Stephen Dolginoff on writing Thrill Me and other musicals inspired by historical fact
Based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Stephen Dolginoff’s musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story has played to audiences around the world. Here, the award-winning writer and composer discusses his influences and how to balance fact with fiction in storytelling.
Thrill Me has enjoyed huge international success. What do you think is the show’s enduring appeal?
Yes, it has truly been an honour for Thrill Me to have had over 150 productions in 17 countries and in 11 languages. I never dreamed it would have such an incredible life. I think it appeals to different audiences and cultures on a few different levels. First, because it is a “love story”—a strange one, but one nonetheless. And I think that makes it relatable to people. They may see aspects of their own relationship on display—certainly not the murder, but the manipulation. Second, there are people who just love a good thriller, and I think Thrill Me delivers on that. And finally, it’s part of American criminal history and opens it up to a lot of true crime buffs.
Have you found that audience reactions to the show have varied in different countries? How so?
In South Korea, where Thrill Me has been running for over ten years, the audience mainly consists of women in their 20s and 30s. And they really seem to enjoy the depiction of the relationship between the two characters. They love to see them kiss! In English speaking countries, audiences do tend to allow themselves to laugh at the elements of dark humour that have sprinkled into the show. But in other countries they sit in silence, totally intrigued and wrapped up in the story until the finale when they can finally applaud. That release is quite often very loud!
What first inspired you to write Thrill Me?
It was many years ago and I had two different ideas floating around my head. One was to do a true crime musical and the other was to do a two-character musical about an intense, unusual relationship between two people. I started doing some research and came upon the story of Leopold and Loeb — and I quickly realized that their story could combine both my ideas into one.
How did you balance creative writing with historical research? Are there any specific challenges that come with writing a story based on fact?
Well, as dramatists we must create drama! Thrill Me isn’t a documentary, or a court transcript brought to life. So once I did my initial, basic research of the broad facts, I set about to tell the story in the best way I knew how. I knew that I would have to add dramatic license especially since it was only two characters. And to get the story out there I had to bend some facts, since there were no police to interrogate them, no parents, no reporters, no lawyers. Since the Thrill Me only depicts Leopold and Loeb together in private conversations, there is really no one to contradict what they said in these instances. It can be somewhat challenging to decide exactly where fact and fiction blend together. But I am confident that in Thrill Me the basic true story is told — with a few surprise twists along the way.
Has your experience as a performer influenced your writing process?
It didn’t at first: I had long since given up performing when I became a writer and composer. Then in a twist of fate, straight out of [performing in] the musical 42ND STREET, I had to take over the role of Nathan Leopold a little less than half-way through the original Off-Broadway run. Once I started performing the role, I became more acutely aware of the stamina involved in performing a 90-minute show, while never leaving the stage. I learned that sometimes it’s easier to sing high notes, when they are led up to gradually. In my next projects, I made sure to take all of that into account. I also learned that it’s a very real thrill to stand on stage and present to an audience something that I had written myself.
Who are your musical theatre heroes (or influences)?
My favourites are John Kander and Fred Ebb. The Rink was the very first Broadway Musical I ever had tickets to see. I was amazed by how it was a relatively small, relatively dark musical. It immediately spoke to me and I have never been the same since. I also hold a very special fondness for Webber and Rice’s Evita and Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. I’m influenced in my musical style by all of these writers.
Can you tell us a bit about what you're working on next? Are there any themes you're particularly interested in exploring?
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the Brazilian production of my musical Flames (a mystery thriller) and the UK premiere of my musical Monster Makers (behind the scenes of famous horror movies). My next writing project has been a new, reconceived version of my 2009 musical Panic, which is the story behind the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. I’ve been transforming the script and score into something that I think will be very exciting and unusual. As you can probably tell, I am drawn to historical subjects.
I never try to force an idea or sit down and say to myself “time to start a new musical.” I just let the idea hit me when it hits me. And once it does, I work non-stop with all of my heart and soul.
Image credit: Nick Rutter.