Most musicals – some would say all musicals – are adaptations. All, certainly, are highly collaborative, with directors, choreographers, and producers leading creative teams that might include separate book writers, lyricists, and composers. Certainly, tonight’s musical has plenty of parents. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (2014) is pretty tightly based on Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a British film directed and co-authored by Robert Hamer. In turn, the film is more loosely the offspring of a 1906 novel, Israel Rank: Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman. The material of that original text has undergone substantial change in the more than 100 years since the novel launched, but important similarities remain.
The essential plot device of all three offerings (novel, film, musical) centers upon a young man who realizes he is a certain number of potentially dead bodies away from an earldom. The root of that plot, of course, is primogeniture. It’s an English word, but its roots reach back into Biblical history (Esau and Jacob), Roman law, and medieval law and practice. Basically, primogeniture prescribes a path by which the entire or almost entire estate of any nobleman will fall to the next legitimate heir.
For the British, primogeniture had a number of consequences. First, and most intentionally, it allowed the nation to maintain undiluted the wealth of its great houses. Secondly, it provided in the well-educated and subsidized second sons, daughters, cousins and distant relations of the great houses a workforce that joined the clergy, the military, academia, art, scientific research and global exploration and business. Those left out of great wealth had to find something to do.
Perhaps more importantly with respect to tonight’s performance, primogeniture graced an army of mystery writers, playwrights and historical novelists with the essential substance of motive. From The Hound of the Baskervilles to Game of Thrones, from Jane Austin to J.K. Rowling, the inheritance and pursuit of huge piles of family money has fueled popular interest.
In Roy Horniman’s novel, Israel Rank: Autobiography of a Criminal, the central character is a young man of Jewish descent. Because she married a Jewish man, his mother (a distant cousin within the noble house of Gascoyne) has been snubbed and disowned. Raised in the knowledge of his noble lineage, Israel sets out (after his mother’s death) on a campaign of murder and intrigue to attain wealth and avenge her injured honor. The 1906 novel is problematic (in truth, offensive) in its social attitudes; the text is littered with what can only be seen as examples of Edwardian anti-Semitism. Israel refers often to his wily “Oriental” mind, his “Asiatic” point of view, his dusky complexion. Not surprisingly, the 1949 cinematic adaptation abandons its hero’s Jewishness. His father is now an Italian music teacher and vocal impresario. Louis (now D’Ascoyne) Mazzini is the aspiring heir. Serial murder and black comedy remain.
The most noteworthy artistic change in Kind Heart and Coronets is that all of the D’Ascoynes – from Ascoyne D’Ascoyne to Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne are performed by the great British actor Alec Guinness. Contemporary American audiences know Sir Alec best as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy, and perhaps as George Smiley in the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982). Widely regarded as his generation’s greatest character actor, Guinness was a soft-spoken and genteel “everyman.” His work in Kind Hearts and Coronets holds up remarkably well to contemporary scrutiny. As Roger Ebert wrote of Guinness, “Because he was nobody, he could be anybody.” With only subtle changes in posture, voice, costume and makeup, Guinness crafted a series of D’Ascoynes who were utterly unalike and yet belonged to the same noble (if cruelly snobbish) lineage.
In tonight’s musical adaptation, the D’Ascoynes become the D’Ysquiths, the heritage is Spanish, and “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro our nascent serial killer and earl. The D’Ysquith roles, however, remain in the hands of a single performer. The musical was a massive success in New York in 2014-15 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Nominated for nine Tony Awards, it won four, including Best Musical and Best Book. Two actors from the cast were nominated for Best Actor in a Musical; other awards and nominations included those for the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and Grammy awards.
In Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, we see the latest iteration in a series of adaptations stretching back over a century. Contributing artists in the series include a novelist (Horniman), a film director and screenwriters (Hamer and Dighton), a remarkable transformational actor (Guinness), and tonight’s librettist (Louis J. Freeman) and composer (Stephen Lutvak). We are graced tonight with a kind of grand collaboration. Enjoy.
Charles T. Hazelrigg Professor of Dramatic Arts
Patrick Kagan-Moore is professor of dramatic arts at Centre College, where he has taught since 1992. He was awarded the Hazelrigg Professorship in Dramatic Arts in 2004.
A teacher and producing theatre artist for more than 35 years, Kagan-Moore teaches a wide range of courses in Centre’s dramatic arts program as well as humanities courses in the college’s general studies program. He regularly directs at least one of Centre’s three major productions each year. Recent successful shows have included Assassins, Buried Child, and Our Country’s Good.
Since his first directing experience in a student production at Oregon State University, Kagan-Moore has directed or acted in nearly 100 productions, including professional, academic, community theatre, opera, and film. His professional directing credits include an Off-Off-Broadway production of Nikolai Gogol’s Marriage in New York City, Macbeth (Central Coast Shakespeare Festival), and Superior Donuts (Athens West Theatre).
His acting roles have included Ahab in Moby Dick, Macduff in Macbeth, and Brian in Joe Egg. Kagan-Moore was a regional finalist in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition, and he received several acting and directing awards from the Bellingham (Wash.) Theatre Guild and Oregon State University.
Kagan-Moore holds a B.S. from Oregon State University, an M.A. from Western Washington University, and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
For more information and to purchase tickets to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Click Here.