background and analysis by Scott Miller
Charlie Starkweather, infamous spree killer of the late 1950s, and his underage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate have inspired so much American art and pop culture, and it may be because their story holds some vital truths about America’s tumultuous transformation from the enforced, often awkward conformity of Eisenhower’s Fifties to the complicated political and sexual freedom of the Sixties. All of America’s anxieties were wrapped up in the person of Charlie Starkweather; he was Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, every middle American parent’s nightmare come to frightening life. There are three good books about the case: Waste Land: The Savage Odyssey Of Charles Starkweather And Caril Ann Fugate; Starkweather: Inside the Mind of a Teenage Killer; and Starkweather: Portrait of a Mass Murderer.
This was a time in America when everything was changing. The Baby Boomers became teenagers and the teenagers became the hottest demographic in America. They brought with them rock and roll, hot rods, drive-ins, and a fierce sexuality more open and explicit than ever before.
Charlie and Caril’s murder spree inspired films as varied as Badlands, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, Murder in the Heartland, The Sadist, True Romance, and Wild At Heart. They inspired Bruce Springsteen’s song "Nebraska." And they have inspired more murders, most similarly a multiple murder in Alberta, Canada in 2006, where a teenage girl and her older boyfriend murdered her entire family because they didn’t want her dating the boyfriend. It was eerily like 1958.
Their story also served as a launching pad for Kyle Jarrow’s emo rock musical Love Kills, based on historical fact and characters, though fictionalized in some of its details. The show was done for six performances at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2007, and then premiered at New Line Theatre in St. Louis in October 2009. The few New York reviews of the show were not largely positive, but these reviewers missed a lot of what’s in this rich material. That may be partly because most musical theatre in New York these days isn't terribly subtle or complex, so some of the New York reviewers may just not be used to looking into a musical that deeply.
About Jarrow’s other work, The New York Times has said "Kyle Jarrow is New York’s hipster playwright," and Curtain Up has written, "Jarrow’s writing is messy, giddy, and poignant, and at its best, all three at once. Most importantly, Jarrow’s work continues to prove that he is not afraid of playing with fire." The New York Sun wrote, "Kyle Jarrow’s songs are dangerously catchy." The New Yorker said "Mr. Jarrow is the kind of writer that likes to provoke people."
But Love Kills isn’t really about the murders. We see none of the crimes take place. Instead we find ourselves in a Lincoln, Nebraska jail where Charlie and Caril have been brought after their extradition from Wyoming where they were caught after murdering eleven people (ten as a couple). There are only four people onstage, Sheriff Merle Karnopp, his wife Gertrude, Charlie, and Caril. The action takes place over one night – a walpurgisnacht, a night of exorcism – as Merle tries to get Charlie to confess and Gertrude does the same with Caril before their lawyers are to arrive in the morning. We see flashbacks of important moments in the kids’ relationships, but the crimes remain offstage. Finally we realize that this isn’t a show about murder or even murderers; it’s about two relationships, their unlikely parallels, their commonality, and their opposite trajectories.
Jarrow’s script is smart, raw, complex, minimalist. As with Sondheim’s Assassins, you come away realizing (to your horror) that these murderers aren't all that different from you and me. Like Assassins, the show doesn't really judge Charlie and Caril, both of which are childlike and scared one moment and full of rage the next, and that lack of judgment is what’s most unsettling about the show. Charlie tries to be a Man, even a Gentleman, but he only understands the most superficial aspects of those roles, utterly unable to understand what lies beneath the manners and conventions of polite society. He is a boy pretending to be a man. Caril is a total innocent, a tabula rasa, emotionally shut down, and thanks to her dead mother and distant (abusive?) father, she has never learned the necessary Life Lessons. She, too, is a child, only she doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
The emotion of the story comes from the rowdy, visceral rock score (Jarrow calls it "emo," an extremely emotional rock genre related to glam rock), dabbling in 1950s doo-wop, hard rock, emo/glam rock ballads. There is even an emo waltz for the Sheriff when he questions the very definition of manliness he has steered his entire life by. But this is no Broadway-rock score; it’s real rock and roll. And like very few other musicals, it doesn’t even have a piano in the band, just guitar, bass, and drums.
