Before a musical becomes a fully staged and magnificent production it must go through many developmental stages. One of those stages is what is called a “developmental lab.” I am very excited to see the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster host the developmental lab for the new musical It Happened in Key West. I am pleased to see the Fulton doing so many new and diverse things in recent years, and am ecstatic one of those things is a developmental lab for a brand new musical.
It Happened in Key West is a musical that is based on a true story about a man named Carl Tanzler and his love for Elena Hoyos. This show is described as “Funny, shocking and deeply moving, this musical will make you re-examine what you believe about the nature of love, loyalty and commitment (either to a person or an asylum....)” I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Jeremiah James who came up with the concept and as well as assisted with the book and Jill Santoriello who wrote the music and lyrics for the show. What I loved most about speaking with both James and Santoriello is the passion that exudes from both of them when they speak about the show. There is so much time and energy that goes into putting a brand new musical together and these two artists are so full of enthusiasm about the show that it made me excited to see it. James and Santoriello spoke with me about the inspiration behind the show, the research that went into creating the show and what exactly a developmental lab is and why it is important to the creative process.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about the story behind your show, It Happened In Key West?
Jeremiah James: It is a true story about a gentleman named Carl Tanzler. He was a German immigrant who said from the time he was twelve years old that he has visions of the woman he was destined to be with. He also mentioned that his grandmother had psychic abilities, and that she came and confirmed that he was having these visions, and that this women was the destiny of her grandson. Tanzler searched for the woman in his visions for forty years, and he never found her. He emigrated from Germany to Key West in 1926 and he became the radiologist at the local naval hospital. In the 1920s, Key West was a very small and isolated island. At the time it was difficult to get there because you could only get to the area by ship. At the time the number one killer in Key West was tuberculosis. At this time all the tobacco would come in from Cuba and there were several cigar rolling factories in Key West. Key West was actually the most prominent area in the United States for these cigar rolling factories because of its proximity to Cuba. At the time there was a high prevalence of tuberculosis in Key West. Tuberculosis spreads like a cold, so if you are sitting in a room next to someone with the disease it can spread very quickly. Tanzler was often very busy because the way people found out if they had tuberculosis was through an x-ray of the lungs and a blood sample. Tanzler explains in his memoirs how this young woman named Elena Hoyos came into his office for an x-ray. She had been ill for a while and she just married a young man named Juan, she was 22, and she was renowned for being the most beautiful woman in Key West at the time. He describes the first moment he saw Elena as he saw her shoes first, and as he pricked her finger he looked up and to his utter astonishment it is the woman he has had visions of most of his life. Tanzler tells Elena that she could not possibly be sick because in his mind’s eye she is his destiny and there is no way she can be terminally ill. This is during the time that if it was known that a person had tuberculosis they were treated like a leper. People were terrified of the disease and feared getting tuberculosis because there was no cure. Elena is thrilled to learn that she does not have the disease, so she goes home and is ready to continue her life. However, she does learn from her doctor that she is terminally ill, and with nowhere to turn she looks to Tanzler who said he was the greatest scientist to ever come out of Germany. Tanzler gets permission from Elena’s doctor to use alternate methods to treat her and try to save her life.
Tanzler then begins building these giant electrical machines, these look similar to the devices used in the classic Frankenstein movie. He uses medicinal wine and electroshock therapy to treat her. As soon as Elena’s husband found out she has tuberculosis he ran off. For about a year Tanzler’s treatments seem to be working. Tanzler was frustrated at the fact that her family would smoke around her because it was counterintuitive to the treatments he was giving her. Tanzler really loved her, and he wanted to marry her despite their age difference (he was thirty two years older than Elena.) However, her family is furious that he asked her to marry him, so they hid Elena from Tanzler for about eight weeks. In that time her health went on a very steep decline. One of the family members went to find Tanzler and ask for his help because she was declining so rapidly. He arrived just in time for Elena to die in his arms. On her death bed she made him pledge that he would take care of the funeral arrangements. She did not want to be buried in the ground for she had horrible nightmares about that.
