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The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

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A booklist for: The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

Production dates: May 5-14, 2023

This is a booklist created by Gere Branch library staff to accompany the stage production of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Gere’s neighbor, The Lincoln Community Playhouse.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a comedy stage play by John Bishop. It was first performed at the Circle Repertory Company in their theater Off-Broadway in New York City, later moving to Broadway, opening on April 6, 1987, in The Longacre Theatre. Both productions were directed by the playwright and shared the same cast. The play is said to have been based on several 1940s mystery movies, including The Cat and the Canary (1939), one of Bob Hope’s earliest films. Though its original Broadway run was short — only five months — this comedic murder-mystery farce has enjoyed a long and healthy life in community theaters, and via college and high school productions.

The creative team responsible for a recent Broadway flop (in which three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious “Stage Door Slasher”) assemble for a backer’s audition of their new show at the Westchester estate of a wealthy “angel.” The house is replete with sliding panels, secret passageways, and a German maid who is apparently four different people—all of which figure diabolically in the comic mayhem which follows when the infamous “Slasher” makes his reappearance and strikes again — and again. As the composer, lyricist, actors, and director prepare their performance, and a blizzard cuts off any possible retreat, bodies start to drop in plain sight, knives spring out of nowhere, masked figures drag their victims behind swiveling bookcases, and accusing fingers point in all directions. However, and with no thanks to the bumbling police inspector who snowshoes in to investigate, the mystery is solved in the nick of time and the “Slasher” unmasked — but not before the audience has been treated to a sidesplitting good time and a generous serving of the author’s biting, satiric, and refreshingly irreverent wit.
(From the publisher)
 
Before you figure out Who Dunnit at the Playhouse, get into the mood for The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 with this specially-curated booklist full of murder, mayhem, comedy, and no shortage of secret passageways! Even better, the cast and crew from Lincoln Community Playhouse‘s production has given their own recommendations, mostly inspired by the style and tone of this comedy! Read or watch along with Eddie, Nikki, O’Reilly, Elsa, Ken, Roger, Bernice, Marjorie, and the whole gang and then go see them LIVE (at least for now) on stage!
 

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
by Douglas Adams (Adams)

Quirky and bumbling private investigator Dirk Gently stumbles upon a ghost, millions of years old, wandering the earth and disturbing its people. Dirk soon discovers this phantom yearns for more than a good haunting: it is desperately trying to go back in time to prevent its own death. But this ghost was no ordinary person, and helping it save itself just might change the modern world as we know it. And not in a good way!

Recommended by Jack Tyson, who plays Eddie McCuen in this production.


Break a Leg, Darlings
by Marian Babson (Babson)

Trixie Dolan and Evangeline Sinclair, aging starlets of the silver screen, balk at the idea of playing the traditional roles reserved for actresses of their advanced years. So they pool their creative energies and scour the London pub theater scene for that elusive diamond in the rough — the perfect part. Evening after evening, they endure horrid dialogue, foul acting, and seedy sets all in the name of art. During the course of their noble quest, Sweetums Carew, a longtime colleague and troublesome rival, appears on the scene bragging about the lead role she’s just landed. Trixie and Evangeline’s search intensifies because it’s not just their livelihoods that are at stake now, but their dignity and waning shots at immortality. They never suspect that while they stalk the playwright who will revive their careers, someone else is stalking them.


The Dresden Files series
by Jim Butcher (Butcher)

The Dresden Files is a series of contemporary fantasy/mystery novels written by American author Jim Butcher. The first novel, Storm Front — which was also Butcher’s writing debut — was published in 2000 by Roc Books.

The books are written as a first-person narrative from the perspective of private investigator and wizard Harry Dresden as he recounts investigations into supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago. Butcher’s original proposed title for the first novel was Semiautomagic, which sums up the series’ balance of fantasy and hard-boiled detective fiction.

As of 2021, Butcher has written 17 novels set in the Dresden Files universe, as well as a number of short stories (some of which are collected in the anthologies Side Jobs and Brief Cases; Others remain on his website). The series has also been released in audiobook format, narrated by James Marsters (Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Other works set in the same fictional universe include graphic novels (several new stories in addition to adaptations of the first two novels), and The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. In 2007, a television series based on the novels aired for one season on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Recommended by Bradley Hoffman, who plays Ken De La Maize in this production.


