Gentlemen Prefer Murder
Robert Freedman and Steven Lutvak took the essence of a novel with anti-Semitic leanings, discarded the anti-Semitism — and developed a hit musical comedy.
Their show, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, won four Tony Awards and now tours the country with a run Oct. 4-16 at the Fisher Theatre. This booking returns Freedman’s attention to an area he has visited many times: His mother grew up in Detroit as part of the Najelsky family.
The main character, Monty Navarro, becomes sympathetic despite disposing of a line of successors to a fortune he believes rightly belongs to him. The idea was introduced in the book Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman and adapted through the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
“Ironically, if you look at my body of work, I’ve written a lot about crime,” says Freedman, the show’s book writer and lyricist, in a phone conversation from his home in California. “I was attracted to this story partly because it was about an underdog — somebody we can all root for.
“What attracted me to crime in general was the psychological underpinnings of the characters — what would push somebody to that means to an end.
“In A Gentleman’s Guide [which takes place in 1907 England], the audience is rooting for a murderer who has been treated badly. All the people he ends up killing are loathsome so it’s a little easier to root for him.”
Freedman has a lengthy list of writing achievements for stage, film and television. His range can be seen most clearly through television, reaching from musical projects, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Broadway Sings the Music of Jule Styne, to dramas, including Murder in the Hamptons and Murder at 75 Birch.
“As a teenager, I was a member of United Synagogue Youth and wrote shows with parodies,” Freedman, 59, recalls. “After I graduated high school, I was a teen leader at synagogues in California. I would write parody shows with them, and it was fun.”
After majoring in theater at the University of California at Los Angeles, Freedman went into dramatic writing studies at New York University (NYU) and earned a double master’s — in that as well as musical theater writing. His first professional job was working on a low-budget stage comedy as an intern.
“Foolish to Think” is the Gentleman’s Guide song most personally meaningful to Freedman.
“It’s sung by the hero,” Freedman explains. “He starts off feeling doubtful that he’s going to have the woman and the life he wants. Through the course of the song, he is determined to go after what he wants. There’s something inside of me telling me I am able to go after my dreams.
“The reason I like writing both books and lyrics is that books tell the whole story, and if they’re structured well, the songs are emotional climaxes that people can’t help but sing; speaking is not enough. Songs are the way into the heads of the characters, things never said to another character in the show.”
While Freedman and composer Lutvak come up with ideas for songs together, the idea for the production was Lutvak’s. The two had met through New York classes and remained friends, sometimes joining their talents for projects while meeting at places to work between their home locales.
Lutvak’s idea goes back to his college years at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
“I was not sleeping at 2 a.m. and turned on the television,” the composer recalls while speaking from New York. “I was 19, and I was changing channels. I found Kind Hearts and Coronets, a movie my dad liked. I watched about 10 minutes of the film and thought it could be a musical.
“I knew I didn’t know how to do it then, but I knew that I would. I tried to get the rights several times and did in 2003. I called Robert and asked if he would like to work on it with me.”
Freedman and Lutvak had teamed up for another show, Campaign of the Century, which was about Upton Sinclair’s campaign for California governor in 1934.
“We had a wonderful collaboration, and when we began writing A Gentleman’s Guide, we were speaking the same language immediately, Lutvak, 57, says. “As soon as we wrote the very first song for the musical, ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You,’ we knew we had the right language for this material.
“Robert understands style as I do. My main teacher in college was very insistent on my learning differences in styles and how to replicate styles. She was very genre specific.”
Lutvak, playing piano by ear when he was 6, wrote an operatic melodrama at the same age.
“I lived around the corner from a nephew of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme,” he recalls. “He was a composer, and we started writing songs together. We had written about 360 songs by the time I graduated from high school.
“I went to college thinking I could do this for a living. While I was there, I wrote one show every year. When I came out of college, I thought I would try to do this for a living.”
Lutvak, who sold a song while he was still in school and worked as a cabaret singer, launched his after-college career with a production piece about Hannah Szenes, who was born in Hungary, went to Palestine, parachuted back into Hungary to fight against the Nazis and was executed before her 23rd birthday.
Judaism is important to both members of this creative team. Freedman, a synagogue member, is married to actress Jean Kauffman, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at the time their son, Max, celebrated his over a decade ago.
Lutvak, and his spouse, choreographer Michael McGowan, plan to raise a daughter as Jewish.
“Steven and I are very demanding of each other in a positive way,” Freedman says. “We spur the other one on to go further than each might have done if working alone.
“The best part of it is that we have a lot of fun. We were always cracking each other up, but we didn’t know what was really funny until we put it in front of audiences, and we like how much fun audiences are having.” *
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder runs Oct. 4-16 at the Fisher Theatre. Tickets start at $39. (313) 872-1000; broadwayindetroit.com.
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer