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EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH “A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER” WRITER ROBERT FREEDMAN

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH “A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER” WRITER ROBERT FREEDMAN
April 5, 2016 ALEX NAGORSKI

When A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder opened on Broadway in 2013, it immediately took the theater world by storm.

Set in England at the beginning of the 20th century, the hilarious and uproarious musical comedy tells the story of an heir to a hefty family fortune who decides to kill off the eight distant relatives who stand between him and his inheritance. But can he get away with his plan, especially with both a fiancée and a mistress to answer to?

Robert FreedmanFollowing its acclaimed and decorated Broadway run, Gentleman’s Guide is currently embarking on its first national tour. To celebrate, I chatted with Robert Freedman, who won the Tony Award for writing the show’s book.

ALEX NAGORSKI: How and when did you first get involved in theater? And did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: My parents took me and my sister to the theater all the time when we were growing up, mostly at the Music Center, so I developed an appreciation very young. I saw Angela Lansbury in Mame at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when I was very young and I was enthralled. I never imagined I would know her and work with her some day! As a teen, I would go to the Ahmanson and the Taper and get student rush tickets for $2.50 and sit in the last row of the balcony and be thrilled. Writing just naturally evolved for me. I always enjoyed writing book reports and such in elementary school. In fifth grade, I started my own (short-lived) underground newspaper. As a teenager, I started writing musicals, mostly parodies using my book and lyrics to the tunes of famous theatre composers. I think most of all I just really wanted to be in show business, and the thing that I could do best was write, so that was my way in.

As a writer, who are some of your biggest inspirations?

It won’t surprise anyone when I say Stephen Sondheim is my biggest inspiration. I was also greatly inspired by Moss Hart’s memoir Act One. There are others, but the list is too long.

Gentleman’s Guide is based on the 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. How did you first come across this book and at what point did you realize you wanted to adapt it into a stage musical?

Steven Lutvak, my collaborator, saw a film based on the novel (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and asked me to write it with him.  I immediately jumped at the chance.

Speaking of Lutvak, he wrote the music for the show and the two of you co-authored the lyrics together. What was the collaborative process like? Did you work on the songs and the book at the same time or did you take on everything piece by piece?

The collaborative process was fascinating, sometimes difficult, and always fun. Particularly when writing lyrics together, which we did in person, in the same room, we enjoyed cracking each other up. Now, when we hear laughter from the audience, it’s particularly sweet to have connected with people in that way. The process began with the story, specifically the plot. From that, we found places that it felt natural for the characters to sing – but always to advance the story, not for sheer entertainment alone. The next step is to decide two things: the dramatic action of the scene, and the style of music, or song, we intuitively feel is right for the moment. The next step is to come up with a “hook,” a phrase, a line, a few words or a sentence, that ends up being the title or an important part of the lyric. Steve would then go to the piano, sometimes immediately, out of inspiration, or later after he’d had time to think about it, and come up with music for that hook. Once we’d decided we had the right musical style for the story we want to tell with the song, Steve would write out a so-called “dummy” lyric, nonsense words that help me understand the rhythm of the song, and what syllables are emphasized. Then we write the real lyric, perhaps just an A-section, then go back and forth until the song is completed. Since I was writing the book, and co-writing the lyrics, once the plot was pretty much set, I set about weaving the book into and out of, and sometimes inside, the songs as we went along.  It was a natural process.

For a show that takes place so long ago, Gentleman’s Guide is surprisingly topical today. For instance, the way it tackles the dispute between the 1% and the 99% is certainly a hot button issue during this election year. Is there a specific message, idea or lesson that you hope audiences take away with them when they leave the theater?

I could spout off on a lot of meaningful things that the show offers, including a commentary on the great disparity between the haves and the have-nots, which is so perfectly embodied by the British class system and so relevant in today’s America, and the hypocrisy of society, then and now, but most of all, we were attempting to entertain in a smart, stylish way.

Are there any tweaks or differences from the Broadway production that diehard fans can anticipate in the tour staging?

Yes! There are minor tweaks that most may not notice. There are improvements in the staging of a couple of musical numbers, “A Warning to the Audience” and “Poor Monty.”  Darko (the director), in his wisdom, advised the actors not to try to copy the Broadway performances, but to make them their own, and they have, and it’s been exciting to see.  It’s the same exact show as it was on Broadway, and not, at the same time.

