When a musical bills itself as scary, it’s natural to be a little dubious. Unless what scares you are chorus girls or people who sporadically break into song and dance — which, granted, can sometimes be pretty horrifying — the odds of a staged musical sending a shiver down your spine are long.
But long odds haven’t stopped Donald Fowler yet. Over the course of nearly 15 years, he has pursued an obsession with Jack the Ripper, the infamous serial killer whose bloody knife-work terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the late 19th century, to bring the premiere of his musical Creep to the stage at WaterTower Theatre.
The enduring mystery of the killer’s identity is the subject of countless books, movies and television programs; even today, new speculations continue to emerge about who eviscerated at least five women, mostly prostitutes, in the foggy back alleys behind brothels and bars. But few artists have found the murder of Victorian street-walkers ripe for a tune. Just a handful of Ripper musicals have made it to the stage, one in French at the Grand Guignol theater, and another in 2012 in Chicago called Ripper the Musical, which didn’t question the killer’s identity, but instead explored the lives affected by the killings. After a string of well-received performances, that musical vanished.
But a deadly subject and previous versions didn’t temper Fowler’s obsession as he trudged the long path to create Creep and, equally important, raise the money to stage it. The journey began with a random scene on a street in Paris.
“We’re here because this place was named for a bar in London often associated with Jack the Ripper. They say one of his victims, Mary Kelly, used to, well, pick up her clients here,” Fowler explains, raising one eyebrow and flashing a set of pearly white teeth. “Here” is Ten Bells Tavern in Oak Cliff, where Fowler sits sipping a club soda as he talks about how Creep came to be.
Fowler had the idea for the musical while contemplating middle age on the eve of his 40th birthday. “Picture it: Paris,” he says, stretching out his arms as if to capture a scene on camera. “My friend Michael and I wanted to see the City of Lights, very bohemian-style.”
One scene in particular he couldn’t shake. He describes it in vivid detail, even though it happened more than a decade ago. It was November, cold and moody, as he recalls. Fowler was sitting on a park bench in front of the American Embassy — they were going to the Buddha Bar — and he saw an older woman with crisp autumnal leaves swirling around her. Something about the way she sat motionless, looking out into the park, her eyes unblinking, but with a small, mischievous twinkle, stuck with him. In his mind’s eye, the pile of leaves collected at her feet became a coffin, and he could see a young girl, clawing her way out, as the lights come up on a street corner.
“Well, I didn’t see the whole musical in that moment,” he says. “But it was one of those scenes that sticks with you.”
Eventually he would change the scene from Paris to London, to a place tormented by the threat of a terrifying night prowler. He says the idea came while watching the Johnny Depp thriller From Hell, about Jack the Ripper. Something about those two disparate moments collided in his brain to create the seed of a musical he had no idea how to write.
One night later that week, Fowler ran out to buy a keyboard. At an electronics store, he grabbed a cheap, 61-key Casio. He wasn’t ready to invest in something expensive — he really wasn’t a musician to speak of. He’d been singing in musicals for decades and could plunk out a tune, but he never learned to read music for a piano. A melody whirled around his head, and he wanted to see if he could get it out.
“I had this itch in my fingers,” he says. “I thought I knew what that meant, so I set up the keyboard and started playing.”
That melody would eventually become “Mothers and Daughters,” a song that vacillates between major and minor chords as two mothers sing about the secrets they keep when attempting to protect their children. The lyrics paint a stark picture of family: “When truth’s faced, they’ll find a way to survive/ the way they choose is the way they become less alive.”
Fowler realized pretty quickly he wasn’t just writing a musical about Jack the Ripper, he was writing about his family and himself.
“I really wrote a musical about me,” he says. “I recognize myself in every character.”
Fowler grew up all over the country, traveling with his pilot father to different Air Force bases, but his roots are in West Texas, at a farm near Abilene, a long way from Whitechapel. That’s where he went to high school in the late ’70s. He stuck around West Texas for a brief stint at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but he quickly transferred to University of North Texas, a little bit closer to the big city of Dallas where he would spend his early 20s.
“I had to get out of my childhood,” he says. “I wanted to be an actor, but I also wanted to start over.”
Growing up gay in West Texas had obvious pitfalls. He didn’t date until he lived in Dallas, but it was his family life that chased him away. He speaks of his stepmother with a Cinderella-like disdain. His mother left when Fowler was young, leaving him and his brother Chris with his father and his new wife.
