Andrew Cunanan: The Musical!

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J. T. Macmillan

A scene from Most Wanted, a musical based on events in the life of Andrew Cunahan.

Just over a decade has passed since Andrew Cunanan became infamous as a serial killer, murdering at the height of his rampage the designer Gianni Versace. Now, his life has become the basis of a new musical, one subsidized by a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and being workshopped at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. While musicals about murders are no longer novelties — Chicago, Sweeny Todd and Assassins come to mind — they are usually generations removed from their audiences. Most Wanted is not only a contemporary story, but it is being produced in the very city Cunanan called home. "There was some concern about whether we should do it," Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley told an audience in a post-performance question-and-answer session on Oct. 3. In fact, at least one person in the audience had been acquainted with Cunanan when he lived in San Diego.

Rather than a strict retelling of Cunanan's life, the theater has opted to fictionalize the story for dramatic purposes. Cunanan is now Danny Reyes, played by Daniel Torres, but anyone even vaguely familiar with the actual events will recognize the plotline. Like Cunanan, Reyes is a gay Filipino-American who attended a ritzy, exclusive school and who knew how to charm his way into the right circles. Reyes is driven by his father to excel and for a while he does get a taste of a life that lies beyond his family's means. But after his La Jolla sugar daddy catches him with a younger man, Reyes' life spirals into a downward haze of methamphetamine and menial jobs. Reyes then snaps and goes on a murder spree, his victims including his rich benefactor and his boyfriend. Only then, Most Wanted makes clear does he finally feel wanted, if only because he is chased by the FBI.

As Cunanan did, Reyes hides in plain sight in Miami, where he chats with a bartender and tries to pick up an older man in full view of his most-wanted poster. As the national media grows obsessed with the manhunt, Reyes begins phoning a tabloid reporter following his story, desperately trying to take control of his own image. "I'm a sympathetic subject," he tells her. "Brilliant. Good-looking. So you let me tell you how it's going down." The tabloid reporter ends the show with a monologue about writing a bestseller entitled Most Wanted which she describes as "Sordid, juicy, sad and oh so entertaining."

Playwright Jessica Hagedorn and songwriter Mark Bennett insisted their story would neither glamorize Cunanan nor present a sanctimonious message about the demons that drove the troubled young man to murder. Rather, they have said, the play is a look at race, sexuality, culture, class and the nation's fascination with celebrity.

In structure, the play darts back and forth in time, a device that keeps the pace unpredictable. The props on stage at times seemingly move on their own; folding chairs and a hand-held fan are transformed into a moving car; a transvestite lounge seamlessly becomes an opera house. As Reyes, Daniel Torres can be child-like, cunning, loving and manipulative. Donning a baseball cap and leather jacket, he also appear maniacal. The songs can be catchy and kitschy — "San Diego" and "Miami" both sung in three-part harmony by The Daddyos stood out in that way. Adding color to the dark storyline, Tony-Award winner Ken Page plays the flamboyant drag queen (and Greek chorus) Miss Stormy Weather, the larger-than-life master of ceremonies at Uncle Buck's cabaret, where Reyes is an habitue.

Speaking to the audience after the Oct. 3 performance, Ashley asked how they felt about a five-time murderer now that they know him a little better. "Did you feel yourself compelled or repulsed by him?" Some audience members said they felt empathy for the goal-obsessed Reyes who could never live up to his father's or his own expectations. "I think this is a shocking morality play," an elderly woman said. Others saw the play as about the space people in live in, celebrity, life, death and the consequences of not being able to find oneself. At least one audience member had a personal connection to the Cunanan story and admitted to being anxious about seeing the production. "I lived through this story very personally, and when I heard about it a couple of years ago, I wondered how ridiculous it would be as a musical," she said. "I think you've done an incredible job." This version, however, will still undergo revisions. Said Ashley, "This piece is still in the process of discovery."