What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of taking this show on the road?

To be able to share our work with so many people is a great thrill, as you can imagine. The audience response in every city has been tremendously gratifying. And for the cast, it’s a great way to see the country, and to connect with people who live in the cities we’re playing.

In 2014, you took home the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. And the show itself won four Tonys, including Best Musical. How did you celebrate?

Robert FreedmanIt was a long, wonderful night! Immediately after the broadcast, we were ushered to the press room, which included photos and video interviews.  Then it was off to the ball, like Cinderella, at the Plaza Hotel, which was glamorous and exciting.  Then we went to the Gentleman’s Guide party, thrown by our producer, Joey Parnes, at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center (an outdoor restaurant in spring and summer), where there was a DJ and dancing and general carrying-on.  But it still wasn’t over.  We then went to the exclusive Tony after-party thrown by our PR maven Rick Miramontez at the Carlyle Hotel, where all the Tony winners and nominees and theatre cognoscenti converge. We didn’t get home until 6:30 A.M.! I was so lucky to have my wife, my son, my sister and brother-in-law, and a dear friend to help me celebrate that night.

As a writer, do you find that being a Tony Award winner puts more pressure on you to replicate and/or build upon the success of Gentleman’s Guide?

I don’t think of it that way. I may never have a career high as thrilling as Gentleman’s Guide again, and I’m perfectly fine with that. In many ways, I’m glad this didn’t happen for me when I was in my 20’s, because it would have been a really hard thing to live up to and replicate. What this success has done is given me more opportunity to work on the kinds of projects, and with the kinds of people, that really excite me.

I see! So are there any new shows you’re working on now? If so, what can you tell me about them?

I can tell you that I’m writing a new musical with Scott Frankel (Grey Gardens), and I’m cooking up another one for Darko to direct, and I’m writing a film, produced and directed by Robert Redford.

When you were writing the book for Gentleman’s Guide, did you always picture the same actor to play every character in the D’Ysquith Family? If so, did you ever worry about finding someone with the stamina to play so many different roles in the same night?

Yes, we always pictured the same actor playing all the D’Ysquiths. We discussed several actors in the process of writing, but when Darko Tresnjak suggested Jefferson Mays we immediately flipped and knew he was the best possible choice even before we started working with him. He’s a genius. But because he’s not known for musicals, he wasn’t on our radar.

In addition to your theater work, you’ve also written quite a few television screenplays, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. How is your creative process different when writing for television versus for the stage?

The process is actually pretty much the same. Writing for the stage has been a bit more gratifying for a couple of reasons. One, there is a live audience and you get an instant response to what you’ve written, and often indications of what you should or shouldn’t change during the process. In addition, you have so much more control of you work. In film and long-form television, once the writer has delivered the script, he or she is considered dispensable, and is rarely allowed to stay involved in the process of filmmaking. In the theater, or at least in our case, Steve and I can truthfully say that what we wrote is exactly what you see on stage. Part of that is the respect for writers in the theatre, and part of that is the respect that Darko Tresnjak and Joey Parnes had for our work.

You’ve had such a vast career in the entertainment industry so far. What project do you consider your crowning achievement to date?

Gentleman’s Guide, without question, probably for the reasons stated above.

If you could have written any show that’s currently on Broadway, what would it be and why?

Hamilton. Because it’s brilliant and the writing is fearless. The beauty of it is that only Lin Manuel Miranda could have written it. I read the same book about Alexander Hamilton when it was first published, and it never occurred to me to make a musical out of it (and I’m a Founding Fathers junkie). The same way it may not have occurred to someone else to make a musical out of Israel Rank.  I bow to his genius without wishing I had written it myself, because I couldn’t have.

Thanks so much, Robert! Is there anything you’d like to add or discuss that we didn’t cover?

Just that I am filled with gratitude for the love we are getting from audiences. There’s no feeling like it, and I am so blessed.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder is playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 1st.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Click HERE to purchase tickets and to check out where the tour is heading next …

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex now resides in New York and spends his days working in HBO's Consumer Marketing department. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.