Addison — Donald Fowler is a bundle of energy just barely contained in human form. In a recent series of interviews about Creep, having its world premiere at WaterTower Theatre, thoughts about his musical, for which he composed the score and wrote the book and lyrics, tumble out at a rapid pace.
One statement leads him in a suddenly different direction, and so on. Once you get used to his mental process, hower, you see that he is not really diverting but instead offering another approach to whichever concept he is describing. Those patterns might offer some insight into what we will finally see in the project that has consumed at least six years of his life.
After years of readings and workshops at WaterTower and Uptown Players, Creep—which is about but also not about Jack the Ripper—opens Monday, Oct. 5, running through Oct. 25.
“There is a lot of pressure on me and everyone else [involved with Creep],” Fowler says. “I have a wonderful and supportive group of people involved, but I wrote the whole doggone thing, so I have to take ownership.”
Years ago on an evening stroll in Paris, where he celebrated his 40th birthday, Fowler saw an elderly lady sitting on a park bench under a shower of autumn leaves. This crepuscular vision was the beginning of Creep.
“The idea haunted me,” Fowler says. “Pieces of inspiration stick to an artist and that one stuck. And when I saw the Johnny Depp movie, it all came to me.”
That 2001 movie is From Hell, which is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Depp plays a police inspector who is on the Ripper case. Hallucinogenic drugs allow him to “see” the murders.
Fowler is coy about the actual plot but promises a surprise ending.
“It is about Jack the Ripper and it is not at the same time,” he says. “It is inspired by the era and the situation that brought Jack the Ripper into existence.”
Or, as the WaterTower description states: “Creep explores the world that created the infamous Jack the Ripper and, more importantly, metaphorically examines the darkness possible in every individual when they are forced to adapt, use, or hide from truth in order to survive.”
The show is concerned with a particular place and time in London: the East End parish of Whitechapel in 1888. Overcrowded with immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and Tsarist Russia, housing and work were increasingly scarce. It became the perfect incubator for violent crime fueled by booze and poverty. A police estimate states that there were 62 brothels and 1,200 destitute women working as prostitutes.
Into this fetid human stew, Jack the Ripper’s five confirmed Whitechapel murders—another six are thought to be his work—offered just the right kind of lurid headlines that the public devoured (and still does for that matter). The combination of a slashed throat, combined with abdominal, facial and genital mutilation, and even the gruesome removal of internal organs, created a sensation. Add to that the mystery of the killer’s identity, unsolved to this day, and you had the perfect media storm.
The sensational events had some positive effects. For the first time, the public became aware of the disgusting, criminal-laden and disease-filled conditions in this slum on their doorstep. Much of the area was demolished over the subsequent decade. A few structures remain, mostly taverns that are a tourist must-sees, but Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror led to great improvements for the live of Londoners in Victorian England.
“It was the era that was my first impression,” Fowler says. “Then, music started to come to me but it didn’t really speak until I saw that movie.”
DISCOVERING THE MUSIC
Fowler is, on first observance, an unlikely composer for a musical. For one thing, he readily admits that he can’t read music, has no keyboard skills and has no formal training. However, he does have a lot of stage experience with an impressive list of credits in musicals. Some of his acclaimed performances in the 2000s include Bobby in WaterTower’s Company, Guido in Nine at ICT Mainstage, and standout roles in A New Brain and Kiss of the Spider Woman at Uptown Players, among many others.
His résumé also includes acting in straight plays, and his own plays The Politics of Up and Peggy Lee on the Midway have been performed around town.
In the early 2000s at Casa Mañana, he played Dorian Gray in a reading of a musical based on the Oscar Wilde story. Given Fowler’s classically handsome face, youthful spirit and eye for dapper, well-tailored suits, it led some to decide that he is, in fact, Dorian Gray.
Unfazed by his lack of compositional experience, he bought a Casio keyboard and started to improvise, searching for the music that floated in his imagination. As he found it, letting his fingers find the way, he recorded his efforts and turned them over to a collaborator, Adam C. Wright, to write down in standard notation.
Wright is a local go-to musical director, pianist and songwriter for many theaters and cabaret performers. He recently won a Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum award for his original music in Uptown’s The Nance.
“Adam is a genius,” Fowler says. “He did the transcriptions for me from the rough recordings and captured exactly what I conceived. He also did some of the vocal arrangements for Creep.”
From there, the songs were handed over to Dan Kazemi to be orchestrated for the 10-piece instrumental ensemble and to musical director Kevin Gunter. Wright is credited as copyist/transcriber.
“It is different in that it is coming from a really dark place but it also has soaring melodies,” Fowler says of the music.
Kate Galvin, a freelance director based in Philadelphia retained to direct and Creep had a workshop reading at WaterTower’s 2010 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, another one at the Uptown Players in 2013, and two more at WaterTower in February and June of this year.
WaterTower also embarked on a special fundraising campaign for the world premiere, adding to the encouraging signs that this theater, along with other professional theaters in town, are finally investing significant resources into new plays and musicals by local writers.
The Creep cast includes Sarah Elizabeth Smith, Christia Mantzke, Jonathan Bragg, Daniel Rowan, Patty Breckenridge, Alyssa Gardner, Abby Chapman, Stephen Bates, Lillian Andrea De Leon, Raul Escalona, Alex Heika, Linda Leonard, Janelle Lutz, Kyle Montgomery, Calvin Scott Roberts, Kathryn Taylor Rose, Molly Welch and Seth Womack.
The design team includes Kelly McCain (choreographer), Jeffrey Schmidt (set designer), and Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell (co-costume designers).
“It takes an amazing amount of effort for just to make it look simple,” Fowler says. “But it will all come together by opening night—and I will be over the moon.”
» You can read the complete guide to the show here: