How do you balance grim misdeeds with the levity of jazz hands and jaunty tunes?
Take the most compelling true crime story in recent memory like the wrongful prosecution of Steven Avery in Making a Murderer, Robert Durst’s bathroom confessional in The Jinx, or the did-he-or-didn’t-he saga of Adnan Syed in Serial and try to wrap your mind around how you would turn it into a musical.
Granted, musicals like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street have been successful in giving the macabre a coat of panache, but fictional murders somehow don’t bear the same gravitas as real cases, leaving more allowance to bend the story toward the fantastical—not so with 2011’s London Road.
The Royal National Theatre production focused on the 2006 killings of five female prostitutes in Ipswich and the shockwaves that rippled through the tiny community. What made the musical so groundbreaking was its script: All the dialogue and songs were constructed word-for-word from interviews with the townspeople—"ums," "errs," "likes," "yeahs," and all other verbal pauses in tact. Verbatim theater relies entirely on documented statements, capturing not only what people said, but how they said it. It’s a form that’s well suited to a play, but why London Road is unique is that it fits that prosaic structure into a musical—and now, that musical has been adapted into film.
London Road features the original cast of the stage production, along with the same director, Rufus Norris, and writer, Alecky Blythe. If it sounds like an easy copy-and-paste with everyone coming back for the film, you’re sorely mistaken.
"I think I suffer from over-optimism," says Norris, who is also the artistic director of the National Theatre.
Once he was tapped to carry his directing skills from the London Road stage to film, Norris decided to do a test shoot with the actors to get a feel for how the material would lend itself to film. As it turns out, a lot was lost in translation.
"I had in my head some very simple ideas about how this could be achieved in a really low-budget way. There was much more direct address to the camera, treating the camera as the interviewer rather than really digging into what that medium required," Norris says. "It was very useful and slightly depressing to discover when we did it that it just didn’t work. What it showed us really is that it’s going to take a long time and there are no shortcuts."
For Blythe, her focus on adapting London Road to film was about injecting more visual language into a verbatim theater.
"Verbatim by its very nature is a little bit sedentary, so that was a challenge to look at what were the opportunities within the script as it existed to try to make it more visual and to try to tell any of that story in an active way rather than the longer conversational pieces we had in the play," Blythe says. "That was fun for me because I had to start stretching the material more and taking liberties and maybe inventing things that didn’t happen but I felt served the story in a truthful way."
Both Norris and Blythe treaded gingerly on experimenting with the possibilities of film. There was no temptation in retooling London Road into a splashy spectacle for the big screen—the stripped-down, indie feel hearkens back to the stage version. What Norris wanted to extract from film as a medium was its ability to serve as a better window into a character’s mind than theater can do. London Road doesn’t dwell on the gruesome details of the prostitutes’ deaths nor does it even have convicted serial killer Steven Wright as a visible character. What the story zeroes in on is the psychological impact serial murders had on the citizens of Ipswich.
"It’s really key in adaptation to make sure you’re identifying in the source material what is it about that that wants to move to the other medium," Norris says. "About 98% of London Road is spoken to an interviewer, and film offers you all kinds of ways of interpreting that access to some of these opinions. It can be that it’s spoken to the camera, but it was great fun to explore that thing camera can do, which is get inside someone’s mind—you’re almost having a conversation with their conscience."
Prime example: the number "It Could Be Him." Ipswich is in a full fever pitch with the killer still on the loose. As two teenage girls walk around town, every man becomes a suspect. Paranoia overlaps with the excitement of something, grisly or otherwise, happening in their sleepy town. The scenes are drenched in gray, drab tones, which is in stark contrast to the girls’ bubblegum pink garb, as if they’re flashy targets to become the killer’s next victims. It’s a number that seems almost made for film, from the visual palate to the changes in location that suggest the ubiquitous presence of a killer. "It Could Be Him" plays up the idea of getting into a character’s conscious, as well as the importance of the verbatim approach.
Blythe collected a large portion of her interviews while Wright was at large, and she was adamant both in the stage version and now its film adaption that the lilts and timbre matched that of her interviews.
"I knew what that attention to detail could deliver, which is real authenticity. And what it does is it makes you realize the person stumbling on a certain word or getting a certain word wrong is a key to their emotional state. "Before Steve Wright was arrested, you can hear in the way people say things like ‘everyone is very, very nervous’ or ‘you automatically think it could be him.’ If they’d been saying that two years later, they wouldn’t have been saying it in quite the same way. That’s sort of magic to be able to capture that particular emotional temperature."
London Road opens Friday, September 9.