In Conversation With: JILL SANTORIELLO (It Happened In Key West)

Jill Santoriello is a writer, composer and lyricist whose newest musical, It Happened In Key West, has recently opened in London at the Charing Cross Theatre. Santoriello also penned the award-winning musical adaptation of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. It Happens In Key West tells the story of Carl Tanzler, an eccentric German man living in Key West, Florida, in the thirties, who was found living with the body of Elena Hoyos, his true love but also a young woman who passed away seven years earlier.

Read my five-star review of It Happened In Key West here. 

What interested you about the story of Carl Tanzler and writing a Carl Tanzler musical?

I had never heard of this story until my producer and collaborator, Jeremiah James, pitched me the idea several years ago. It immediately appealed to me in an over-the-top gothic romantic sort of way. Jeremiah was familiar with my work on “A Tale of Two Cities” so I knew he had to be envisioning a musical that was somewhat romantic as well. But he couldn’t have known that I also have a slightly twisted, dark, demented side that was just as drawn to the potential for black comedy as it was drawn to the grand romance. The good news was Jeremiah didn’t want the show to be all one thing or the other either. We shared the view that as romantic and sincere as Carl’s intentions may have been, keeping and preserving a decaying body around the house just had to present certain challenges that were ripe for comedy.

Why did you choose to portray Tanzler as a romantic rather than a psychotic body-snatcher as many have?

Jeremiah, Jason Huza (co-book writer) and I were never interested in doing a dark, grisly horror story. That’s just not how we saw it, though it can be interpreted that way and has been portrayed that way in other versions of the story. But that’s what appealed to us frankly – taking what some people thought they knew – a creepy tale of body-snatching and obsession – and turning it into a silly, absurd, uplifting romance. We made a choice early on to take Carl at his word and tell the story from his point of view. And actually, his accounts were not greatly contradicted by the newspaper and legal accounts of the time, so he seemed to be the most reliable first-hand narrator for the show. And he literally ends his diary with the most optimistic, adoring words of gratitude for having known Elena and having had the honour of taking care of her as long as he did. So, when you read that, it’s kind of hard to not appreciate the romantic side of him and what he did. And it’s impossible to deny that this man truly loved this woman – as they say – to the bitter end.

What were the most challenging parts of the true story to adapt to fit the style of the musical?

Well even though Carl wrote a rather detailed diary account of the events, they didn’t automatically “sing” or lend themselves to being dramatized. In fact, sometimes his notes were a little too scientifically detailed and clinical, so we did take our fair share of dramatic license, inventing some scenes and conflicts as needed. The hardest (and most fun) part of writing a show like this is figuring out what to approach as heartfelt and what to approach tongue-in-cheek through the dark comedy filter.

Whilst researching for the musical, did you meet anyone who was around in Key West when the discovery was made?

It’s funny that you ask that because my collaborators actually met a woman in Key West who was alive at the time that Carl was discovered living with Elena’s body. So this person literally attended Elena’s second wake and viewing in 1940 when she was a little girl. They had a long conversation with this woman, whose mother was best friends with Elena, and the amazing thing was she literally corroborated our “imagined” version of events! In other words, we had written scenes where Elena showed that she really cared for Carl whilst she was alive, loved him and asked him to take care of her body when she passed away – and this woman told us that yes she did. And also that the people of Key West, people who actually knew them, saw the story exactly the way that we saw it – not as something creepy or horrible but as an expression of how much this man loved this woman and the lengths he went to to keep his promise to her. I was particularly touched by the fact that when the song “Undying Love” was played for this lady, she actually broke down weeping because she said it was how they all felt about the story.

Are there any other true crime stories you’d like to adapt to the stage?

Honestly, I never thought of this as much of a crime. I mean, the charges against him were grave robbing and desecration of a tomb. Well, he had paid for Elena’s funeral, paid for and built the mausoleum that she was kept in – all with the consent of her family. And if you happen to believe in an afterlife and spirit communication, which I do, if the dead girl you love comes to you from beyond the grave and asks you to get her out of the cemetery and take her home with you, well what else are you supposed to do? So where’s the crime in that? You can question whether he was delusional to think he’d been visited by a spirit – but no-one who knew him ever doubted he believed that to be the case. So I believe he truly thought he was honouring Elena’s wishes and I can’t fault him for that.

Where would you ideally like to stage It Happened In Key West in the future?

London has been great and it’s my favourite place on the planet so this has been a wonderful experience premiering the show here. And I’m definitely planning on coming back again on coming back again before the end of the run. But I would love to see it done in the U.S as well: in New York (where I live), of course, and especially in Florida and/or Key West. I think the story of undying love and how tough it is to say goodbye is pretty universal so I’m hopeful we’ll eventually find an audience in many places.

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I’d like to really thank Jill Santoriello for agreeing to be interviewed. You can find more information about her as a writer and her shows here. 

It Happens In Key West runs at the Charing Cross Theatre in London until the 18th of August 2018. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

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