The Drama Desk Awards
LaGuardia Concert Hall
at Lincoln Center
100 Amsterdam Ave. at W. 64th St.
May 21 9p.m.
$175-$750; 212- 352-3101
If you are expecting the creator of a musical about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the Jazz Age thrill killers, to be some misanthropic Goth working in a basement somewhere, you do not know anything about Stephen Dolginoff nor have you seen his critically acclaimed “Thrill Me” that challenged and gratified audiences earlier this season at the York Theater Company here. Fresh from being nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award and two Drama Desk awards for Outstanding Musical and Music, he said he is “happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
The sunny, lean Dolginoff, 38, lives and composes out of a tidy apartment in a theater district high rise with his beloved cat, Sox, and such inspirations as a doll of Jeannie from the “I Dream of Jeannie” TV show and a picture of Lucille Ball in her “I Love Lucy” prime.
The tag line for “Thrill Me” was “Relationships can be murder,” but Dolginoff said over coffee in his neighborhood diner, “Murder isn’t what it is about.” The two-hander, for which he wrote the book, lyrics and music and in which he later starred as Nathan Leopold, is more about “what we do for the person we love—things we wouldn’t do on our own,” he said. “A lot of people can relate to that and the fact that it has aspects of a thriller.” As Nathan sings, “God knows why I find you so appealing.”
Wasn’t he concerned about the acceptability not to mention commercial prospects of a musical about child murder? While Dolginoff makes no excuses for the killers, he said, “They were 18, the kid was 14. It was more like killing a peer.” The victim, Bobby Franks, is not portrayed in the musical because the focus is on the relationship of the older boys, which is homosexual. The drama is about who is really in control.
“It was such a compelling story,” he said and not difficult to write once he got started. “I felt, ‘Here’s the whole story laid out for me. I just had to figure out how to get it told through just the two characters,” especially in the second half when they are being interrogated and tried.
Getting it produced was another matter. When he wrote it ten years ago, he thought, “two weeks in a Village basement sounded good.” He said his many rejection letters would read—“We think it is well written, it’s just not for us.” Eventually, he showed it to producer Jim Kierstead who submitted it to the 2003 Midtown International Theater Festival where it was very well received. It got produced in Boston, Melbourne and Orlando before its long run starting last May at the York, “a birthplace for new literate, intimate musicals, and a place where underappreciated musical gems from the past are rediscovered,” according to its mission statement.
While writing it, “I had to imagine myself as both characters,” but he never imagined himself being in it. When the York run was extended and Matt Bauer could not continue as Nathan, Dolginoff was asked to join Doug Kreeger onstage.
“At first I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Dolginoff said. “I was afraid I would ruin it. I hadn’t performed in years and never had the lead.” But he was persuaded that he was the only one who could take over on such short notice. The York let this reporter see his first performance last year and I was able to report that he triumphed. Now he is the toast of the town.
At the Drama Desk nominees’ reception, “I was overwhelmed,” he said. “So many people knew who I was and knew ‘Thrill Me.’ I couldn’t believe it. When I was a little kid in Kansas City, I would dream of things like that. No one was happier than I was.” It was especially gratifying because the run at the York ended last summer, but was still strong in the memories of people he encountered at the party.
There are eight productions of “Thrill Me” scheduled over the coming year, including St. Petersburg, Florida in July and Seattle in February where Dolginoff will reprise his performance. It’s also slated for Dallas, Chicago, Richmond and Philadelphia, and Seoul, South Korea (in Korean).
Despite its success, it is still “not the type of show that high schools and community theaters will do,” but in Philly’s Media Theater, it is part of a season that includes “Aida,” “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” “Oklahoma,” and “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” Go figure.
Dolginoff grew up in Kansas City, did theater in high school and went to New York to study acting at NYU where he realized he did not want to be one. “My passion was writing and composing,” he said. He did an adult take on “Sleeping Beauty” called “Beauty Sleep.”
“I realized how hard acting was—so much competition,” he said, and he would have been performing other people’s work. “As a writer, everything I would create would be original.”
He wrote “Most Men Are” about male-male relationships, gay and familial, as well as dealing with AIDS, in 1995. He has always been out as a gay man. “It never occurred to me to be untruthful,” he said.
“No one is not going to do my play because I’m gay. Actors are afraid they might not get hired because of it, but it’s very different for writers.”
He has also written musicals of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and another called “One Foot Out the Door” for which he won a Bistro Award.
Dolginoff has survived all these years as a struggling writer by having a supportive family and by doing part-time work in theater offices. But now he is totally dedicated to advancing “Thrill Me” and will not start another musical right away unless he gets a commission or something moves him. “The thing I’ve learned,” he said, “is if a song doesn’t come fast, it doesn’t come at all.”
Stephen Dolginoff’s success may not have come fast, but his time has surely come.