An interview with writer Duane Nelsen about the big changes to his 2009 Festival show Ripper as it prepares for a production this month in Chicago.
Ripper is a musical thriller set against the backdrop of history’s most notorious unsolved crime spree. Centered around the PennyWise Music Hall where a magician amuses her audience with deathly illusions while real murders are taking place on the streets outside—the show explores how acts of evil impact our lives and the simple desire to be safe in a dangerous world. The main character, the mysterious Ripper himself, is omnipresent, yet never on stage in this big ensemble show in which what we see is never what it seems.
Ripper had a production at Broadway Rose Theatre in Oregon a few years ago. What did you learn from the full production?
So much! Ripper had been through a lot of readings, recordings, workshops and festivals, but nothing compares to a full production. Probably the most important thing was discovering that Ripper needed to be an ensemble show. There had always been multiple stories in the show, but one of them involving the reporter, Chester, was always in the forefront. In production, I saw that it made audiences think the show was about him, when it really wasn’t, and his journey didn’t reflect the importance that people were putting on him. It had the additional effect of making the other stories around him seem either less important than they were or somehow subordinate to his, which was also wrong. I saw that I really needed to equalize the stories in importance and strengthen the single thematic idea that they all hang on; this way, the real “star” of the show, the physically absent yet ever-present Ripper, could shine.
What has changed in the story of Ripper since that production?
Chester, the reporter, had always been part narrator in the show, so that was the first thing to go. The fourth wall is still broken, but now it’s broken by the victims after they’re dead, or by the “voice” of the Ripper, which now haunts many more scenes. The opening has been completely reworked to bring equal emphasis to the stories we’re going to follow, and the last 15 minutes were completely re-conceived in order to bring all of the stories together more effectively, both musically and thematically. Another three songs were cut or replaced, and at least half the book was rewritten, too. More humor was added thanks to the expansion of several minor characters, and overall, there’s both more clarity and more complexity to all the characters. But the most important change came as a result of the Newtown massacre. That horrifying event really hit home for me, partly because I have two school-age children myself. Witnessing what all those families went through and hearing the common refrain of “Why, why, why?”—just as we did on 9/11 and too many other occasions—really brought into sharp focus for me the horrible price innocent people pay for senseless acts of violence. The common thread in all of those stories is that those terrible expressions of evil are also countered by extraordinary acts of love and kindness, and sacrifices often by the least expected person. And that’s where Ripper found its heart. All this horrible stuff happens that shatters our faith in humanity, and then someone comes along and restores it in ways we never thought possible.
What other physical changes can we expect to see?
The O’Malley Theater at Roosevelt University seats 250, so it’s less than half the size of the Broadway Rose, and it’s a 3/4 thrust, so the physical show is going to be quite different. It’s really in your face, and I love that. The fantastic set design by Michael Lasswell blurs the line between the PennyWise Music Hall and the audience, and they will really feel part of the show. It’s built like a Transformers toy, where it appears like a unit set and then suddenly turns into something else. It’s very cool. Overall, we’re taking a very theatrical approach to many aspects of the physical production, using tight pools of light to emphasize the isolation and darkness surrounding this world. There’s still a fair amount of magic performed on stage, but some of it has been altered for this production–I’m not sure if they have the guillotine yet! Another interesting change is the use of a 4-person “choir” to sing the voice of the Ripper. It’s all in 1st person, with tight harmonies, and very creepy. The biggest physical change may be that we are doing the show with no doublings, which means we have a cast of 29, plus an orchestra of nine! It really points to the vital role that universities like Roosevelt can play in developing large new works.
How did this production come about?
The director, Ray Frewen, who happens to be an accomplished actor, had been connected to the show since the very first recording many years ago. At the time, I hired him to play Mr. Raktin, the proprietor of the PennyWise. In the course of rewrites, Mr. Ratkin became Mrs. Ratkin along the way, and Ray was out of a gig. Fortunately, he’s a great director, and has been wanting to get his hands on it for years. The stars finally lined up and here we are.
Why should people swing by Chicago to check out the revised Ripper?
Because these incredible students are going to scare the life out of you in the best possible way, and make you laugh, and break your heart, and make you wish you could see this show again and again—all the reasons I go to the theatre. There’s so much more to the show now than there was at NAMT or at Broadway Rose, and this is a great opportunity to witness the results that came from those earlier opportunities. It’s never been better. But even if you can’t make it to Chicago, you might still be able to see it. We’re working on doing a live streaming event! Keep up to date at ripperthemusical.com, facebook.com/rippershow and twitter.com/rippershow.