Dead Outlaw Composer David Yazbek Uses a Dead Body for a Lesson in Living | Playbill

Special Features Dead Outlaw Composer David Yazbek Uses a Dead Body for a Lesson in Living

In his follow up to The Band's Visit, the composer turned to the macabre true story about a traveling mummy.

Andrew Durand and Julia Knitel in Dead Outlaw Matthew Murphy

Translated literally, momento mori is a Latin phrase meaning "remember you must die." In practice, a momento mori is a trope, either symbolic or artistic, that evokes a sense of mortality—like skulls, wilted flowers, or Death personified with cloak and scythe. Or the new musical Dead Outlaw

The roots-rock tuner tells the true story of Elmer McCurdy, a train robber killed by law enforcement in 1911. His mummified body was found dangling in an amusement park ride in 1976, thought for years to be a mannequin. It's the latest collaboration from the team behind The Band's Visit—and Audible Theater's first commissioned musical. The show was conceived by David Yazbek and features a book by Itamar Moses and score by Yazbek and Erik Della Penna, an Americana rocker (steel guitar!) who plays in the composer's band, David Yazbek and His Warmest Regards. David Cromer directs the show, which was just extended to April 14. For those who can't catch the show, Audible plans to release it later as an audio musical. 

Yazbek first heard Elmer McCurdy's macabre story almost 30 years ago from a friend in England. "It's a very personal story for me, and it's kind of lived with me for decades," says the Tony-winning composer. "The interesting thing about the true story is when you share it with people, they very often latch onto it in a way even they don't understand. It kind of haunts them."

Elmer's life would probably not ever be considered extraordinary. Dead Outlaw follows him from his childhood in Vermont to his journey west. He's unhappy and aggressive. Even when he tries to chisel out a bit of a life for himself with a job and a sweetheart, he ruins it with drink. His life of crime is just as unsuccessful, ending with his death by sheriff's posse at age 31. It's Elmer's bizarre afterlife that is really worth the telling. That's the part of the story that haunts. 

With the discovery of Elmer's hanging body (painted neon red), a Los Angeles coroner begins the hunt for who the man was. The second part of the intermission-less, two-hour musical traces Elmer's post-death journey as a sideshow attraction. He is depicted nearly frozen and silent, with the actor playing him propped up in a standing wooden coffin while others interact with him and around him as he's sold from one sideshow to another.

"I didn't really realize what a difficult thing that role was to pull off, and as we were rehearsing it, I was like, 'Holy shit. What did we do?' Luckily we have this guy—he's really, really smart," says Yazbek. "He plays the part in a very transparent manner when he's alive and then he does this incredibly subtle, yet kind of tour-de-force performance after he's dead."

That guy is Andrew Durand, who lent his twang to Broadway's Shucked last season. He plays Elmer McCurdy in Dead Outlaw. And it really is a tour-de-force performance; he's equally impressive kicking off a boot in the rowdy number "Killed a Man in Maine" as he is standing stock still for 40 minutes, only occasionally punctuating someone else's line with a slight side-eye.

"We wanted the presence of the character even after he was dead and mummified," says Yazbek. "We wanted the presence of the character to remind us what we're talking about and who we're talking about."

The who is pretty straightforward. Elmer McCurdy. But let's get back to the what—the momento mori of it all. Yazbek says that's a phrase the creative team brings up a lot. While Elmer's mummified body was a sensation in the sideshow for people who wanted to see a "real live dead outlaw," it was also a reminder of the inevitability of death. And thus is the musical itself. 

"It functions almost as a blank slate to see your own mortality through," says Yazbek. "When you hear the story of the career of a dead body, you start having to confront how that relates to your own life, your own career, and the fact that you will (at some point sooner or later) be a dead body."

The Dead Outlaw audience is not only reminded of that basic fact with a stiff body in front of them, staring off into the unknown, but Yazbek and Della Penna keep that idea at the forefront throughout the musical with the song "Dead." It's the first tune that the band really kicks into following Elmer's first sweet serenade to the stars—a contrasting, boisterous declaration that everyone dies. The song is reprised twice in the show, giving it three opportunities to list dead people (even if they aren't really yet): "Your mama's dead, your daddy's dead...Ken Burns is dead...Bert Convy's dead...Babe Ruth is dead...Tupac is dead...Zendaya's dead...And so are you." (They even throw band members' names in for good measure.)

"Dead" is very matter-of-fact and possesses no sentimentality. In speaking with Yazbek, I even suggested it was casual. He countered. "It's a good way to deliver the information," says Yazbek. "But it isn't casual. It's the great matter. The great matter is what it means to exist or not exist. You know, that's the big ticket item right there. But if you deliver it in this rip-roaring Western rock song, you can deliver the information in a really entertaining and funny way."

And the show is funny. (Thom Sesma's crooning coroner will have you grinning ear-to-ear.) Yazbek says that the collaboration with Della Penna, Moses, and Cromer has led to many, many laughs that then lead into very serious conversations. They talk about lyric and songwriting, and dramaturgy, and the craft of making theatre. But they get philosophical, too. "When you're constantly evaluating your own life and the temporal nature of your own life, everything touches up everything else. If you're sitting there genuinely laughing with people, you're in the moment, and you're living. You're really living life," he says. "Which the four of us have been very, very lucky to have experienced throughout the making of this."

David Yazbek, Itamar Moses, David Cromer, Erik Della Penna, and Dean Sharenow Vi Dang

Though the show is subtly philosophical, with little nuggets of wisdom folded cleverly into the lyrics of raucous tunes, it never preaches. "There's no moralizing. We were really careful about that," says Yazbek. "You definitely identify with characters in the show, including our main character, both alive and dead. But you're identifying with the fact that what you have in common is what everyone has in common; We are not gonna live forever. And if everyone could remember that, you would not have the world in the state it's in right now."

Of course, it's near impossible to always be living in the moment. Some plans must be made for the future. As for Dead Outlaw's future, there are things in the works. The Minetta Lane has another show coming in, so Dead Outlaw's run there is finite. It's been extended, but must close April 14. Another commercial Off-Broadway run or even a Broadway transfer would be welcomed by the creators. But as an Audible Theater commission, it will be recorded by the audio giant. On the day Playbill spoke with Yazbek, he was headed to a production meeting (with the creative team and producer Dean Sharenow) to talk about the changes that would be made to adapt the stage production into a fully-realized audio musical with narrated action and foley effects.

It seems strange to encourage someone to go see a musical that is meant to remind them of their own mortality and the impermanence of everything. But Dead Outlaw really is special. And while you can look forward to the audio musical, there might only be few chances to have it in its current life—sitting in the darkened theatre, shoulder to shoulder with 300 or so strangers with whom you will share these precious two hours. This one moment. To laugh with someone. To connect with someone.

"When I think about my own death, I'm not really thinking about anything morbid or scary or dark," says Yazbek. "I'm thinking about removal of obstacles to connection—the removals of all the separations that make us suffer into something sort of totally connective and sort of oceanic. I'm getting a little too deep here. It's not something to dwell on. It's something to know, but it's not something to dwell on."

Photos: Audible Theater's Dead Outlaw

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