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Thrilling The Phoenix
An Interview With Stephen Dolginoff

by Michael D. Klemm
August, 2007

In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young men from wealthy familes murdered a 14 year old boy for the thrill of it. Fascinated by Nietzsche's theories of the "Superman," they considered themselves to be above the law because of their intellect. They were also partners in bed as well as in crime.

Leopold and Loeb are also the subjects of Thrill Me, an acclaimed Off-Broadway musical by Stephen Dolginoff and it's coming to The New Phoenix Theatre On The Park in time for Curtain Up! with author Dolginoff starring as Nathan Leopold opposite Buffalo's own Joseph Demerly as Richard Loeb, (Demerly played Leopold in BUA's production of Never The Sinner in 1999) For anyone that thinks the idea of a musical about Leopold and Loeb is a tad bizarre, remember that the musical of James Joyce's "knee-slapper" The Dead, starring Christopher Walken, was nominated for numerous Tonys.

Stephen Dolginoff spoke with Outcome on the phone about his play and also about how excited he is to be doing his show here in Buffalo.

Outcome: How did you come to write Thrill Me?

Dolginoff: I've always been a fan of true crime stories. I wanted to write a small musical about an intense relationship and the true story of Leopold and Loeb was a perfect fit.. I began working on it in the late 90s, and did a few readings and workshops. It was very difficult to get producers and theaters interested because, you know, a play about two gay child killers isn't the easiest sell in the world (laughs). In 2003 It was produced as part of the New York Midtown Theatre Festival, which is like the Fringe Festival. It was a limited production of seven performances in rep with about 40 other shows and it was a big hit. We sold out, and got really nice reviews, and the York Theatre Company became interested in mounting a full Off-Broadway production.

Outcome: Was it harder to sell it because it was a musical?

Dolginoff: I had more trouble - not because they were gay, or that they were murderers - but because it was a musical No matter how sophisticated people are, the first thing that many think of when they hear the word "musical" is a "musical comedy." But there are lots and lots of musical dramas. There's nothing comedic in Thrill Me; there is some black humor, dark comedy certainly, but it is a serious musical. Like Assassins, and Sweeney Todd and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Outcome: The only thing remotely humorous I can think of on the cast recording is Loeb singing about killing his brother so that he can get his room.

Dolginoff: I meant that song, which is called "The Plan," to start out funny. I wanted the words to be as gruesome as I could possibly come up with but the music to be light and bouncy. And then you start to realize that Richard is serious. And as Nathan realizes that Richard is serious, then the tone shifts,

Outcome: Was it hard to write? Did you ever fear the music might be too light considering the subject matter?

Dolginoff: No, I was very careful in crafting the music. In the heaviest song - which is called "Roadster" - there is absolutely nothing sinister about the words whatsoever but the music conveys the sinister qualities. I wanted the song after the murder to sound confident and strong, and I wanted Nathan's ballad to sound really soulful. Nothing is there by accident, the songs sound the way they sound for a very specific reason. But I think that it all comes together and makes sense.

Outcome: Is the whole play sung?

Dolginoff: No. There are long stretches of music but there is just as much spoken as there is sung. Also, the way the show is conceived, there are no song breaks; there is really no place for the audience to applaud.

Outcome:How did you come to take over the role during its first run? Did an actor drop out at the last minute?

Dolginoff: The show was originally scheduled to run for 6 weeks. After the preview period, the critics came. The NY Times review was very good, and the producers decided to extend the show. Luckily, the actor playing Richard, Doug Kreeger, was able to continue. but the wonderful actor playing Nathan already had a previous commitment at the time. And to make a long story short, it came down to this: how are we going to find a replacment that will be able to learn such a large role in such a short time?

I was trying to think of people I knew, even theatre celebrities who could pick it up really fast, but time was running shorter and shorter and we had to make the extension announcement. Finally, the producer called me and said "I've got a really good idea for someone who can take over the role, he's not a celebrity but he's someone who could probably generate some buzz" and I said "Who?" and he said "You." The first words out of my mouth were "No, absolutely not." I hadn't been on stage in so long. And I'd also written the book and the music and I figured that people would have their knives sharpened for me, saying "Oh, now he's starring in it too." (laughs)

Outcome: I can understand. I review gay films in Outcome and when I see that the writer, the director, the editor and the star is the same person, nine out of ten times the film sucks. (Both laugh). Of course there are exceptions...

Dolginoff: (Still laughing) It set me off on a whole new theatre path again as I had given up acting a long time ago, and didn't imagine getting back on stage again. I thought that maybe Nathan Leopold was a part I could see myself playing while getting across what I meant as a writer. I couldn't imagine myself playing Richard Loeb. And, basically, I had 48 hours to make a decision, They put their cards on the table and said that I either had to take over the role or the show would have to close.

