Me’, which opened off-Broadway in 2005. The show was then staged in London in 2012 by CliMar Productions, with director Guy Retallack bringing the story alive for a British audience. And this August, CliMar and Retallack are bringing their production to the Fringe, the first time the musical has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival. We spoke to the director about the story, the show and what we can expect from its Fringe run.

CC: For those unfamiliar with the Leopold and Loeb story, give us a little background to the crime.
GR: It happened in 1924 in Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two bright, well-educated young men; they both came from very wealthy backgrounds and were training to be lawyers. Over time both of them became obsessed with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his ‘Superman Theory’. They believed that some superior people were above the law and started committing minor crimes, each one becoming bigger and more daring than the last. Eventually they set their sights on the ultimate crime, murder. The following events were declared the “Crime Of The Century” as there seemed to be no motive for the young men involved, other than the search for the ultimate thrill, which resulted in the pair going down notoriously in the history books as the “Thrill Killers”. Those are the basics, to tell you any more would give the plot away.

CC: How is that story retold through ‘Thrill Me’? How accurate a re-telling is it of the real-life crime?
GR: Many of the events covered in the show are well documented, some stretched slightly for dramatic license. Though when I was in Chicago recently, with one of the producers, we met up with one of the most knowledgeable experts on the crime and it became apparent that so much is still unknown. Many vital questions remain unanswered, for example who actually struck their victim? Answers both men took to their grave. But I would say the depiction of events in the show is as accurate as any film has ever been.

CC: What drew you to the piece?
GR: The story and the music. The fact that the piece is so lean, so economical, and yet somehow it manages to capture a complete world.

CC: You mentioned the films. Have you see any of the other cultural works based on the Leopold and Loeb story? How does ‘Thrill Me’ compare?
GR: Yes, I’ve seen at least three others, obviously including Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’. I think what is so amazing about this piece is the use of music, which at times is so intense yet despite that, you almost forget that there is music there at all, and you just get sucked into the vortex of the story. I believe the piece captures the process of real corruption, and the emergence of an evil act.

CC: Does it ever feel inappropriate transforming such a sinister crime into musical theatre, even nearly a century on?
GR: Of course you worry, from time to time, about retelling such a story for entertainment, but I believe Stephen Dolginoff’s interpretation, and take on the two men’s relationship, is so incisive, and heartfelt, that we cannot help but engage with these two young people. It’s as fascinating as it is horrifying, because you watch how two young men become more and more corrupt, and what is even more interesting is you feel you understand how they get to such an extreme and awful place.

CC: How did you go about transforming the piece from page to stage for this production?
GR: Everything is about the relationship, not the horror, so the focus of our work is continually emphasising how the Leopold and Loeb characters interact, what they feel about each other. I use a process called ‘actioning’, which I discovered when working for Max Stafford Clark as his assistant and associate director back in the mid 1990s. It always fascinates me how appropriate this process of conscious analysis is for interpreting song in musicals. At the beginning of rehearsals, it always starts with a table read, then discussing and deciding on a series of actions that we collectively believe serves the scene, and then I’ll normally try to get the project up on its feet, to see what the actors bring to the scene, in a fairly raw way.

CC: You won a lot of acclaim for the London run a couple of years back, why did you decide to bring the show to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
GR: I was very keen that following the London run, ‘Thrill Me’ should tour. I’ve done an enormous amount of touring in my life and I believe it’s a great way for theatre to develop and a wonderful way to reach audiences. Edinburgh feels like a natural home for this show, people are very open-minded, and are always looking for high-quality incisive powerful drama, and this fits the bill perfectly. And I hope that this co-production between Richard Williamson, Climar and Greenwich Theatre will be the launch-pad for a national tour next year.

CC: Has the production developed or changed at all since the London run?
During rehearsal I have consciously avoided referring to the original production as much as possible. Although I have our original stage management script, I have tried to forget about it and rely on what the two new actors – Jo Parsons as Loeb and Danny Colligan as Leopold – bring to this story. I would say yes the piece has developed, partly because I have another opportunity to look at the script and how it works, and partly because these two young actors bring a different dynamic to that of Jye Frasca and George Maguire (two of my favourite actors in the world, I should add!).

CC: Tell us a little about CliMar Productions, how did the company come together and what are its aims?
GR: CliMar Productions was founded in October 2009. Their aim was to produce enjoyable, accessible and challenging theatre. The 2011 production of ‘Thrill Me’ received great praise from critics and public alike, and was nominated for seven Off West End Awards and also the Best Off West End Production at the 2012 Whatsonstage Awards. The show opened at the Tristan Bates Theatre and then transferred to The Charing Cross Theatre. Most recently the company produced ‘The Last Session’ on the London Fringe – this show also received a great response from the press and audiences and was nominated at the same award shows. The company also spent two years working with Sharron Matthews Superstar at the Edinburgh Fringe.

CC: Having already done a London run, do you have any future ambitions or plans for ‘Thrill Me’ beyond this year’s Festival?
GR: We’d love the show to win lots of awards, tour forever, and then have a major London run!

‘Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story’ was performed at C at Edinburgh Festival 2014.