The Arty Semite

How 'A Gentleman's Guide' Got to Broadway

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share
Jefferson Mays in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is easily the best reviewed musical of the season. It marks the Broadway debut of Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), who were praised by The New York Times for a score that “establishes itself as one of the most accomplished (and probably the most literate) to be heard on Broadway in the past dozen years or so.”

The play is based on a 1907 novel by Brit Roy Horniman that was turned into a 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness.

It’s a simple tale. Poor Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) is visited by a friend of his late mother, who informs him that he is related to the Earl of Highhurst. It seems his mom was banished when she married Monty’s dad, a Castillian. Now Monty is just eight (soon to be dead) relatives away from an earldom.

Freedman (from Los Angeles) and Lutvak (in New York) spoke to the Forward about the long road from concept to Broadway, the plot’s Jewish antecedents, and creating underdog characters.

Curt Schleier: How did this project begin?

Freedman: Steve came to me several years ago and said that he always wanted to make a musical out of the story. He turned me onto it and I absolutely loved it. We were both attracted to the genre and the time period. Roy Horniman, who wrote it, was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde.

Lutvak: One of the things I love in the story is that culturally there was such a strict code of ethics at the time. The ideas that a lead character would be a murderer and a gentleman at the same time opened up enormous comedic and musical possibilities. The idea of keeping the musical formula going while he was killing all these people seemed like too much fun to pass up. The musical palate could borrow from classical music, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Noel Coward of whom I am a fan.

Freedman: One of the biggest challenges was how do you make a murderer sympathetic? That was an exciting challenge for us. But in our show you do care about him and root for him. He’s the underdog, a man who was tricked out of his birthright, denied not just money and position, but the love of the woman he loves, who won’t marry him because of his lower position in society.

Lutvak: The story of the outside and trying to succeed is as old as the hills. We are turning that story on its ears — an outsider who reaches his dream but does it by murdering people. We get to have our cake and eat it too; we’re traditional but subversive at the same time.

There’s something very interesting most people don’t know about the original novel, isn’t there?

Lutvak: The novel the show is based on is titled “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” What’s interesting about the novel, which was written in 1907, Israel Rank is half Jewish and that puts him in an awkward place in society. Because his mother married a Jew, he was disinherited. In the 1949 movie, they changed his heritage from Jewish to Italian. They felt making even a half Jew a murder so close to the end of World War II would somehow be perceived as anti-Semitic.

You didn’t make him Jewish, either.

Freedman: We weren’t afraid of accusations of anti-Semitism.

Lutvak: It was his otherness we were interested in. We thought Castilian was funnier.

It took you, what, 10 years to bring this to Broadway? Why did it take so long?

Freedman: We went through roadblocks that a lot of shows go through when you don’t have famous people writing them or famous people starring in them. So what it took was finding people who have faith in the show, faith in the material and faith in the audience. Along the way there were stops and starts, roadblocks that made it more difficult.

Such as?

Lutvak: We had a major producer who was excited to get on board. We were scheduled to have a meeting with him on a Monday but a few days before that he died.

Freedman: We were sad that he died, of course. But at that point it was almost comically absurd that we would have of piece of bad luck like that. There were also legal issues we hadn’t expected to encounter.

Lutvak: There was a righteous dispute with the film company that owns the movie based on the same underlying material.

Freedman: We were all set to go at La Jolla [Playhouse] and they sued us. It took over a year, and in the end the judge dismissed the case. But by that time we lost the theater, we lost the producer and had to start all over again.

Lutvak: But we did overcome all that, and here we are on Broadway.

Can you talk a little about your Jewish backgrounds?

Freedman: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I was always in synagogue. I was very involved with United Synagogue Youth, and was president of the Pacific Coast Far West region.

Lutvak: I’m a native of the Bronx and was raised in Little Neck, Queens. I started playing piano when I was 5. I just kind of understood it. I officially started lessons when I was 6 and almost immediately began writing music. By the time I graduated high school, I’d written 350 songs; unfortunately none of them were published. Like Robert I was bar mitzvahed. We were kosher in the house and my folks spoke Yiddish at home. My father spoke only Yiddish until he was six.

Is there anything you bring from that background to your current work?

Lutvak: In a certain way, it’s impossible to write in the minor key without this music seeming Jewish.

Freedman: As musical theater riders and as students and appreciators of musical theater, it’s undeniable that we are greatly influenced by book writers and composers from throughout the last century, a great many of them were Jewish. Our work has the inherent influence of all those wonderful Jewish writers who came before us.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Steven Lutvak, Robert L. Freedman, Interviews, Musical Theater, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.