Glensheen turns real-life murders into musical theater

Jennifer Maren as Marjorie Caldwe

Jennifer Maren as Marjorie Caldwe

Jeff Hatcher knew that writing a musical-theater piece about one of Minnesota’s most infamous murders was going to ruffle a few feathers. That didn’t stop him from forging ahead with Glensheen, which takes the money-inspired double-murder of nearly 40 years ago and puts it on the History Theatre stage.

“In one sense you have to forge ahead without concern, or otherwise you will keep second guessing yourself. The show is selling very well, but I also get emails or letters from people saying, ‘How dare you do this.’ No matter what you do, you can’t imagine those people will be satisfied by whatever we do,” Hatcher says. “Having said that, we would be bastards if we didn’t have sympathy for the victims and the people close to the victims.”

Here are the facts. On June 27, 1977, Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, were murdered in the Glensheen mansion in Duluth. Suspicion fell on Roger Caldwell, who was the husband of Marjorie Caldwell, one of Congdon’s adopted daughters and an heir to the considerable family fortune. What followed was a tangled, at times absurd, string of accusations, trials, and confessions.

Chan Poling (of Suburbs and New Standards fame) has a long history of writing music for theater. He was brought in for the music side of this piece. He has also been working with Hatcher and Bill Corbett on another, much sunnier musical that will premiere in the spring at Illusion Theater. He echoes Hatcher’s sentiments.

“If artists were constrained to write things that were only fictional or not based on fact, we wouldn’t have The Diary of Anne Frank or 90 percent of our movies and plays and books and songs. You just have to push ahead and make your art,” he says.

To collaborate, the two got together to brainstorm ideas. “Jeff thought we needed a song where Roger was flying up to Minneapolis and thinking about the plot. Roger was a notorious drunk. We imagined it might be Roger on the plane, or Roger thinking about being on the plane. According to his confession, Roger was quite drunk when he was up in the house. I started to get inspired. I wrote a song called ‘The Perfect Murder Plot.’ Roger believes he has that,” Poling says.

Musically, Poling took plenty of cues from a wide swath of influences.

“Right away, I was sort of influenced by spooky, murder-mystery film music. I started listening to Sweeney Todd and Chicago and other murder musicals. I was just fired up and jazzed up by these dark, Sondheim-ish harmonies that also had a bit of camp humor,” Poling says. “It is operatic, too, in the characters and their ambitions and their tragic wrongheadedness. There is evil, but there is also pathos in Roger. I can find a sympathetic chord in Roger. I don’t forgive him or really like him,” Poling says.

For a long time, when you took a tour of the Glensheen mansion, the docents would either ignore the murders or let you know that they wouldn’t answer any questions about them. “At some point there was a policy change,” Hatcher notes. “They now sell books in the gift shop and will talk about it. At some level that struck me as particularly odd. We have to write this as a cracked frame or a cracked mirror show. A musical can have the stylistic and tonal changes that I thought the show would require. If you go from drama to comedy, the absurd to severe realism, you are making bald and abrupt gear shifts. Having it be a musical tells you already that you are in the land of gear shifts,” Hatcher says.

And the story has plenty of those gear shifts. “In a very weird way, it is a love story between Roger and Marjorie. It’s a cracked kind of love,” Hatcher says.



Saturday through October 25

History Theatre

30 E. 10th St., St. Paul


For tickets and more information, call 651-292-4323 or visit online.