Three Act Tragedy
by Agatha Christie (Christie)

At an apparently respectable dinner party, a vicar is the first to die…

Thirteen guests arrived at dinner at the actor’s house. It was to be a particularly unlucky evening for the mild-mannered Reverend Stephen Babbington, who choked on his cocktail, went into convulsions and died.

But when his martini glass was sent for chemical analysis, there was no trace of poison — just as Poirot had predicted. Even more troubling for the great detective, there was absolutely no motive.


Finley Donovan is Killing It
by Elle Cosimano (Cosimano)

Edgar-Award nominee Elle Cosimano’s adult debut Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is the first in a witty, fast-paced mystery series, following struggling suspense novelist and single mom Finlay Donovan, whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth as she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations. Finlay Donovan is killing it… except, she’s really not. She’s a stressed-out single-mom of two and struggling novelist, Finlay’s life is in chaos: the new book she promised her literary agent isn’t written, her ex-husband fired the nanny without telling her, and this morning she had to send her four-year-old to school with hair duct-taped to her head after an incident with scissors. When Finlay is overheard discussing the plot of her new suspense novel with her agent over lunch, she’s mistaken for a contract killer, and inadvertently accepts an offer to dispose of a problem husband in order to make ends meet… Soon, Finlay discovers that crime in real life is a lot more difficult than its fictional counterpart, as she becomes tangled in a real-life murder investigation. Fast-paced, deliciously witty, and wholeheartedly authentic in depicting the frustrations and triumphs of motherhood in all its messiness, hilarity, and heartfelt moments.

Recommended by Scott Clark, Assistant Stage Manager for this production.


Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet
by Arthur Conan Doyle (Doyle)

A tired and battle scarred surgeon returns to London after being wounded in the third Afghan war. After his money starts to run low, a chance encounter leads him to take a flat with an eccentric man at 221B Baker Street. Thus begins the famous crime-solving partnership of the Holmes and Watson duo.

Recommended by Michelle Zinke, Stage Manager for this production.


The 39 Steps
based on the novel by John Buchan (DVD 39)

A young Canadian in England inadvertantly becomes involved in a pre-World War II spy ring when a female agent is murdered in his rooms. The rest of the film is devoted to his attempts to clear his name and catch the foreign spies before they take a valuable military secret out of the country. He is pursued across England and Scotland by Scotland Yard, which believes him to be the murderer, and the spies, who believe he knows their secret.


Arsenic and Old Lace
directed by Frank Capra (DVD Arsenic)

Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1944 American black comedy film directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. The screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein is based on Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 play of the same name.

Marvelous screwball meeting of the madcap and the macabre. On Halloween, newly married drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant, cutting loose in a hilariously harried performance) returns home to Brooklyn, where his adorably dotty aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, who both starred in the Broadway production) greet him with love, sweetness…and a grisly surprise: the corpses buried in their cellar.

A bugle-playing brother (John Alexander) who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, a crazed criminal (Raymond Massey) who’s a dead ringer for Boris Karloff, and a seriously slippery plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) are among the outré oddballs populating Arsenic and Old Lace, a diabolical delight that only gets funnier as the body count rises.


Clue: The Movie
directed by Jonathan Lynn (DVD Clue)

Clue is a 1985 American black comedy mystery film based on the classic board game of the same name. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, who co-wrote the script with John Landis, it stars the ensemble cast of Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, and Colleen Camp.

Inspired by the nature of the 1949 board game, Clue‘s initial release featured three different endings, with only one of three possibilities sent to each theater.

Six guests are anonymously invited to a strange mansion for dinner, but after their host is killed, they must cooperate with the staff to identify the murderer as the bodies pile up. Was it Professor Plum, Mrs. White, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Mr. Green, or possibly Wadsworth the butler or Yvette the maid? Which deadly object was the murder weapon? Gun, knife, lead pipe? In which of the exotic rooms of the mansion?  And who’s next?

Recommended by Katie Hoppe, who plays Patrick O’Reilly in this production.


Dial M for Murder
directed by Alfred Hitchcock (DVD Dial)

Dial M for Murder is a 1954 American crime thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, Anthony Dawson, and John Williams. Both the screenplay and the successful stage play on which it was based were written by English playwright Frederick Knott. The play premiered in 1952 on BBC Television, before being performed on stage in the same year in London’s West End in June, and then New York’s Broadway in October.

Tony Wendice, a retired English tennis player, is married to wealthy socialite Margot, who has been having an affair with American crime-fiction writer Mark Halliday. Unbeknownst to them, Tony has discovered their affair and is planning to have Margot killed so he can inherit her fortune.


