‘Dead Outlaw,’ a Mummy Musical, Is So Strange It Can Only Be True

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By Usa Express Daily

When the composer David Yazbek approached his “Band’s Visit” collaborator David Cromer in 2019 about directing “Dead Outlaw,” a high-energy song cycle that he was developing into a musical, Cromer wasn’t sure he was the right fit.

“One of the first things he said was ‘I don’t tend to go out just to hear music; I want more than that,’” said Yazbek, who envisioned a show with an onstage band, interstitial narration and a minimal set. “‘And so maybe I’m the wrong person for this.’”

“No, no, no,” Yazbek reassured him. “That makes you the right person. We’ve already got the rock-band-sounding-great part nailed down.”

Unlike “The Band’s Visit,” the gently comic, Tony Award-winning tale about an Egyptian band stranded in an Israeli town that takes place over a single night, “Dead Outlaw” is a rollicking thrill ride about a bumbling turn-of-the-20th-century outlaw whose body becomes a traveling, decades-long sideshow exhibited across the country.

It also happens to be true.

“It’s what I’ve been calling documentary musical theater,” Itamar Moses, who wrote the books for “The Band’s Visit” and “Dead Outlaw,” said over dinner in Greenwich Village with Yazbek, Cromer and Erik Della Penna, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Dead Outlaw” with Yazbek.

The rockabilly musical, which is scheduled to run through April 14 at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, tracks the ineffectual, booze-filled career and subsequent death, in a 1911 shootout, of Elmer McCurdy, whose involuntary second act has inspired books, plays and a BBC documentary.

Elmer McCurdy, who died in a shootout in 1911, is the subject of the true-crime musical “Dead Outlaw.”Credit…Wikicommons

Yazbek, who conceived of the musical, first heard the tale three decades ago from a college friend whose mother had told him the story of when Elmer’s arsenic-preserved body — painted bright red and dangling from a noose — was discovered inside a Southern California amusement park ride in 1976.

The corpse had been presumed to be a mannequin — until the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” came to shoot an episode at the ride, and a crew member discovered otherwise.

“This is a man!” the freaked-out Teamster exclaims in “Dead Outlaw.”

“I said, ‘I’ve got to do something with this,’” said Yazbek, who pored over newspaper articles about Elmer on microfiche at the New York Public Library’s Bryant Park branch. “But I could never find a way in.”

In 2017, he and Della Penna, a longtime friend, began working on a country-, rock- and bluegrass-inflected song cycle, recording demos of numbers including “Dead,” the foot-stomping tune that introduces Elmer’s life of crime; “Normal,” about Elmer’s desire to leave his grudges in the past and settle down with a local girl; and “Leave Me Be,” Elmer’s last words as he lies dying after being shot.

They enlisted Moses to write the book, which Yazbek said was initially a few lines of narration between numbers — just enough, he added, to transport people from setting to setting.

In September 2021, accompanied by three other musicians, he and Della Penna performed the musical-in-progress at the Midtown cabaret space 54 Below, with Yazbek reading Moses’s narrative additions.

“True crime is a genre that’s incredibly popular in the audio industry,” Navin, who now leads Audible’s creative development in North America, said in a phone conversation. “And the narration is why this musical works so well in audio. It seemed like the perfect fit.”

She commissioned the team to finish writing the show, and, in April 2022, Yazbek and Della Penna traveled to Guthrie, Okla., where Elmer is buried.

There, they interviewed a historian who had helped piece together the facts of Elmer’s story, saw the gun that killed Elmer at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, and visited his hillside grave. They also drove to the nearby city of Pawhuska, where Elmer’s body was initially displayed at a funeral home.

Last summer, with the research completed, Audible committed to producing “Dead Outlaw” for the stage — and Cromer signed on to direct.

“One of the first images we had was people sitting around a campfire,” Moses said of their vision for the show. “And we wanted to preserve that.”

Cromer also aimed for a minimalist production.

“The challenge became how little we could flesh it out,” he said of the staged concert-style storytelling, in which eight actors conjure several dozen characters amid simple props — a table, a mummy — and occasionally climb atop a large plywood unit on casters. The five-member band always remains the focal point onstage.

Of course, for an audio musical, they would need to paint a whole Western landscape aurally, which meant giving the audience some additional cues, Navin said.

“It was thinking about: Is there information the audience needs to know that normally they saw?” said Navin, adding that she and the creators tweaked the script in preparation for this month’s recording of the show in the studio. “Do you need to say somebody’s name again so you know who’s just come into the house?”

For Moses, the audio musical format was crucial to cracking a script he had been struggling with. Instead of first writing a script for the staged version and then retrofitting it for audio, he decided to write a single script: The version for a show someone would only listen to.

“It turns out to pretty much work that way,” he said, “except you need a little less of the explanation.”

That’s not to say the stage musical is a carbon copy of the audio production. Theatergoers are treated to the sight of a tender dance between Elmer (Andrew Durand) and the spunky Maggie (Julia Knitel); Durand’s unnerving turn as Elmer’s corpse, propped upright in a coffin, blinking exactly never; and a macabre foam and papier-mâché prop mummy laid out on a coroner’s table.

One strength of the narration-heavy format, though, is that the audience can absorb the full force of each shocking detail, Moses said. “This seems the time to remind you that this story is true,” the bandleader, Jeb Brown, tells the audience during one particularly outlandish sequence.

And he’s right — mostly.

While a number of elements of Elmer’s life were compressed and conflated for the stage — Elmer actually committed robberies with two different gangs, versus the single one in “Dead Outlaw,” for instance — all the major beats of the story are true.

“There’s not a lot of invention,” Moses said.

The most difficult challenge, he said, was perhaps the tone: striking the right balance between comedy, tragedy and a reminder that, eventually, death comes for us all.

“The story is macabre, and you sort of need people laughing to get through it,” he said. “But you also don’t want to let them completely off the hook from contending with the show’s darker themes.”

In her review for The New York Times, Laura Collins-Hughes commended the musical for striking that balance: “If it forgot Elmer’s humanity — and it never does — it would lose its soul.”

“It’s a fun, interesting mirror of what those sideshows are doing,” Moses added. “You draw people in, you entertain them, but then you give them access to thinking about something deeper and more troubling.”

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