After Elena’s passing Tanzler is inconsolable. He has an effigy made of her face to preserve her beauty. He has a special coffin designed for her, and has a very large mausoleum built for her in Key West Cemetery. It took about two years after Elena’s death to complete the mausoleum. Tanzler would visit the mausoleum at the same time of day every day after he left work. One day he said that Elena came to him in a vision and told him that she was unhappy, and that she wanted to be with him in the way they always talked about. He went home to get a child’s red wagon, and he went back to the cemetery to put Elena’s coffin on the wagon and took her home. He tried to bring Elena back to life, but her body was too badly damaged. Tanzler then proceeded to repair her – he uses piano wire to keep her bones together and wax to give her new skin. He gave her two glass eyes and a wig of her own hair. He lived with her undetected for seven years. There were many rumors circulating in those seven years about how he wasn’t visiting Elena’s mausoleum and how he was purchasing strange items such as crates of perfume. At this point he had moved away from the town to a place that was isolated. Eventually Elena’s older sister Nana confronted him and demanded to go to the mausoleum to make sure everything was as it should be. Tanzler led Nana upstairs to show her Elena’s body lying on the bed. Nana was horrified and has him arrested. However, Tanzler was well respected, and he is arrested for grave robbery. Nevertheless, this becomes international news, but the overwhelming reaction was of support for Tanzler. People thought that this was strange, but beautiful in a way because it was a story of how this man could not live without the love of his life. Tanzler received thousands of letters showing their support and people sent money to pay his bail. When he was arrested he was put through mental testing to check his mental health and three doctors determined he was completely sane.
Tanzler was eventually put on trial, mainly to appease the family. In the trial Tanzler said that if you never loved someone this much then you cannot judge the things I have done. He also said that if you never have loved someone this much then he felt bad for them because you have never really lived. Tanzler was let go. Elena was reburied, but Tanzler was not told where she was buried. He was inconsolable. He was so upset Elena was taken from him to the point he blew up her mausoleum with dynamite in protest. He then left Key West and lived until he was in his 80s and he died in poverty.
Kelli Curtin: What inspired you to make this into a musical?
Jeremiah: I was sitting in my living room and I was reading about the story. It was a story that just stuck with me for almost eight years. As I started research the story about this man in Key West I became moved as I learned about the reasoning behind his motives. Truthfully it was the grandeur of the story that inspired me to acknowledge that this story begs to be told in a musical format. The story is so grand and has an epic nature. For me musical theatre has always been that you get to such an emotional height in a scene that it cannot be told any other way then through music. In It Happened in Key West, here is this man who did the grandest of gestures of love possible and the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of the story. This story begs to be told in a musical.
I always knew I wanted Jill Santoriello to write the music for this. When I approached her I was afraid show would think I have lost my mind. I knew Jill, but we were not close friends at the time I spoke to her about the idea. I was a fan of Jill’s, and her music for A Tale of Two Cities is this beautiful and epic score to a story that is so grand that it also needed to be told through music. I knew I wanted Jill to write the music for this story. I was thrilled she agreed and said yes to write the music for this show.
Jill Santoriello: I look at this story as a love story. The idea of making that type of commitment and loving someone so much that there is not anything you would not do for them is romantic. To me that is the ultimate romantic idea. In some ways it has parallels to the story I was so inspired by before with A Tale of Two Cities. It is similar in the idea of someone sacrificing everything for love. Even though Carl Tanzler ended up destitute he did not feel that way, he still felt he was blessed to know Elena and blessed to have her in his life. He also felt lucky to have found her after all those years of searching for her. Tanzler put a positive spin on the events with Elena in his diary. I found this story and the way he would do anything for Elena beautiful and romantic.
Kelli: Do you use that romantic notion when you compose the music?
Jill: That is usually my tendency as a composer anyway. My influences are 1930s and 1940s film scores. That is the music I listened to as a kid and that music is very grand, romantic, European composed music. A lot of the composers were people who emigrated here from Germany and Austria. That style of music fits perfectly with the story and also it is the music I find the most inspiration in.
Kelli: What type of research goes into putting together a show like this that is based on real events and people?
Jeremiah: When I first came up with the concept of the show I had done some research through Google searches. When we started researching for the show we began by looking through newspaper articles and things that were written about Carl Tanzler. We also went to Key West and did more research. We also were able to find court transcripts and news articles. In addition, we read his diary. Most of our show is told from Carl Tanzler’s perspective.
