ADDISON, TEXAS: It can take a long time for a musical to go from idea to production. For actor/composer Donald Fowler’s musical Creep—loosely based on the mythology of Jack the Ripper, and playing at WaterTower Theatre Oct. 2–25—it took 15 years. You can’t really tell it’s been so long, though. From the way Fowler talks about Creep, it’s as if it just flowed out of his fingertips. In some ways, it did.
Fowler, who can’t read or write music, was on a trip to Paris for his 40th birthday when he found the inspiration for the musical in the unlikeliest of places: a pile of leaves. It all started on a Parisian park bench in Paris: As he reflected on middle age, he happened to notice an older woman across the way with leaves falling around her.
“It was one of those insignificant moments that sticks with you and eventually becomes poetic,” says Fowler. “The musical isn’t about that moment in Paris, but it did spark something in me.”
Fowler is not yet known as a composer, but that is likely to change. In Dallas, he’s earned a name in fashion and merchandising, and acted with middling success in musicals, usually as the romantic lead in shows like Bells Are Ringing and Nine. Prior to Creep, he’d written only a few full plays, including The Politics of Up and Peggy Lee on the Midway, which had a reading in Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival. Creep will be his first work to receive a full production.
Going from that moment glimpsing the old woman and the leaves in Paris to a musical about Jack the Ripper is a complicated journey that likely only makes sense to Fowler. It has something to do with an eerie sense of mystery which he hoped to imbue in a musical, and with the pile of leaves, which grew in his memory to become a potential place of concealment for a victim, and thus the opening scene of Creep—a young girl found bloodied among a pile of leaves—came to be.
“I wanted to create something onstage that was actually scary,” says Fowler. “And what’s scarier than an unidentified mass murderer?”
It was years before he picked the scene back up, though, and he’s not really sure what pulled him to sit down at the keyboard and plunk out a few notes. But once he started, he was hooked. From there, Fowler spent nearly every evening for the next a few years either researching Jack the Ripper, creating music or writing the book. He hired a friend to help him put the music he was playing by ear onto paper. Fowler debuted a first draft in a staged reading at the Out of the Loop Festival for new work at WaterTower Theatre in 2010. One critic who saw the reading described it as “something worth nurturing,” and nurture it Fowler did.
The musical tells the story of a young girl, Mary, living in a ritzy London flat with her mother, who has pulled herself into high society by unscrupulous means. With a killer on the loose, an unrelenting fear hangs over the city. Much of the mystery of the musical rests in the question of the killer’s identity.
After the show’s first reading, Fowler dropped the project again for the next two years. But a number of his friends wouldn’t stop bringing it up, or asking to listen to the music. At the forefront was his longtime best friend, Nicholas Even, a lawyer and philanthropist, who kept pleading with Fowler to bring the project back to life. In 2012, he returned to the drawing board with new vigor, raising $30,000 from local donors for a workshop production.
At that workshop were the artistic directors of all the Dallas theatre companies, and a few outside, including Terry Martin of WaterTower Theatre. Martin says when he saw the workshop, he wanted to bring the musical back home. “There was so much potential in what Donald had made,” says Martin. “We wanted to make sure it was brought to stage like he imagined.”
The company, although committed to new works since its genesis, had never developed a musical of this scale. Previous world premieres at WaterTower were primarily small-cast plays. With an 18-person cast and a 10-piece orchestra, Creep is a much larger undertaking.
Martin brought on Philadelphia-based director Kate Galvin, who is no stranger to singing murderers: She recently worked on a Lizzie Borden musical, on Sweeney Todd, and even on another Jack the Ripper musical. “You could say I have some experience with a certain kind of show,” Galvin jokes. But Creep is unlike anything she’s worked on before. “It really kept me guessing when I was reading it,” she says. “So often you know from Page One how this mystery is going to end. I actually had no idea with Creep and that was exciting.”
In the last nine months, the musical has seen numerous edits, including the removal of the parenthetical subtitle, (the very, very sad but unfortunately true and completely fabricated tale of Jack the Ripper). But in the sitzprobe last week, the culmination of 15 years of work, Fowler says he teared up. “It’s really happening,” is something Fowler repeats to himself a lot these days. “Sometimes I can’t believe it.”
Lauren Smart is an arts writer and educator based in Dallas.