Like some of the other great composers working in musical theatre today (Bill Finn, Larry O'Keefe, Adam Guettel, Tom Kitt, Jason Robert Brown), Jarrow knows how to use a rock/pop vocabulary in the theatre without violating the conventions of a musical. The songs in Love Kills are honest-to-god real rock and roll, but they're also excellent theatre songs. They have the repetition and surface simplicity of real rock and pop, but they also have the continually unfolding complexity and communication of important information that theatre songs need to do good storytelling. If you listen closely, there are hundreds of tiny, subtle moments that elevate the lyrics and slyly give us clues about these kids’ thoughts, fears, desires, loneliness. And so often, where there is repetition, there is also subtle variation that changes the emotion or context just enough that it moves us forward dramatically.
For years, real rock didn't work on Broadway, with only a few exceptions. Rock is by definition repetitive, with the lyric usually taking a backseat to the beat; but theatre songs have to communicate a ton of info about character, context, plot, themes, etc. During the mid-1990s, a bunch of songwriters suddenly showed up who could juggle and fuse the inherent characteristics of both forms, creating rock musicals that sounded far more like rock and roll than like Broadway – with shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rent, Bat Boy, Songs for a New World, Myths and Hymns, The Capeman, and more recently, High Fidelity and Spring Awakening. In the past, the Golden Age of Musical Theatre has been defined as Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964), but that doesn’t conform to the facts. After all, 1925-1950 was an important time too, when the art form found its voice. But perhaps the real Golden Age was 1960-1975, a remarkable time of experimentation and innovation, including shows like The Fantasticks, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, Jacques Brel, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Company, Follies, Chicago, A Chorus Line, The Rocky Horror Show... And there’s a strong argument to be made that we’re in another Golden Age right now, with shows like Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Spelling Bee, Avenue Q, High Fidelity, In the Heights, Passing Strange, Grey Gardens, Jersey Boys, The Light in the Piazza, Love Kills...
Rebel Without a Cause
From the truTV website: "Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate embarked on a murder spree that horrified the country. This was the country that had elected Eisenhower and Nixon for a second term in 1956 and where the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was firmly entrenched as the national policeman. This was also a country that was undergoing unsettling cultural changes. Frightening and offensive symbols of rebellion emerged and thrived: Elvis Presley, James Dean and the whole rock 'n roll culture focused on a new generation that challenged the status quo of the sterile 1950s. The country that uncomfortably watched James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause in 1956 suddenly saw a Dean-like figure in Charles Starkweather to make them really uncomfortable. What was the world coming to? Were the violence and the alienation of Starkweather just the beginning of some uncontrollable trend that would destroy the fabric of society?"
In the book Starkweather: Portrait of a Mass Murderer, William Allen writes, "Examples of multiple murders are much easier to list now than in 1958 – the names Spec, Whitman, DeSalvo, Coril, Manson come immediately to mind, and there are others. And it may be significant that almost all of them spent at least a portion of their adolescence in the fifties."
Today, some Americans idealize the 1950s as a time of moral clarity, patriotism, family stability, traditional values, a time to which America should return. To many American traditionalists, the 1950s are the Eden of modern America’s superpower creation story, a time of unstained innocence, lots of happily conspicuous consumption, and clear-cut rules. The Sixties brought with them the cultural upheaval that these folks perceive as the (avoidable) expulsion from the Garden. But their mythological 1950s never actually existed. What felt to them like moral clarity was actually well-masked racism, sexism, and economic oppression. The only people who were safe and comfortable were middle class and upper class white men (the only demographics that still idealize that time). There’s a reason Grease is set in 1959 – just one year after the Starkweather murders – it was a time of profound upheaval for America. The difference between Charlie and the working class kids of Grease’s Chicago East Side neighborhood is that Danny Zuko and the Burger Palace Boys have each other. They may have absent or abusive parents, but they have a support network. Charlie walked funny, was short, and had a speech impediment, and that (along with his strange personality) kept him from finding that support network. He was alone until he met Caril.
