Take an inside look at the inspiration behind this year’s Tony winner for Best Musical.

I tend to read books in anticipation of seeing musicals, so I can see how things change from page to stage and get all of the little references, no matter how small. Not all books, though, are readily available. So, I did not read Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, the 1907 novel by Roy Horniman that is the original version of the story told in the Tony Award winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, by Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman, before I saw the show; but after, I was desperate to read it.

After seeing the show, I was told about the legal troubles involved in its evolution – basically that the rights to the title of the movie adaptation, which is different than that of the book, were not made available to the writers. The movie had been the initial inspiration for the musical, after Lutvak saw it on television late one night, but when they hit that snag, they purged their musical of movie-specific details, and left only elements from the book and their own imaginations. This is why, I imagine, from book to film to stage, the family name at the center of the story changes from Gascoyne to D’Ascoyne to D’Ysquith.

Leaving a show wanting to know more is one of the things that draws me to musical theatre. As a lover of Victorian literature, I was counting the familiar plot points as I watched Gentleman’s Guide, and I imagined how, in the original novel, these silly things might have been portrayed completely seriously. I may be wrong, since I’ve found out that Israel Rank is widely seen as a parody of the anti-Semitic attitudes of its time, which, as it was published in 1907, is just outside of the Victorian era. Not that that decreases my desire to read the book.

Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is available for print-on-demand, or if you get very lucky at a used-book shop. That is my favorite part of the story of this musical, that it was inspired by a movie
playing in the middle of the night based on a book that only gets printed when someone specifically asks for it. I have seen many strange movies in the middle of the night, and stayed up much later than I intended to see how they played out. Honestly, I’ve often thought that they would make great musicals or plays. Middle of the night television, rather than prime time, would seem to be a fine place to look for great ideas for stage adaptations. Or perhaps bargain bins instead of front-of-store displays. You never know what you’ll find, which makes the possibilities all the more exciting.

About Author /

Aaron Netsky is a writer and performer living in New York City, who has also worked as a production assistant and a child wrangler. Check out his blog at www.cantonaut.blogspot.com

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