"It's an unconventional love story in a lot of ways," says New York-based lyricist and composer Stephen Dolginoff.
That's putting it mildly. Dolginoff's Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story is a homosexual Jazz Age tale of Chicago's coldest of cold-blooded killers. Music Theatre of Madison opens the Wisconsin premiere of the award-winning musical on Friday, June 19, at the Bartell Theatre.
In 1924, college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb considered themselves brilliant Nietzschean "supermen," and therefore above the law. Almost as an intellectual exercise, the wealthy duo created what they hoped was a series of perfect crimes, culminating in the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks.
"It has been verified that they had a contract between them, that Loeb would provide sexual attention to Leopold if he would help him with the crime," says Meghan Randolph, artistic director of Music Theatre of Madison. "It was kept out of the papers and the adaptations of subsequent years."
Leopold and Loeb were arrested within days. They had done it, they confessed, for the thrill of it. The nation was horrified.
An essential clue was the typewriter on which the pair wrote the ransom note. They'd stolen it from Pierce Bitker, a Milwaukee student. Leopold and Loeb were defended in the original "Trial of the Century" by Clarence Darrow.
The story has been fictionalized several times, notably in the stage play and 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope, but Leopold and Loeb's homosexual affair has seldom been dramatized as it is in Thrill Me.
"You're really seeing a musical about a relationship between two people," says Dolginoff from Manhattan. "The murder is part of the plot, but it's not so much what's focused on."
"It's unlike anything I've ever seen or read before," says Randolph. "Every once in a while you feel yourself relating to them. And that's scary."
Thrill Me is an intimate production, scored for piano and five performers. It premiered off-Broadway in 2005 and received New York Drama Desk Awards for best musical and best score. It has since been performed in cities including Los Angeles, Melbourne and Seoul.
This is four-year-old Music Theatre of Madison's first production at the Bartell, which Randolph hopes will be the company's new home.
"Meghan Randolph and I have been in touch for many months," says Dolginoff. "Her attention to detail and her enthusiasm have contributed to my being excited by their production, because I know they're going to do a great job with it."