Donald Fowler’s undertaking in bringing his world premiere musical ‘Creep’ — about Jack the Ripper — to stage taught him about collaboration, creativity … and himself
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
SCENE: It is four months before opening night, and in a nondescript rehearsal space in Addison, Texas, a dozen singers, a rehearsal pianist, a composer, director and various assistants are assembled, many sight-reading as new lyrics are introduced into three-ring binders filled with multi-colored pages of dialogue, music and lyrics. It is the beginning of the rehearsal process … but it is also the end of a very long creative journey for Donald Fowler.
Ever since he began stalking the women of London’s Whitechapel District in the 1880s, the mystery and myth of Jack the Ripper have fascinated generations. So it’s surprising that Donald Fowler — who has spent the lion’s share of a decade writing Creep: The Very, Very Sad and Unfortunately True and Completely Fabricated Tale of Jack the Ripper, a musical about the world’s most famous serial killer — wasn’t really all that interested in the story or the era in which it takes place. His inspiration, like Jack himself, stalked him … then pounced.
“I know it sounds clandestine, but I didn’t find the story — it found me,” he says. “I had a smidgen of an idea for years — I collect them — but it didn’t go anywhere. So I put it away.”
The ideas he “collects” are musical themes and tunes. Although he’s never taken a piano lesson or written a note of music on a bar staff, Fowler discovered he has the capacity to write music. And one day, as he puts it, “my fingers got itchy.” He purchased a Casio keyboard and started noodling around with melodies. The bones were there, but not the flesh.
Then it so happened he turned on the TV and saw a movie with Johnny Depp — From Hell, about the Jack the Ripper case. And it was as if a light went on.
“I said, ‘That’s it — but what else?’” Fowler recalls. “We don’t need another literal Jack the Ripper story. What about ourselves is in this whole situation? So I thought, ‘What if this person was the killer. Why would that person do it? Why would this happen?’ Then it just plummeted forward.”
The result is now Creep, for which Fowler has written the book, music and lyrics, and which — following several stagings, readings, workshops and countless rewrites over more than five years — will receive its world premiere full-scale production next month at WaterTower Theatre. But despite all the tears, sweat and especially blood Fowler has poured of himself into its creation, the process has proven to him one thing: You can’t make this kind of art alone.
“Donald is no stranger to WaterTower,” says Terry Martin, the producing artistic director at the theater and an early backer of the musical when he directed the first staged reading of it in 2010. “I was attracted to Creep initially because the story was not one I had heard before. The plot is in no way formulaic. These were new and compelling characters in situations full of conflict.”
He’s also had the support of the creatives behind the scenes, from director Kate Galvin to choreographer Kelly McCain to orchestrator Dan Kazemi, as well as the entire cast. And he’s especially indebted to Patty Breckenridge and Nicholas Even, who’ve “literally been there since the beginning,” he says.
“From the onset, these were my friends who’ve built trust with me — the kind who you know won’t lie to you. I was super-shy about sharing any music with anyone — my family was not and still is not supportive of my music and didn’t know if I had any talent. But I played a song for Patty and she loved it. The first thing she said was, ‘How do you go about making this happen?’”
Having Breckenridge — one of North Texas’ most dynamic actress/singers — never hurts, but Even added an element Fowler has little familiarity with: Money.
“Nick headed up the fundraising,” he says. “He raised the $15,000 for the workshop [produced by Uptown Players] a few years ago. The workshop was paid for before it took place. I am so over-blessed.”
The blessings have continued since WTT announced its support, mounting a capital campaign for the premiere and tapping a large and talented slate of professionals for it.
“Linda Leonard is in my ensemble. Janelle Lutz is too!” Fowler oozes about the powerhouse performers who clamored to be in the show. And the off-stage professionals add even more to the show.
“The heads on this are super-smart — there’s some really out-of-the-box thinking,” he says. Take, for instance, the orchestrations. Fowler will tell you he’s a control freak, but knew he would have to relinquish a lot of authority to others, including Kazemi, who turned the basic score into musical theater arrangements.
“When Dan and I talked about orchestrations, we said how it could have gone Sweeney Todd very easily,” Fowler says, referring to another musical set in the fog-blown streets of Victorian London. “I was not interested in that — I wanted to play around with soundscape. Dan has a 10-piece orchestra [to work with], and when you hear it, it sounds like 30. We’re bowing a gong and a vibraphone.”
“I knew that it was important that I facilitate getting all the right people in the room to take this show to the next level,” Martin says.
The choreography, costumes, even the fog effect all represent huge advancements over earlier versions and even what Fowler had in his own head. And he owes a huge debt to director Kate Galvin for all of that.
“Absolutely the biggest example is Kate, who has a wheelhouse in new musicals,” Fowler says. “When she first signed on, the next day I had an eight-page list of rewrites. There was a natural propensity for tension on my end, but after I got the wind back in me, I said, ‘OK, one thing at a time. The theater didn’t hire all these people not to listen to them.’ I realized we looked at the piece from completely different sides of the world. I saw it a particular way and the Kate came in and said, ‘This is how I see it.’ Kate has researched about everything about Jack the Ripper and the period, but my thing is I care about those people … I needed to find what made those characters so interesting. Kate really challenged me to whack at the script — it’s lean and mean. It wasn’t so much taking out as it was putting more in with less. She has really made sure that the word of this piece is clear.”
The collaboration has led Fowler to a deeper understanding not just of the theatermaking process, but about his show itself.
“I like leaving a way for creativity from a director’s perspective, a designer’s perspective… and from and audience’s perspective. The other night we were talking about all these themes, some of which I just didn’t see [before],” he says. “[Creep] is really about secrets and truth. It occurred to me that truth evolves — initially it can be frightening, then that truth gets accepted and becomes more comfortable and then it becomes something you’re actually proud of.”
Fowler — who has a long tenure in Dallas as one of its go-to leading men for musical theater (he’s starred in productions like The Wild Party, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chess and Nine, among countless others) — says he developed a renewed enthusiasm for being part of an artistic community that puts itself out there for its audiences.
“Now is an incredibly exciting time for Dallas and for new work getting done, even underground,” he says. “I like the idea of supporting new stuff — that’s exciting. Theater is such a unique experience. In this age of keyboard and computers and streaming, theater is even more important — it’s connective, that energy between an audience and an actor.”
Martin feels the same way … and feels that Creep is further proof of the power of theater.
“I believe Creep has great potential beyond its Dallas premiere,” Martin declares. “Long after the curtain comes down, it will be remembered as one of the most exciting projects on our local stages this year.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 25, 2015.