Mulitple Murders, For A Song, At Hartford Stage
How do you make a serial killer likable?
One way is by having him sing, which is what the leading character does in the premiere of the “drop dead” musical comedy, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which begins previews Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Hartford Stage.
Another is by showing his victims as hideous and revolting characters — especially if they’re all played by Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays.
The new musical is based on the 1907 British novel “Israel Rank“ by Roy Horniman, who was a member of Oscar Wilde’s circle of gay wits and writers. The book was also the source material for the 1949 film comedy from England’s Ealing Studio, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,“ which starred Alec Guinness, who also played multiple roles as members of the off’d aristocratic  family.
The black comedy centers on Monty Navarro, a poor, very distant, but charming relation of a titled, fabulously wealthy British family, and his efforts to kill off eightmembers of the imperious clan to avenge their treatment of his mother. They stand in his way of a Downton Abbey-sized inheritance.
Mays, who grew up in Clinton and was an undergrad at Yale, is not unfamiliar with playing multiple personalities. He won a Tony Award in 2004 for his performance as East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf — and dozens of other characters — in the solo show “I Am My Own Wife” by Doug Wright.
“However I did not sing and I performed all the characters in that show in a simple black dress,” says Mays, during a recent break in rehearsals.
“This time there will be full costume changes for the characters I play,” he says, “and some of them happen in a blink of the eye. I wish there were an off-stage camera so people could see the artistry of costume changing. I don’t know what we did before Velcro.”
Mays, 47, says it will be an exciting logistical challenge. “I think its going to be a great, sweaty, delirious scramble for a good amount of time. I must admit I breathe a little sigh of relief each time I’m killed because I can cross one costume change off the list.”
Mays plays all the members of the D’Ysquith family “who are despicable representatives of the evil inherant in the [Edwardian] class system. We have one who is a landlord foreclosining on his tenants, another is a sexual predator, another is a gluttonous fellow…well, it’s almost the seven deadly sins.”
Though he performed in an Encores production iof “Of Thee I Sing” in New York and was in a regional production of “My Fair Lady” speak-singing Henry Higgins, Mays considers this show his first big musical role — or roles, rather.
And who would he like to kill?
“On the first sort-of date with my wife, we made out a list on a café napkin of the people we want to rituallly disembowal,” he says. “We discovered that we had a lot of people on the same lists. It was a relationship founded on mutual antipathy — which is a great bonding thing. I’m hesitant to mention who those people are because who knows when an opportunity might afford itself.”
Subversive Show
Darko Tresnjak, artistic director at the theater who is staging the musical, says he doesn’t want to kill anybody because he’s just too much in a jolly mood because of the show.
Tresnjak became involved with the musical in late 2005 when he was directing a revival of “Amour” at Goodspeed Musical’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Price Waldman, an actor who was in “Amore” and also involved in readings and workshops of “Gentleman’s Guide,” connected Tresnjak with composer/co-lyricist Steven Lutvak and book writer/co-lyricist Robert L. Freedman who had been working on the project off-and-on for two years. With Tresnjak on board — he brought in Mays — the material was further developed over the next six years, interspersed with the team’s other projects.
“The work was in really good shape,” says Tresnjak. “The big thing for me was to help them be in the moment, be playful and take advantage of Jefferson’s gifts.”
The work went through a series of development opportunities over the years: from Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2006 (when the composing team won the Fred Ebb Award for songwriting as well as the Kleban award for lyric writing), to workshops at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons and to Boston’s Huntington Theatre.
Two years ago, the show was set for La Jolla Playhouse in California but representatives of the film challenged the rights to the musical — which was based on the public domain book — with legal action. That action was later dismissed, but it derailed that production.