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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things
Today's topic: What makes murder mysteries so compelling on stage? TDF's Tyler Riley and Melissa Meli, cohosts of the Amateur Detective Club podcast, are on the case!
Tyler Riley: So Melissa, what drew you to murder mysteries initially?
Melissa Meli: I feel like I've always loved mysteries. If I had to track it to anything, it's probably watching Murder, She Wrote with my mom as a kid. I love everything from detective procedurals on TV, to zany murder mysteries like Clue, to deep, intense crime dramas.
Tyler: I had a similar introduction, through the TV show Midsomer Murders. As far as mysteries on stage go, do you seek them out?
Melissa : Not exactly, but I'm pretty aware of plays and musicals in general and I do get excited when a mystery comes along. They tend to be higher on my to-see list, for sure. How do you find out about them?
Tyler: Luckily, through my job here at TDF, I get sent a lot of press releases about upcoming shows. That's how I heard about our most recent adventure: The Art of Killin' It, a fun immersive murder mystery from an all-BIPOC creative team. It's also how I learned about the brilliant mystery currently running at Classic Stage Company: Snow in Midsummer, which you also saw. But before we talk about those shows, I want to know, what was the first mystery you saw on stage?
Melissa : My first memory of a stage murder mystery is from performing in one: Arsenic and Old Lace. When I was in high school, I played Elaine Harper, the fiancée of Mortimer Brewster, the nephew who's trying to figure out why older men keep disappearing from his aunts' bed-and-breakfast-style home. It's one of those classic madcap dark comedies, and I had a blast doing that show. What's your first theatrical murder mystery memory?
Tyler: That is amazing! And I'm jealous you've gotten to perform in one. We were both in a musical called The Whimsical World of Sherlock Holmes, yet it was not a mystery. Still hoping for my shot one day! The first mystery I saw on stage was honestly only a few years ago: Ken Ludwig's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. I must add that it's a travesty it didn't transfer to Broadway.
Melissa : That's such a shame it didn't transfer! I would have loved to see it. You very recently brought the McCarter to my attention, with the theatre's virtual production of Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, which you can still stream.
Tyler: Yes! Lloyd Suh's murder mystery was presented as part of Paula Vogel's Bard at the Gate series. We even did an episode about the play on our Amateur Detective Club murder mystery podcast. I didn't get to see the McCarter's production of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap back in 2016, but I heard fantastic things about it. I hope the theatre continues to produce more mysteries. Did you think Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery accomplished everything a mystery should, despite being virtual?
Melissa : That brings up an even bigger question: What constitutes a mystery, anyway? That's a subject we debate frequently on our podcast! I tend to gravitate toward a pretty broad definition: a crime or a tragedy has occurred, and either the characters, the audience or both try to figure out whodunnit. Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery is largely a play within a play, and the mystery occurs within the production being rehearsed by the characters. It definitely conjured the atmosphere and intrigue I associate with mysteries and kept me guessing who the killer was till it was finally revealed. The McCarter's presentation capably used the virtual venue to set up that mystery. At its best, streaming theatre can utilize mechanisms from both film and stage to give the audience an exciting dramatic experience, and this one accomplished that balance.
Tyler: I couldn't agree more about streaming! And I'm glad you gave your definition of mystery, and I love it. With that definition in mind, have you ever seen A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder? (A quick shout-out to the brilliant virtual presentation of the musical by CollaborAzian.) If so, do you consider that a mystery? I had trouble placing it myself, because the audience is aware of the murderer the entire time, but the characters are not.
Melissa : I didn't see that one! But based on your description, I'd still put it in the mystery category. I know that audiences love to solve along with the characters, so I understand why some people might have a harder time calling something a mystery when they're not in the dark. Arsenic and Old Lace falls into that category, too, but it's still fun seeing how the investigation, such as it is, unfolds. A friend recently pointed out to me that Hamlet is a bit of a murder mystery as well, though I think that's more on the fringes. Hamlet is confident he knows who killed his father, so the play becomes more about revenge than solving a crime. On the other hand, a play like Snow in Midsummer is a much more clear-cut mystery, where no one on stage or in the audience knows who the perpetrator is. Another fun example is The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has the added layer of no one knowing Dickens' intent since he died while writing the novel, and the musical adaptation has multiple endings. Which one you see is determined by audience vote!
Tyler: Yes! I love the mystery of having a different killer from performance to performance. And you shared some great examples of the types of mysteries one can see on stage. I want to add the hilarious comedy The Play That Goes Wrong at New World Stages. While it's first and foremost a slapstick comedy, the play within the play, The Murder at Haversham Manor, is a mystery. Sometimes it's hard to follow the thread, though, with all of the amazing pratfalls and stage magic happening around it.
On our Amateur Detective Club podcast, we've had long talks about producing an audio or stage version of Agatha Christie's Black Coffee. Are there other mysteries you would like to see theatricalized?
Melissa : I really want to make Black Coffee happen! I think a stage adaptation of Clue could work nicely. In fact, I think you performed in a sort of cabaret version of Clue a few years back! I just did a quick online search, and of course it's already been done. So, instead, I'll cast my vote for a stage adaptation of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Tyler: I'm glad you mentioned Clue. I did indeed do a fun cabaret version at the now-closed West End Lounge, and there was a stage adaptation earlier this year at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, though I missed it. Paper Mill is also presenting Ken Ludwig's Murder on the Orient Express next season. Apparently, we love our murder mysteries in New Jersey.
I would LOVE a stage version of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and, spoiler alert, from covering it on our podcast, I can say it's one of the few universally loved mysteries. I also know there's a growing contingent of audiences who want to see more original works on stage as opposed to adaptations. What would you look for when thinking of newer mysteries pieces?
Melissa : We have a wealth of great books and movies to adapt, it's true, and I know many of those come with a built-in audience. But there's nothing like a brand-new idea. I love to see new playwrights coming into the forefront, and it would be a joy to get to see more modern-day mysteries come from those creators. I've really loved seeing work from BIPOC creators in the more recent shows we've gotten to see. It's hard to imagine more specifics, because the true magic happens when I get to experience a new story brought to life onstage.
Tyler: You raise a great point about where the magic comes in, and I think it's especially true for mysteries. As you said, we've seen two really wonderful and unique mysteries this month: Snow in Midsummer and The Art of Killin' It. Both are original works with endings that subvert some murder mystery tropes. I can't say anything else without giving the surprises away.
To wrap up, is there anything you would say to encourage folks to give theatrical murder mysteries a try?
Melissa : Anyone who loves Poirot, Murder, She Wrote or Only Murders in the Building has got to experience what theatre can do to make mysteries dynamic and intriguing. Seeing something live adds another level, because it's more exposed, more spontaneous, more out in the open. You're there with the detectives as they solve the crime. It gives you a closer look at the case since you're there with it in person. On the flipside, it's even more of a credit to the magic of theatre when you don't see the twist coming.
Tyler Riley is TDF's Online and Dance Programs Manager as well as an actor, voice-over artist and cohost of the Amateur Detective Club podcast. He can be found on Instagram and on Twitter at @itstylerriley. Melissa Meli is an actor, director and cohost of The Amateur Detective Club podcast. She can be found on Instagram @melissajmeli_ and on Twitter at @melissajmeli. Follow TDF on Twitter at @TDFNYC.
Top image: The Art of Killin' It, which is currently running at Future Proof in Brooklyn. Photo by Amber Ink.