In retrospect it seems American pop culture was purposefully getting us ready for Charlie. In 1951, J.D. Salinger’s controversial Catcher in the Rye had been published and became an instant, lasting hit among teenagers, with its profanity and frank discussions of teenage angst and sexuality. Then America was hit with The Wild One in 1953, starring Marlon Brando, the movie that started the whole leather jacket "greaser" thing as well as the "teen exploitation" film genre. The central relationship in Grease between Danny and Sandy is a goofier imitation of the central relationship in The Wild One between Johnny and Kathie.
Exactly like the teen market they were targeting, teen exploitation films were full of sex and sin and booze and cars, but many of them also had a sanctimonious "moral" laid out explicitly, at the beginning or end of the film, often by a nameless authority figure behind a desk or podium, sometimes by a "survivor" of the "tragedy." These fake morals gave the raunchy stories the patina of respectability to placate parents and would-be censors. But for the kids, these movies mirrored the real world, in which teenagers were discovering they had a certain kind of power, a kind of power that just might be able to challenge the power of their parents. In the days leading up to the murders, Charlie saw several violent B-movies: The Parson and the Outlaw, Escape from San Quentin, Man in the Shadow, Last of the Badmen, Pickup Alley, and The Domino Kid
Just as importantly, in 1954 Elvis Presley burst upon the American scene with his first hit, forever changing notions of gender and sexuality, rebelling against the "strong, silent type" model of previous generations of men like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, in favor of a remarkably sexual, nakedly emotional new model of maleness embodied by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.
The movies Rock Around the Clock and Rock, Rock, Rock were released in 1956 (the same year the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, banned all rock and roll within the city limits), giving some teens their first chance to actually see Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, The Platters, and many others performing their songs. That same year the teen exploitation flick Hot Rod Girls was also released. In 1957, Roger Corman’s daring Teenage Doll (which still holds up pretty well) and Eighteen and Anxious were released. Teenage Doll was about a girl gang out for revenge after one of their members is murdered by a rival gang. The film ended with a giant rumble with girl and boy gangs fighting in an auto salvage yard. This was not their parents’ kind of movie. That same year saw Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a much more serious film than it sounds, about a damaged, "misunderstood" teen and about American teenagers’ feelings (reinforced by rock and roll) of "us vs. them." Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking, anti-authoritarian On the Road was published that year too, the inevitable follow-up to Catcher in the Rye. In 1958, two more teen movies were released that showed us the underbelly of American teenage life (real or imagined), High School Confidential and the girl-gang High School Hellcats.
And all this teen crime on screen was connected, legitimately or not, to Charlie’s crimes. Daniel Lachance of University of Minnesota wrote, "In the 1950s, the use and popularity of the death penalty declined as penal welfarism pervaded political and academic approaches to crime control. Analysis of responses to the 1958 crimes and 1959 execution of teenage serial killer Charles Starkweather reveals, however, that the integrity of penal welfarism was badly shaken by a conflict between the political and intellectual commitments required for its maintenance. As a result, Starkweather’s crime and the responses it elicited called into question the core assumptions upon which 1950s penology was based: a belief that the world was a knowable, controllable place and that a competent state could use social science to maximize social harmony. Starkweather’s case ultimately reveals one impetus for the return of retributive responses to crime in political and academic circles and the re-emergence of the death penalty in the last three decades of the 20th century."
Charlie and Caril are the fruit of the first half of the 20th century, the violence, the wars, the forced criminality of Prohibition, the moral confusion and hypocrisy of the 30s and 50s, the anxiety and desperation of the Depression, and more. During Prohibition, Americans had less respect for the law, and casual law-breaking became a part of the culture that was unfortunately adopted by rebellious teens. Young people could easily see the hypocrisy of the fake conformity of the Fifties (Mad Men explores this too), and as a result they had less respect for adults in general. That’s a potent mix. But there may have been more at work with Charlie and Caril.
As research into the structures of the brain uncovers more and more mysteries, understanding of the frontal lobe has moved forward by leaps and bounds. The latest research suggests that a person who is not shown sufficient physical affection as a child will not fully develop their frontal lobe, the area of the brain that controls empathy and impulse control, among other things. In other words, it may be true that a neglected child can grow up without the ability to put themselves in another person’s place, to understand the emotions that someone else is feeling, and without any ability to control their darkest urges. Many of us, from time to time, have pondered for a split second the possibility of killing someone, but we instantly reject the idea. Partly because we know it’s wrong, and partly because we can imagine being the victim. That’s the frontal lobe at work.
