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Cabaret dark: The soundtrack to Minnesota-made musical 'Glensheen' out Friday

The musical “Glensheen” is the story of the murders that took place at the Duluth mansion in 1977. It opened in 2015 in St. Paul venue. File / News Tribune

"Glensheen" opens whodunnit-y and Halloween-ish. The 18-second overture is a buildup of piano and whispery percussion, and it sets the tone for the Minnesota-made musical's soundtrack — which will be available as a CD, for streaming and download on Friday.

Musician Chan Poling, whose lyrics and music are paired with quirk-master playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's book, gathered the cast of the History Theatre's original production at The Terrarium in Minneapolis for a single day of recording, he said.

"It's a finely produced artifact, I think, and I'm really proud of it," said Poling, a member of The Suburbs and The New Standards.

"Glensheen" is the story of the case surrounding the murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila on June 27, 1977. The production, which opened in 2015 at the St. Paul venue, gives voice to the tour guides at the mansion, the newspaperman chasing the story, the unusual romantic pairing of the accused — Elisabeth's daughter Marjorie and her husband, Roger Caldwell, the jurors, and Marjorie's other daughter, Jennifer, who offers anecdotal reasons to deny parole.

The show opened to a sold-out crowd at the History Theatre, and Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune called it a success.

"Hatcher and Poling exploit the bizarre circumstances and the absurd characters that informed the tragedy," he wrote in the review. "Under Ron Peluso's direction, we have an engaging, swiftly paced musical dotted with big performances, hummable melodies and forays into cabaret and fantasy."

The cast of "Glensheen" gathered at Terrarium Studio in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Chan PolingSince opening, it has landed a spot on the theater's schedule every year. It will play again this summer. A box office employee confirmed Wednesday that, though it isn't yet on the theater's website, it will run Wednesday through Sunday July 10-Aug. 4.

According to Poling, the Ivey Award-winning show has sold 143,000 tickets since it opened.

Murder music

Poling and Hatcher had already worked together on the play "A Night In Olympus" — in which high school students are all Greek gods. When the latter was approached by Peluso about writing Glensheen, he reportedly said he would do it only if it were a musical.

"I went, 'Oh my god, that's just crazy enough,'" Poling recalled.

The musician's first thoughts were to other murder musicals, like "Sweeney Todd" and "Chicago," he said. He started tooling in a minor key and thought about PBS mystery specials and haunted house music.

And though it is a dark story, the creative team has a history of humor.

"Jeff is funny," Poling said. "My default stance is to be goofy. We come from that place. Here's what happened: You start to fool with these kind of characters that are so over-the-top bad and kind of dumb. (Marjorie) is pretty wicked. You can't help it. There's some comic things that bubble up."

The soundtrack has 25 songs — most running about 2 minutes long. It sounds like classic pieces of contemporary musical theater, but with Poling's signature creative twists and tweaks, even an organ can be funny.

"We discussed the tone of the piece," Poling said. "It shouldn't be overwrought. It's definitely a cabaret darker sound."

One of the best songs comes early. Track 6, "A Match Made In Hell," is Marjorie and Roger's meet-cute, with a tune that is musical theater's signature lovesick and swoony sound with laugh-out-loud lyrics featuring a desperate Marjorie and a money-loving Roger.

"When I saw Roger, I was on the rebound," sings Jennifer Maren as Marjorie.

"When I met her, I was a little drunk," responds Dan Stauffer as Roger.

"Murdering in June" finds a local reporter who wants to be "blowing the lid off scandals" and "scoring scoops" instead of covering the Lake Superior Berry Festival. Again. Then the news breaks. The song starts swirling and romantic — then builds to a booming finale in the Congdon driveway.

"Perfect Little Murder Plot" offers Roger's day-of agenda and quickens as he drinks and drinks and drinks on the flight home.

Poling said the vocals were done with the rhythm section, then he added extra instrumentation to give it a Broadway pit-orchestra-size sound. The result is richer than a audience member would get at a live performance, he said.

But what about Duluth

While "Glensheen" hasn't played in Duluth, Christine Seitz has maintained contact with the production's major players since it opened. The Duluth Playhouse staff saw the musical at the History Theatre, and Seitz said she was "blown away."

"I couldn't remember the last time I was so entertained and moved," she said. "I started plaguing them. I've been in touch several times a year, just reminding them and pitching several ideas: I'll bring your whole company up here, let us produce it; I promise you'll be proud."

It'll happen, Seitz said. She just doesn't yet know when.

Jennifer MarenUntil then, Duluth audiences can get a touch of Marjorie. Maren, who plays the villain, is cast as Suzette in the Duluth Playhouse's production of "Don't Dress for Dinner," which runs Jan. 31-Feb. 10 at the NorShor Theatre.

Speaking of Marjorie: She was estranged from all but one her seven children, according to a 2017 News Tribune story tied to the 40th anniversary of the murders. Gail Feichtinger, co-author of "Will to Murder: The True Story Behind the Crimes & Trials Surrounding the Glensheen Killings" told a reporter that she was still keeping track of Congdon's whereabouts and crimes at the time. She is in her mid-80s and no longer on probation or under supervision.

"People still won't talk to me on the record, because they're still afraid of retaliation," she told the News Tribune.

Poling said he definitely had the real-live Marjorie Caldwell in mind as he worked on the show.

"There was a lot of talk of her showing up with a box of matches," he said.

About the recording

What: Original cast recording of "Glensheen"

Musical: Written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Chan Poling and originally produced by St. Paul's History Theatre, directed by Ron Peluso

Cast: Jennifer Maren, Dane Stauffer, Wendy Lehr, Gary Griggle, Adam Qualls, Ruthie Baker, Sandra Struthers.

Musicians: David Lohman, Greg Angel, Will Kemperman, Dianne Tremaine, Erica Burton, Ryan Golden, Aaron Hedstrom

When: Drops Friday at, iTunes, AppleMusic and on Spotify