Imagine “Fiddler on the Roof” set in contemporary New Jersey, with more than a dash of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins.”
That seems to be the premise of “A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill,” a new musical being staged by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It tells the story of Rabbi Fred Neulander, who was convicted for hiring a man to bludgeon his wife, Carol, to death.
Neulander, believed at the time to be the first rabbi tried for murder in the United State, was convicted after a second trial in 2001 and is serving 30 years to life. The case drew national headlines, and his trial was broadcast on Court TV.
A number of the songs in the musical were posted recently on social media and taken down. The Geffen Playhouse describes the musical as “written with humor and chutzpah” by Matt Schatz, who grew up in Cherry Hill, the south Jersey community where Neulander lived and worked.
“The rabbi was telling people how to be a person, how to be a Jew, and he turned out to be evil,” Schatz told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “How do we reckon with that?”
A number of congregants of M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, which Neulander founded in 1974, told the newspaper they did not think the time was ripe yet for a musical.
The congregation’s president, Drew Molotsky, who is a musical theater director, suggested in a statement that the musical was exploitative by definition.
“We know nothing about the content of the play,” he said. “This is our history. It involves our friends and our community, and it is very serious to us. To make light of it or to exploit it for entertainment value is not something we will ever condone.”
But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?