Jill: Most of the research I have done and what I found really helpful came from Carl’s diary. The diary was sort of like a dime novel that was sold in which he told his side of the story. I just found his descriptions of what transpired really useful.
Kelli: How did the relationship with the Fulton come about?
Jeremiah: That was all Marc Robin. When I came to the Fulton to do Les Misérables in 2014 I learned that everything I heard about Marc was true – he was a joy to work with and he is someone you want to work with over and over again. Marc is this joyous director who is collaborative and wants to spread this joy throughout the community. Marc is also a writer himself. I had mentioned the show to him and I always felt he was perfect to direct it because he is a choreographer. Marc has the ability to choreograph these grand shows and it is breathtaking. Marc is also efficient and comes at a project from a place of clarity.
Kelli: Jill - When you did an interview with The New York Times in 2008 during Tale of Two Cities you said, “Our first goal in a show is to entertain. Beyond that it’s great to move people or make them think.” Is that how you approach the music still?
Jill: Yes. Even more so with this project. With A Tale of Two Cities I wrote a lot of it when I was very young. This time I am really focused on making the songs as accessible as I can and I am really going for the comedy in some places. This show has a lot of comedy in it and that really is part of entertaining the audiences. This show is a musical comedy where A Tale of Two Cities is a musical drama.
Kelli: Could you explain a little about what a developmental lab is and what audiences can expect from It Happened in Key West?
Jeremiah: We have done several readings of the show. We have already done what are called “table reads,” which is where the script is read by actors as the creative team and the actors sit around a table. We also have already done our big 29 Hour reading and that is a terminology for union actors where you only have twenty nine hours to rehearse it and perform it. There is no staging in the 29 Hour reading, and the actors are on stage with music stands, and the actors are not off book, they are performing as they read the script. The next logical step after the 29 hour reading is the developmental lab, which is what we are doing at the Fulton Theatre. This is the first time the show has been on its feet, choreographed and blocked in any way, first time it has had proper rehearsals and minimal sets and costumes. This is not a full production, so we won’t have a full orchestra, but we will have someone playing the piano for the music. It Happened in Key West will be on the Fulton’s stage with the actors and it will be performed as if they were doing the full show. There will be projections to identify to the audience the different scenes and places in the show. The actors will operate as if they are doing a full show, the show will not have the grandeur yet of full scale scenery, costumes and orchestra. Our goal is to give as much storytelling as we can possibly give in the developmental lab format. The Fulton audience will be the first to ever see It Happened in Key West on its feet. Lancaster audiences will have the ability to say that they saw this show before it became a full production and that they were the first audience to see this show on its feet. The next step from here is to do a multi-million dollar full production.
Jill: Also, we are going to do talkbacks after each show. So not only are they going to be the first to see it, but they also will be involved in the future creation of the project. We will listen to the audiences’ feedback and hear what they have to say about It Happened in Key West. We will also be there to answer any questions they may have after the show.
Kelli: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Jeremiah: There is a time in our history when theatres were built to be the center of commerce. It was a place people came for news and community, and it was a very important thing to have in society. I have traveled the world as a performer and I have gone to places that truly embrace live theatre and embrace the art form. I have found that communities thrive due to live theatre. When I come to a place like Lancaster where the Fulton has been in constant operation since 1852, and see the kind of support this community gives live theatre it is a testimony to the community itself. It really is a testament to the community atmosphere in Lancaster itself.
Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the importance of arts to our society. He said, “The great tragedy is that they're removing art completely, not because they're putting more science in, but because they can't afford the art teachers or because somebody thinks it's not useful. An enlightened society has all of this going on within it. It's part of what distinguishes what it is to be human from other life forms on Earth - that we have culture.” The Arts helps people have the ability to think outside the box.
In addition to all this, live theatre to me is important because it is a level of entertainment that is unlike any other. There is a magic that comes across from a live performance that is unequal to any other form of entertainment. It brings joy to people’s lives. Live theatre is important from a commerce perspective, and educational perspective, it makes people better all-around human beings and it is important because it brings so much joy.
It Happened in Key West will be at the Fulton Theatre August 25 through 27, 2017. For tickets please visit the Fulton’s website at www.thefulton.org. For more information about the show It Happened in Key West visit their website www.keywestmusical.com.