Jonathan Van Es

Content note: This article contains discussion of abusive, unequal relationships and murder 

Featuring two infamous murderers in a dysfunctional homosexual relationship, Thrill Me is an unorthodox and exhilarating musical. For most people, that is enough for a good evening at the theatre, and it was exactly how I felt when I first saw the show three years ago. But as I began to think more deeply about it over time, I gradually realised that there is a great deal of potential for emotional depth and characterisation in this production.

The plot is based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two gay lovers who abducted and murdered a 14-year-old child in Chicago in 1924. The case was so famous at the time that their three-month hearing was dubbed ‘the trial of the century’. The focus of Thrill Me, however, shifts away from the shocking crime itself, devoting more effort to fleshing out the two men and examining their motivations.

Superficially, Thrill Me presents Richard as a cold-blooded mastermind and Nathan as a lovesick accomplice. This leads to a large disparity in power between the two characters, which makes the dramatic conflict hard to maintain. Past productions have often ended up with a stereotypical cackling villain and a weak, whiny fool. Therefore, the musical director and I decided early on that Nathan would have to be on equal footing with Richard from the very first scene. The constant push-and-pull of their relationship would drive their actions, and the suspense of who comes out on top cannot be resolved until the end.

“Nathan would have to be on equal footing with Richard. The constant push-and-pull of their relationship would drive their actions.”

Richard is undeniably the more verbally dominant character – his lines include most of the details of the murder plan, and he frequently belittles and dismisses his companion. To counteract this imbalance, it made sense that Nathan would be more physically dominant. There are two songs in the first half of the show where this is prominent: ‘Everybody Wants Richard’ and ‘Thrill Me’. In the first song, Nathan persuades Richard to resume their relationship after a long separation, and in the second, he demands sex in exchange for assisting Richard with crime. In order for the portrayal to not come across as violent or non-consensual, the cast has put a lot of thought into using less explicit physical movements to achieve the same effect. The precise position of a hand, for example, is one of the subtler ways we highlight Nathan’s predatory and controlling behaviour.


Mountain View

You’re dead and I’m eating Pic’n'Mix is a real treat

The lyrics of these two songs also shed light on the unusual structure of the plot. The story is told by an older Nathan to a parole board in prison, some thirty years later. He recounts past events surrounding the murder episodically, while conversing with the parole officers in-between. There is a clear discrepancy between old Nathan’s narrative and young Nathan’s behaviour. Repeatedly, old Nathan claims that his devotion for Richard was his main motivation for the crime, yet young Nathan comes across as extremely possessive and manipulative. This duality in personality baffled me, until I read Life+99 Years, a book written by the historical Leopold himself in 1954, four years before he was released from prison. It was enlightening in its unreliability – of course, the principal aim of the book was to better his chances for parole. As a result, he vastly understated his part in the murder, claimed that he had objected to the idea from the start, and had been entirely motivated by his naïve crush on Loeb.

It is not a huge leap then to conclude that the older Nathan in Thrill Me is just as unreliable a narrator as Leopold was in real life. We identified specific lines where glimpses of the cruel, amoral young man would bleed through old Nathan’s imperfect pretence. In the opening song ‘Why’, the music is increasingly emotional and climatic while he laments the injustice of his sentence over and over, but he does not explicitly state remorse for his actions until the final scene – and only after deliberate prompting. This line, which we chose to interpret as impassive and insincere, could cast significant doubt on the success of his rehabilitation.

I hope that the audience will leave with that in their minds. How much of old Nathan’s narration is credible? How much of the play’s version of events comes from the author’s artistic license? Most importantly, instead of simply dismissing them as ‘evil’, is it ever worth trying to understand those who are kept behind bars? 

Thrill Me is showing at the Corpus Playroom at 7pm, Tuesday 26th to Saturday 30th November.