WEST ORANGE, NJ — Sydney, Australia, will arrive in West Orange as “Razorhurst,” a new musical, hits Luna Stage from Feb. 1 through March 4. The first musical that Luna has ever commissioned, the show tells the story of two notorious female crime bosses, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, set in 1929. A true story with music written by Australian native Andy Peterson with book and lyrics by Kate Mulley, the show tells the tale of the two women and asks the audience if they were truly evil.
With a cast of only two people, Catherine Fries Vaughn plays Leigh and Claire McClanahan plays Devine. In an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Jan. 25, Mulley said it was a fun challenge to write a musical about two strong female characters.
“That was the most challenging,” she said. “We went through many different scenarios. We wanted to honor them while also acknowledging that they weren’t necessarily good people, and they do things that we don’t agree with.”
While writing “Razorhurst,” Mulley said she and Peterson thought about several possible structures for the show. The first was a cabaret-type format that Mulley said wasn’t engaging enough. Another version was a play, which didn’t work either.
“I think that, even though this takes place a long time ago, there are still contemporary issues in it,” Mulley said. “So we can look at it like this and it works.”
For musical inspiration Peterson listened to ragtime and artists of the period in which the story is set.
“It’s a two-person musical that delves into their psyche, and the music has that 1920s feel,” Peterson said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Jan. 29. “I listened to a lot of Scott Joplin and ragtime.”
While writing the lyrics to the songs in the musical, Mulley said she started by using words from the script she had written that sounded like they could be turned into a song. Using phrases that she said sounded like a hook, she found a balance that worked for a musical duet.
Having a tiny cast presents challenges but also solves other common concerns, Mulley said, and director Cheryl Katz agreed.
“Logistically, it’s easier because there are less people to have to gather,” Katz told the Chronicle in a phone interview on Jan. 25. “It’s also easy to switch my focus between only two people. But we have to keep that audience interested, and with a bigger ensemble there’s more to see.”
Mulley said writing music for only two people was easier for her as a lyricist.
“It’s easier for me, but the challenge is to make them not sound the same, because it’s only for two voices,” she said.
Despite this, Katz thinks the format of the show serves the story of Leigh and Devine well.
“The characters are fascinating,” she said. “Other elements could be interesting, but I think this serves the story really well.”
Peterson agreed, saying that the music serves the small cast as well as the story better than a play or another type of performance would.
“There are a lot more emotions in music than you could have in a play,” he said. “We can draw that out of people in a different way (with music).”
Katz has worked at Luna Stage since 2003, and has directed both musicals and plays. She doesn’t change her approach to directing for different types of shows — as long as the story is being told, Katz doesn’t think there is a huge difference between them.
But there are some different elements in “Razorhurst” that Katz said will give the audience a different experience than they’d have just sitting in the theater seats and watching the show. The set is made to look like a coffee shop, and will be fully functioning before the curtain rises and the musical starts. Some audience members will have the option of staying in the seats on the set and will have an immersive experience with the show.
“I hope they’ll be entertained and have a good time,” Katz said. Leigh and Devine “were criminals, but they were smart and ambitious. Maybe people won’t look back with admiration at them, but with understanding.”
“We worked hard to create variety,” Peterson said. “There are more than two characters, but the two actors can really embody so many, sometimes without changing costumes.”
Mulley hopes audience members laugh during the show, while also thinking about what the women are going through.
“These women are really funny,” she said. “There’s an element of danger because they dislike each other, but they’re two women who are processing what their legacies are. It’s poignant.”
Peterson said he thinks the story takes a turn that the audience won’t expect, and hopes they leave singing the music from the show. Above all, though, “Razorhurst” is a fun, entertaining musical about interesting characters, according to Katz.
“The language is colorful. I’m bringing my kids, but no one else should,” she joked. “They’re lady crime bosses from Australia, so what do you expect?”
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.lunastage.org.