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'Ripper' is literally ripped from the news headlines

Broadway Rose presents musical thriller based on London serial killer Jack the Ripper
by: Alan Anderson MASTER OF ILLUSION — “Ripper” playwright and composer Duane Nelsen arrived in Tigard in mid-July to offer his input during rehearsals for the world premiere of his show.

The true story of Jack the Ripper, who in the fall of 1888 murdered five East End London prostitutes and was never apprehended, might seem like a strange subject for a musical.

But the Broadway Rose Theatre Company has never been known to shy away from theatrical challenges and so is producing the world premiere of "Ripper" in August.

"Ripper," which was written and composed by Chicago-based Duane Nelsen, was actually still a work in progress when the Broadway Rose announced in August 2010 that the show would be one of its two blockbuster summer musicals for its 20th season this year.

In the past, Broadway Rose co-founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy have helped develop new theatrical works but none on this scale.

"We've never done a world premiere on such a large level," said Maroney, producing artistic director. "We really like this piece. The story and book are strong, and the songs are smart and musical. We owe it to our industry, our community, our audiences and ourselves to take this opportunity to grow and contribute.

"And it's just the most exciting thing you can do. It will be fully staged, not a workshop, and it's a major financial investment."

The plot follows an illusionist who saws women in half at the PennyWise Music Hall, while outside on the streets real murders are taking place, and a reporter, Chester Talbot, decides to unravel the mystery.

Why did Nelsen choose to write a musical based on a such gruesome real-life story?

He said that 25 years ago, he was taking a writing class and given the assignment of doing a piece of historical journalism.

"It was nearing the 100th anniversary of the murders, so what better topic?" Nelsen said. "As I got into it, I just knew it would be a show someday. It simply cried out to be told with music and heightened theatricality.

'The show ultimately has little to do with the historical facts, but it remains true to the fundamental questions the history raises about our sense of security and our obligation to protect the people we love.

"From the reporter who covers the story and the magician who runs the brothel, to the police and of course, the prostitutes, an intricate plot unfolds that interweaves magic and mayhem, the lively nightlife of the music halls and the ever-present danger of a killer lurking in the shadows."

The evolution of "Ripper" the musical took about a dozen years to become a full-blown theatrical production.

In 1997, 109 years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London, Nelsen wrote and recorded a concept album of his first draft of "Ripper," which led to the first public reading in 1999.

"Ripper" was then produced at the STAGES Festival at Theater Building Chicago in 2004, where an off-Broadway producer optioned the show and presented the first commercial reading at New World Stages in New York City.

From that venue, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre invited Nelsen to submit the musical for its new works festival, where Murphy, Broadway Rose general manager, served on the selection committee.

Out of more than 150 new works, "Ripper" was one of eight chosen to be in the 21st annual Festival of New Musicals in October 2009, and from there, Broadway Rose picked up the show for its 2011 season.

In the meantime, Nelsen kept working on the show that had never been presented with costumes, sets or orchestra. In September 2010 he received a fellowship that allowed him to concentrate fully on the show and also work on it with some of the best musical writers in the country.

Five months after the Broadway Rose announced that "Ripper" would be one of its 2011 shows, Nelsen sent his finished working script to Maroney in January this year, and she assembled an artistic team to collaborate with Nelson.

In March Nelsen came to Tigard and participated in the casting process and production meetings at the Broadway Rose, where he met "Ripper" director Abe Reybold.

"We had the biggest production meeting I've ever been to at Broadway Rose," Reybold said. "There are lots of assistants on this show.

"We started with casting the key characters - Mary and Chester. We saw actors of all ages for the roles, but once we found our leads, we were able to cast the other actors around them."

Back in Chicago, Nelsen finished orchestrating the score for an 11-piece orchestra, which will be Broadway Rose's largest ever, although the process did not quite end there.

"We just got Chester's climactic song in act two from Duane," said Alan Anderson, Broadway Rose marketing director, in early July.

In total, over more than a decade, 100-plus people contributed to the readings and recordings that shaped the show.

"The development is still ongoing," Nelsen said in March. "It is not set in stone. The first production - the world premiere - is another step. We will learn things from it - the costumes, the set, the full orchestration. It will be different from doing it with a piano and a few actors."

Reybold added, "The actors play a role too. As a director, they may suggest something that I never thought of doing that way."

Nelsen agreed, saying, "We want to engage everyone in the show. This is different from seeing it intellectually on the page."

Nelsen admitted that the development process was "really long."

He explained, "Typically the length of time to create a show like this would be seven years. This was 11 or 12 years, but I wasn't writing all that time. A lot of years it just sat there."

Established shows have a format and precedents for directors to follow that just need to be tweaked to suit their individual needs and circumstances, according to Reybold, who has been involved in a number of Broadway Rose productions.

"We are starting from scratch with script, score, concept, design, costumes, casting requirements, orchestrations - you name it," he said. "The process for directing a new work is to educate yourself. There is a much wider net with a new show and more decisions to make.

"It's all new and untried - and very exciting. I'm delighted to be solving the creative puzzle of a world premiere, but I have the playwright right here so I can pick his brains."

Nelsen, who returned to Tigard in mid-July for the latter part of the rehearsal process, echoed Reybold's words.

"It's thrilling to be here in Portland," he said. "Broadway Rose is the ideal place to take the show to the next step. There are great people who work here, and there is a great pool of talent to draw from. There are just fantastic people here."

Local audience members might actually have heard Nelsen's music before whether they know it or not.

In addition to being a composer in residence at off-Broadway's Equity Library Theater, Nelsen was a jingle writer for 15 years, scoring national television ads for McDonald's, Kellogg's, Disney, Pillsbury, Bose and other major corporations.

"Producing a new musical as large as 'Ripper' requires a courageous producer and an adventurous audience," Nelsen said. "I'm thrilled to be premiering this new show at Broadway Rose, and I hope (the audience) enjoys its journey into the darkest corners of Victorian London.

"Jack the Ripper doesn't appear in the show. What the audience can expect is a highly theatrical show that is engaging in the most unexpected ways. The show runs through different emotions - it's funny in a sort of dark and macabre way. There are some emotionally moving moments and some sad moments. And it's a very romantic love story."

And Nelson offers a warning to audience members: "Beware - what you see may not be what it seems!"

Broadway Rose is fortunate to have been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, through its Access to Artistic Excellence program, to support the new musical.

"We are enormously grateful for this grant from the NEA - the first in the Broadway Rose's history," Maroney said.

"It is recognition that our work is of significant national value, and it's a show of support for 'Ripper' as a well-developed, exciting new musical with great potential."