When you think about it, it’s amazing the range of stories that can be effectively put to music. You’ve got classic tales of love, fame, and fortune, like Anything Goes and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; darker, avant garde rock musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening; comedies like The Producers and The Book of Mormon.
And it turns out that a crime story of horrifying proportions can also be put to music and transformed into a great show. That’s the case with Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, a two-man musical that What If? Productions is producing this month, and company co-founder, Kyle Barnette, is directing.
The play tells a dramatized version of the story of real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy for no other reason than to prove they could. The two, who came from affluent, influential families, were students at the University of Chicago at the time. They believed they were superior to the rest of society — an idea they got from Nietsche’s theory of the ubermensch, or superman. The German philosopher believed that you are not beholden to the laws that govern others. And in Leopold and Loeb’s case, they did have extremely high IQs. Despite believing that they had committed the perfect crime, the duo was caught shortly after the murder, and both were sentenced to life in prison, plus 99 years.
Leopold and Loeb were also lovers, and it’s this aspect of their relationship that is exploited to great effect in Thrill Me. For the purposes of the musical, Richard Loeb is depicted as a criminal mastermind and true sociopath. He wields his power over Leopold, who is obsessed with him, with utter callousness. When Leopold expresses doubt about their criminal acts, which begin with arson and robbery before progressing to the murder, Loeb threatens to cut off their relationship completely. Leopold always relents. Loeb even has the two draw up a contract stating that Loeb will only satisfy Leopold’s sexual desires if Leopold assists him in whatever crimes he wants to commit. It makes for one of the most twisted, manipulative love stories you’ll likely ever see on stage.
And that’s what is really at the heart of this show, says actor and PURE core member Brannen Daugherty, who plays Leopold. “The show touches on the crime, but the central theme of the show is this really messed up love story,” he says. “Nathan is written in a way that you feel he’s not completely complicit. He fell in love with Richard, and he’s willing to go to those depths to please him. He just needs him that badly.”
That dynamic made the character a fascinating one to play. Daugherty adds, “What is it in his psyche that makes him believe that if he does these horrible things, he’s going to win his man — and be the better for it?”
It falls to Brian Porter, the co-founder of What If? Productions, to play the egomaniacal Loeb. Porter has enjoyed delving into his character as well — not just his sociopathological aspects, but what he gets from this relationship with Leopold, which at first look seems to be much more important to Leopold than it is to Loeb. “What’s interesting is [in real life] we don’t know who was the alpha,” Porter says. “In terms of this story, Richard is definitely the alpha, he’s the manipulator. He uses Leopold’s desire and need for him against him. But I do think that Loeb really loves Leopold. I think he found a kindred spirit there, so there is a need and dependency in him as well.”
Thrill Me is almost entirely sung, with very few spoken scenes. And the music is beautiful — it’s scored for a single piano and features some surprisingly soothing melodies given the subject matter. It’s a musical in which songs have refrains like “If we killed my brother John” and “Life plus 99 years.” “You don’t see lyrics like ‘We’ll chloroform a rag and make him suffocate from the vapors,'” Barnette says, of one such tune, “The Plan.”
That song, in particular, has an especially interesting juxtaposition of content and melody. “They’re singing about the crime they’re going to commit and it’s atrocious, but the music is so beautiful, almost like a lullaby,” Porter says. “I think it’s one of the strongest musical scores I’ve seen.”
Thrill Me is very contemporary in the sense that it uses the songs to propel the story, rather than to emphasize or repeat something the way most classic musicals do. “There’s really no waste,” Porter says. “The songs don’t necessarily accent a scene, but continue it.”
The music, paired with the focus on the psychology behind the duo’s evil actions, helps make the story more palatable. It would be difficult indeed to sit through a show about the murder of an innocent child — even one that’s on the shorter side, like Thrill Me, which clocks in at around an hour and 15 minutes — without some way to enter into the story emotionally. The minimalist staging helps with that, too — the few props are on stage, and there’s almost no set. “It’s these two people dealing with intense emotions and passions and it’s so intimate,” Barnette says. “It’s right up in your face, so you feel like you’re a part of the story. A co-conspirator almost.”
It hardly needs to be said, but Thrill Me is also a challenging show to pull off, especially for the two actors. “It’s a lot to carry,” Daugherty says. “I leave stage for about eight seconds, so it’s kind of a marathon. But Brian’s a great scene partner, and he’s been great to work with. We have great chemistry.”