Did Charlie and Caril have grossly under-developed frontal lobes? And if so, what does that mean morally and what should it mean legally? There are already different legal ramifications for criminals who are mentally retarded. Will we someday extend that same umbrella to include retardation of the frontal lobe?
But it also begs the question: did the kind of cold, authoritarian family structure that much of America lived under during the early and mid-20th century indirectly ignite the tumult of the late 1950s by creating kids without basic human emotional equipment, and taking the argument even further, did it lead us to the slash-and-burn, lie-without-shame, angry, crazy, Apocalyptic political landscape of today? Is there a certain slice of America that was raised at arm’s length and now suffers from a lack of empathy and impulse control that leads to screaming at town hall meetings and the kind of nasty, cold public politics we see today? Many of today’s senior citizens were born around the same time as Charlie and Caril were.
And yet there’s another possibility as well – a traumatic head injury, something we didn’t know much about in 1958. William Allen wrote in the book Starkweather: Portrait of a Mass Murderer, "While Charlie was bailing paper one day, the handle on the bailing machine slipped out of his hand and struck him in the corner of the left eye. It knocked him out briefly, and he was taken to the Lincoln Clinic where he required several stitches. He had headaches and depression after that, several times a week, for the rest of his short life. He ate aspirin constantly, but said it didn't do much good." Was his frontal lobe damaged (or perhaps further damaged) by this accident, and that led to his most anti-social behavior? Of course we’ll never know.
Charlie was 14 when The Wild One came out, and he was the ideal target audience, exactly the right age to make a hero out of Brando’s seemingly emotionless character, the leather-jacketed, biker gang leader. But if that was the wrong role model for Charlie, just as wrong was the role model the older generation still venerated – the walled-off, emotionless Gary Cooper. Neither model was a healthy one.
Empathy is one of the central themes of Love Kills. Charlie
Starkweather doesn't feel empathy and neither does Caril; they can both kill
without remorse. They are literally unable to imagine how another person feels
and therefore they don't feel the horror of the murder. Which is also why their
love has no depth – they need each other but don't understand real
love. Charlie and Caril have only the three basic human emotions – love, rage,
and fear – but all in extreme. Neither Charlie or Caril has more complex,
more adult emotions; just the basics. And unable to control them, they are
trapped by them. In Jarrow’s script, both Charlie and Caril seem to have an
inkling of all this at the end of the show, but they can’t quite grasp the full
meaning of it.
But Gertrude feels empathy. She identifies with Caril. She feels her sadness. She can put herself in Caril’s place. She can find connections and parallels between her own life and Caril’s life, which allows them a genuine connection. But does her ability to feel empathy let us assume that she had a more loving childhood? Who knows? Human behavior rarely boils down to one cause. But what a sad story this is – both in micro and in macro, both for these damaged kids and for mid-century America. Here are four disconnected people trying to connect to anyone or anything, but three of them are not able to feel how another person feels. It makes connection impossible. And it gives Charlie his Shakespearean Tragic Flaw.
Charlie and Caril couldn’t measure up to the superficially wholesome, rabidly conforming, postwar America. And in their feelings of unfitness and aberration, they lashed out by killing that postwar America, by killing its most wholesome symbols: the family, the working man, the young lovers, the successful businessman.
But Charlie was not a serial killer or a mass murderer; he was a "spree killer." That’s someone who commits multiple murders, within a short period of time, as a direct result of the circumstances in which they find themselves. In contrast, a serial killer is usually driven by some internal psychopathology who chooses specific victims, or types of victims, to satisfy preconditions of their psychopathology. Charlie killed because people kept getting in his way of running off with Caril. William Allen wrote in the book Starkweather: Portrait of a Mass Murderer, "Charlie said hat Caril meant more to him than anything had before. Without here he would be thrust back into the world he hated so much. He felt that they had to be separated from everyone else. Caril almost made him stop hating himself. . . . It gave him a thrill to tell the world to go to hell. He couldn't see how he could want to live at all, even with Caril, if he didn't have his hatred to sustain him."
Copyright 2009. From Scott Miller's next, untitled book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.