Writing musicals usually takes years, but History Theatre's "Lord Gordon Gordon" came together fast.
Teaming composer/Suburbs frontman Chan Poling with book writer Jeffrey Hatcher, the musical comedy opens Saturday. It's based on the story of a faux-Scottish con man, his real name a mystery to this day, who swindled his way across the United States in the mid-1800s before fleeing to Canada and nearly touching off a war between the usually chummy countries.
If a schemer who waltzes into town and uses a few show tunes to charm the pants off the locals brings to mind "The Music Man," then you're on the same page as Chan-tcher.
In October 2016, the duo pitched the idea to History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso, for whom they'd already written "Glensheen" (scheduled to return for its fourth run in July). He asked them to come up with a first act for a festival of new work three months later. They did, audiences dug it, and the world premiere was announced almost immediately.
"Gordon," with Mark Benninghofen in the title role, is their third musical and they have an idea for a fourth. You could say Poling and Hatcher are going steady, creatively, and that it all began with a blind date in 2009 when Poling found himself stuck while writing the musical "A Night in Olympus."
On how Poling reached out:
Poling: [Dramaturge] Liz Engelman said, "You should call Jeff Hatcher." We met for coffee and he said, "You know the problem with your script is, it sucks."
Hatcher: It was a longer conversation, and more polite. But that's the essence.
Poling: I'm still working on it. I'd like to do it again [the fantasy musical appeared at Illusion Theater in 2016]. But we had fun, so Jeff goes, "Hey, they want me to do a play on the Glensheen murders."
Hatcher: Ron [Peluso] and I had talked about Glensheen for years. But we always joked that we had to wait until Marjorie is dead because, otherwise, she'll burn our houses down. [The show centers on Marjorie Congdon Hagen, whose mother was murdered along with a nurse at Duluth's Glensheen mansion in 1977. She was acquitted of conspiracy in the killings, to which her then-husband confessed, but later served time for arson of a house in Mound and was convicted of attempted arson of a neighbor's house in Arizona.]
Poling: Jeff said he'd like to do it, but only if we could do it as a musical.
Hatcher: I just thought, "This is a musical," and suddenly everything lit up in a way it hadn't before.
On working together:
Poling: We'll sketch out song beats, bounce ideas off each other. In fact, Jeff has another cool, weird idea.
Hatcher: It's about William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. If one can get the rights to the transcripts [of their debates] at the [Democratic] convention in 1968, one could explore what they thought about each other.
Poling: That documentary [about the dueling commentators, "Best of Enemies"] really got me going on the idea.
Hatcher: Chan's band, the New Standards, always plays on New Year's Eve at the Dakota and I saw them about two years ago. Chan and John Munson had this repartee going back and forth, very witty, and I had just had lunch with Benninghofen about what he should be doing next. I suddenly pictured Mark as Buckley.
On "Lord Gordon Gordon":
Poling: I clicked on a story, maybe in the New York Times, and it says "Minnesota's greatest con man," underlined in blue. So it's a hotlink. It went right to the Lord Gordon Gordon Wikipedia page. I'd never heard of him but he's this fake Scotsman who swindled everyone, all the way up to the elite of New York, and it at least started here in Minnesota, so I thought I could call Ron.
Hatcher: The tone is much different from "Glensheen." There are serious moments, even some death, but it's much lighter. There's this subterranean theme that sometimes you need a lie or a huckster to change things. It's in the mold of "The Music Man," "Picnic," "The Rainmaker."
Poling: The story keeps getting better and better. He swindles people, there's romance, they invade Canada.
Hatcher: That's the centerpiece of the second act.
Poling: It's based on a Marx Brothers kind of idea, a song called "Going to War."
Hatcher: "Duck Soup."
Poling: I wanted some of the same kind of silliness.
Hatcher: It is silly, but there was militia massed on the border, and it took months to get out of it. It was this weird movement to take Canada, and why not? We took Texas.
Poling: Watching his mind work. That's the best.
Hatcher: Yes. Watching my mind work is the best. But, to throw it back, I remember we didn't have a good opening for the second act of "Glensheen." Overnight, Chan writes this song, "Conspiracy." He often sings these songs into my phone and I don't listen until the next day, on the 45-minute drive into the theater. It's this great song and he wrote it, not even overnight. It probably took him a couple hours and it has a lot of voom and oomph.
On whether this third partnership brought any surprises:
Hatcher: I've been surprised to see how Chan's music makes things sadder, sweeter, more painful. We were in my living room and I was trying to describe [Lord Gordon Gordon] leaving a courtroom, seeing the girl he loves, but not able to say anything to her because the police are coming. I described all that and then Chan comes up with two songs, "Happy" and "What Kind of Man," that have this deep, emotional quality.
Poling: I can't help treating him like he's a real person.
On writing for Mark Benninghofen:
Hatcher: If the con man is too much of a huckster, it repels you, but if there's a sad quality, a weakness, I think it helps. And Mark does that so beautifully.
Poling: We always thought it would be Mark.
Hatcher: He makes a big noise about not being a singer but he acquitted himself very well in "Sweeney Todd." So he was always the one. If he got hit by a truck, we'd find someone ...
On whether the History Theatre can survive without them:
[The just-announced 2018-19 History Theatre season will be the first in four years without a Poling/Hatcher show.]
Poling: I'm afraid not.
Hatcher: One does worry.