“She was the kind of woman who would predict her stepchildren’s failure,” says Fowler, describing her as shrill and cold. “I suppose between her and my own mother, it’s not surprising that I have mommy issues.”
Fowler left Dallas to study acting at Playhouse West in Los Angeles. He spent nearly a decade there auditioning, picking up the occasional gig before he started writing plays, mostly one-man shows for himself, many of which dug into the psychology of his family, from whom he inherited his restless sense of showmanship. His great-grandparents were traveling vaudeville performers. His grandmother Peggy left his father to be raised by the vaudevillian grandmother. His mother wanted to dance in the movies, a dream unfulfilled. Her absence inspired Fowler’s short play Peggy Lee on the Midway, a fantastical story about a washed-up carnival dancer, which was part of Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival in 1999. “She’s not necessarily the villain in that show,” says Fowler. “I don’t think life is that simple, where everyone is either [a hero or a villain]. Everyone has the potential for a dark side.”
Even Fowler’s father, who was an unsuccessful concert pianist, serves as inspiration for Creep, in which a piano teacher becomes one of the characters suspected of being the killer.
In September, midway through the month of rehearsals for Creep, the orchestrations arrived. It was time for sitzprobe, a German term that translates to “seated rehearsal” and in theater speak refers to the first time the singers perform with the orchestra. Fowler’s music, which he had plunked out by ear on that little Casio keyboard more than six years earlier, had been arranged by Daniel Kazemi, an orchestrator for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The cast of 18 listened as the 10-piece orchestra played the broad, often eerie music for the first time, led by music director Kevin Gunter.
“We were all just crying,” says Kate Galvin, the director brought in from Philadelphia at the beginning of the year to help develop the musical for full production. “The music is huge.”
Traces of Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken and maybe a bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber prowl around in Fowler’s orchestrations, but cast members describe the music as being unlike anything they’ve ever heard before. Much of the music is dissonant; there’s no show-stopping number like “Defying Gravity” in Wicked, or even a torch song, like “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables. That might be because Fowler had no idea how to write a musical; or it might be what Galvin finds so fresh and surprising about Creep.
“I’ve got a God thing with piano, that’s the only way I know how to explain it,” says Fowler. But to get it all to paper, he recruited a number of friends. He taught the first song, “Mothers and Daughters,” to local actress Cara Serber for her to perform at an open mic night at what is now Pekers Bar in the Oak Lawn neighborhood. He was tinkering with the idea of writing a full musical, but felt that song was the only one ready to present to the public. This was sometime in 2008.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard any music I’d written performed,” says Fowler. “At this point the idea of a musical felt very far away.”
But he couldn’t shake the music. He was putting together a musical “bit by bit,” just as Sondheim wrote. Over the next two years, he worked with his longtime friend Elaine Davidson, a professional music director, to transcribe the music he was recording on his keyboard. The late Terry Dobson handled all of the choral arrangements. This left Fowler to finish the book.
He consumed everything about Jack the Ripper and London’s East End near the end of the 19th century. The more he studied the more he realized he wasn’t writing a straightforward Jack the Ripper musical; he was deconstructing the story, basing his characters and his facts very loosely on history. In Creep, everyone on stage is a suspect and the first song promises, “Discovering who is the Ripper is certainly part of the game.”
By 2010, he wanted to put his first draft out into the world. Fowler’s musical premiered as a staged reading at the Out of the Loop festival with a much longer name, Creep (the very, very sad but unfortunately true and completely fabricated tale of Jack the Ripper). It was the first time anyone outside of Fowler’s close group of friends had seen or heard the project, and Arnold Wayne Jones of the Dallas Voice declared he hadn’t seen something as exciting since Spring Awakening. “The songs were gems,” he wrote, “the orchestrations impressive, the thematic unity exceptional.”
Fowler, who hired all the actors himself and poured $8,000 of his own money into the reading, put Creep on the shelf after that process. He had just left Stanley Korshak to take a job at the shop Nest, and he wanted to focus his attention there.
“I didn’t know where it would go next. WaterTower wasn’t in a position to produce it at the time,” Fowler says. “Besides, it was a really draining process.”
For the next two years, Fowler tried not to think about Creep, but the musical kept whispering his name. And his friends wouldn’t stop talking about it either. In 2012, his friend Nicholas Even, who has worked closely with The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), an organization dedicated to supporting the arts in Dallas, suggested Fowler submit it for one of the new works grants. These grants of up to $20,000 are designated to support a full production of a new, locally written work. But it required a theater attached to the project.
“Suddenly I’m talking about it again,” he says. “I just needed to commandeer a theater company into getting involved.”
A quick chat with Uptown Players, the LGBT troupe that performs at the Kalita Humphreys in Turtle Creek, and the company’s directors Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch agreed to sign on for the process. If the grant was awarded, Uptown Players would produce it. If it wasn’t, they could back out. In the meantime, they would provide a space for a workshop of the show. Fowler and his supporters, who now included Even and his bosses at Nest, Heather Weise and Scott Alexander, estimated they would need around $30,000 for a workshop. And Fowler, who is more comfortable in a tuxedo than in sweatpants, wanted to raise money the old fashioned way.
“I wasn’t going to do Kickstarter or any of that. I wouldn’t even know how,” he says. “I wanted to raise money with a salon at someone’s home, and get people excited about the art.”
Weise and Alexander offered up their University Park home, organized a small party and invited a number of arts supporters and interested people. Several local actors sang songs from the musical, including Patty Breckenridge, who performed the role of Polly in the original workshop. The philanthropy grapevine began chattering and heavy-hitting fundraiser Lynn McBee wanted to recreate the experience at Brookhaven Country Club. Before long, the funds for a workshop were acquired.
As a director who has earned her reputation assisting in the development of new musicals, Kate Galvin has seen her fair share of “thrilling” musicals. Recently, she worked to develop a musical about Lizzie Borden; she directed a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; and she was a creative consultant on the 2012 development of Ripper the Musical. In her first read through of Creep, the script kept her guessing.
“The mystery of the musical is discovering who might be the killer,” Galvin says. “And reading the script for the first time, I honestly had no idea.”
When Terry Martin, the artistic director of WaterTower Theatre, was looking around for a director with experience in new musicals, Galvin was one of the first names he came across. When he called her to gauge her interest in developing a new musical about the mysterious murderer, she joked that he must have read her résumé closely. If she was skeptical about anything, it was working with a company that doesn’t usually develop and produce full-scale musicals of quite this scope.
Martin, who attended the workshop production in 2012, was quick to scoop Creep back up when Uptown Players was unable to follow through on a full production. It hadn’t been awarded in the TACA grant, so Uptown Players simply couldn’t afford it. Martin felt good about bringing it back to WaterTower, but it would mean raising an additional $90,000 to cover the costs. Even, who was formerly on the board of directors at WaterTower, offered to lead the fund-raising committee. With help from Weise, Alexander and McBee, the theater raised 125 percent of its goal.
“It’s really brave of them to do something so big,” says Galvin. Musicals aren’t cheap, she says, “and every need I’ve had they’ve been able to cover.”
Because of that, Galvin says, she and Fowler have been able to really dig into the musical to make it scary. From the opening scene, when a little girl emerges from a pile of leaves, to the final scene, in which that same little girl finds herself at the center of Jack the Ripper’s murderous spree, plot twists lurk in every song. Creep is full of fog, murders, dissonant music and villainous characters, but it’s really a psychological thriller.
In most theater, the protagonist is the one the audience trusts. In Creep, Mary, played by Sarah Elizabeth Smith, navigates a world in which no one is to be trusted, something Mother (Christia Mantzke) repeats to her often. Anyone she encounters could be the Ripper, and someone onstage will turn out to be the killer. But it could be any of the characters. There’s Christian (Daniel Rowan), the beguiling piano teacher. There’s Jackson (Jonathan Bragg), the wealthy doctor. There’s Polly (Breckenridge), an older prostitute who claims to know Mother’s secrets. But the characters all have secrets.
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Fowler is a handsome man. At 53 years old, his olive skin carries the glow of someone younger, and his shock of dark brown hair reveals just a few wisps of gray. As he welcomed visitors to the opening night of his musical this week, he wore a shy, humble grin and repeated, “It’s really happening” and “I can’t believe it.” For him, Creep isn’t just the culmination of years of work; it’s the beginning of his artistic life’s second act. Fowler took his seat just minutes before the show began. He leaned forward, resting his head on his chin. Without warning, the theater was dark. A bloodcurdling scream echoed through the theater. Fowler knew what was coming, but for the rest of the audience, it’s a surprising and even unnerving musical.
“I was really interested in our capacity for evil,” said Fowler as we sat at Ten Bells Tavern. “And honestly, I just wanted to put something really scary on stage.” It might have taken a few years, but he did.