It was very scary at first, on opening night I thought I was going to pass out. I wound up being very comfortable playing the part; I thought that no matter what anyone thought of my acting or my singing that I was playing the Nathan Leopold that the author created. It wound up getting really good reviews. I also had the extreme good luck of working with Doug Kreeger (now on Broadway in Les Miserables) and then he was later replaced by an actor named Shonn Wiley who was in many Broadway shows, and I was so honored when he saw me in the show and wanted play opposite me.

Outcome: How long did it run in New York?

Dolginoff: The original 6 week run was extended to 14 weeks. Since then, I've done a production of it with myself as Nathan in Tampa, Florida, and I just did a production in Seattle, Washington, I've traveled all over seeing other productions. It's hard to watch other people playing Nathan because there's always things I don't like or things that I wish that I would've done - so I can't win either way (laughs).

There have been far more productions without me playing Nathan, but I'm on the cast album for posterity. For me, the crowning achievement of the whole experience was when I was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards. The highest honor for an Off-Broadway show is the Drama Desk Award because both Broadway and Off-Broadway are competing together and it's very difficult to be nominated. We were nominated for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, and I got to perform on the Drama Desk Awards Show. It's on YouTube right now.

Outcome: Thrill Me has been performed all over the country, even internationally. Has most of the interest come from gay theaters?

Dolginoff: I always imagined that once we left NY that it would be a show that would play mainly gay theaters. But I was wrong. Because I've seen it produced for a gay audience and production more from a historical perspective. Since NY, in addition to Buffalo - which is going to be the 20th production of Thrill Me - the show has been done all over the world. It's been done in Australia. It is currently still playing in Korea, where it has been running for six months. It's a Broadway styled production, in the Korean language. It's been more successful there than anywhere else which is extremely funny to me.

In Korea it played to mostly teenage girls and young women. They are a huge fan base and they come night after night after night and there's apparently fans in Korea who have seen it a hundred times (laughs). In NY, our biggest demographic was older people. And I met so many people who knew the real Nathan, they came to meet me, they came to hear me speak after performances and wanted to share a story. I think it has a great appeal to the gay community but it also has a wider appeal than I ever imaged. Because I never thought I'd live to see one production of it, much less 20 and counting. It's very exciting. I mean, there was even a production in Iowa!

Outcome: Many people in the community feel that alldepictions of gays and lesbians on stage or on film have to be positive ones. How do you feel about that?

Dolginoff: I think that, happily, we are past the point in entertainment where gays are just depicted as negative stereotypes. Like in the 60s and 70s. We're at a point now where there is a lot of representation in mainstream culture, and I think that because Thrill Me is a true story and I'm not really presenting them in a negative way. I don't see it as a problem. Leopold and Loeb were unsavory characters because they were murderers - not because they were gay. This is never even hinted at, at least not in MY interpretation of the story. The fact that they were gay is treated rather matter-of-factly. One comes away from it really understanding the characters better. Even though they commit horrible, despicable, unthinkable crimes, I really don't think it's a negative portrayal of gay people and I think we should be at a point where there should be all kinds of different portrayals, all kinds of stories. There should be good guys and bad guys, regardless of sexual orientation. Things have come a long way.

We still have a long way to go. But would you have imagined a television show like Will and Grace in 1975? That's a really positive step. And because of that, you can tell a story like Thrill Me or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley was a mainstream film, and I don't think it was a negative portrayal of gays, it was just about this really evil guy.

Outcome: We're thrilled that you are doing the show yourself here in Buffalo.

Dolginoff: Joe [Demerly] made it happen. He brought it to the New Phoenix. Joe saw me on my opening night in New York City, and he and I met and we started up a friendship. He predicted to me that some day we are going to do Thrill Me together. He had all kinds of great ideas for theaters in Buffalo and, as a man of his word, here we are getting ready to go into rehearsals.

I think the gay community will love Thrill Me. I think they will appreciate seeing a "warts and all" kind of story. It's not sanitized, it's not stereotypical. It doesn't shy away from the darker aspects. But what it does do is tell, what I think, is a very compelling story of just what can happen in a very intense relationship. A murder does take place in the plot but the story is really about how these two men relate and connect with together and the dire consequences that happen.

I've never been to Buffalo and I'm very excited about it. I think it is going to be a lot of fun. It's going to be great that we are going to be doing it during the Curtain Up! celebration. We were originally supposed to do it in June. But I had just finished performing in the Seattle production and I'm really glad that we postponed it to September because I am going to be a lot fresher. And I get to star with Buffalo's own Joe Demerly, what could be better than that?

Outcome: I think you'll like Buffalo. It has a very vibrant gay community.

Dolginoff: (laughs) And I hope they all come [to the show.]


For more on Thrill Me
The Official Site

For more about The New Phoenix Theatre On The Park

More on Leopold and Loeb

Film versions about Leopold and Loeb
Three Views To a Kill


Stephen Dolginoff with Joseph Demerly in the Buffalo production. Photo by me. More photos here.
My playbill cover design below...