Recommended by Regina Hinkley, who plays Elsa Von Grossenkneuten in this production.

My Favorite Brunette
directed by Elliott Nugent (DVD My)

Shortly before his execution on the death row in San Quentin, amateur sleuth and baby photographer Ronnie Jackson, tells reporters how he got there. Jackson had always dreamed of becoming a private detective. After meeting mystery woman Carlotta Monlay, a comical and violent adventure began.

Recommended by Scott Clark, Assistant Stage Manager for this production.


The Producers
by Mel Brooks (DVD Producers)

A legendary Broadway producer and his mild-mannered accountant face catastrophe, when their plan to make a fortune by producing a sure-fire flop musical, ‘Springtime For Hitler.’ fails, and the musical becomes a hit.

This cult favorite 1967 film was later developed, by writer/producer/director Mel Brooks, into a hit Broadway musical, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, in 2001, winning 12 Tony Awards. The musical, itself, was later turned into a feature film in 2005, though it was not as successful as the original.

Recommended by JoanAnn Blomstedt, who plays Marjorie Baverstock in this production.


Skin Tight
by Carl Hiaasen (Hiaasen)

In looking for “humorous mysteries”, that would appeal to fans of the farcical nature of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, the works of author Carl Hiaasen come to mind. Admittedly, they are a little darker in tone than Bishop’s play. But Hiaasen’s novels are filled with dry humor, witty banter, bumbling sleuths and plans gone awry. You could pretty much pick any Hiaasen novel at random, but Skin Tight is a good starting point.

Somebody wants Mick Stranahan dead, and the list of possible players is long: the plastic surgeon with the extremely shaky hands, the sleazy lawyer who advertises, the TV host whose taste for sensationalism is exceeded only by his vanity, and the hit man whose skin problems could fill a comprehensive (if bizarre) medical textbook. The whole thing is downright harrowing. It’s Hiaasen at his best. And his best is very, very good.

Recommended by Scott Clark, Assistant Stage Manager for this production.


The Lavender House
by A.C. Rosen (Rosen)

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist. Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret–but it’s not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they’ve needed to keep others out. And now they’re worried they’re keeping a murderer in. Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept — his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand. Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He’s seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn’t extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy–and Irene’s death is only the beginning. When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Recommended by Lane Gibson, who plays The Masked Killer in this production.


Mistborn: The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson (Sanderson)

For a thousand years, ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years, the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years, the Lord Ruler reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when all hope was lost, the scarred, heartbroken half-Skaa Kelsier found in himself the powers of a Mistborn.

A brilliant thief and natural leader, Kelsier recruits the underworld’s smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, who each share one of his many powers and relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream: not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.

But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers that she’s never dreamed of.

Recommended by Mark J. Geist, who plays Michael Kelly in this production.


The Kennel Murder Case
by S.S. VanDine (VanDine)

Given all the rich people getting bumped off in Philo Vance’s Manhattan, it’s amazing there are enough left to support the symphony. Latest up: Arthur Coe, found dead in his own locked bedroom. Suicide’ The ever-perceptive Philo doesn’t buy that theory for a second. The presence in Coe’s house of a strange, prize-winning terrier only adds to the mystery, although Philo’s fabulously in-depth knowledge of dogs does not in fact solve the crime; his fabulously in-depth knowledge of the murder of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 proves much more useful.

The literary detective Philo Vance, who stars in this mystery, the 6th of 12 in the Philo Vance series, is referenced in the play The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.


The Hot Rock
by Donald Westlake (Westlake)

The Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake features a team of con artists and thieves, who develop elaborate plans for heists or con jobs, which invariably run into major complications. They are filled with wacky, larger-than-life characters and witty dialog. Although you can pick up any novel in this series and enjoy it individually, the series (of 14 novels and one short story collection) is best read in chronological order, starting with The Hot Rock.

The Hot Rock introduces John Archibald Dortmunder, the thief whose capers never quite come off, as he and his convict friends plot to steal the fabulous Balaboma Emerald.

Recommended by Scott Clark, Assistant Stage Manager for this production.



Some Titles Not Owned by the Libraries

The “Road To…” series
written and directed by a variety of different individuals

Road to … is a series of seven comedy films starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, between 1940 and 1962. They are also often referred to as the Road” pictures or the Road” series. The movies were a combination of adventure, comedy, romance, and music. The minimal plot often took a back seat to gags, which appeared improvised but were usually scripted.

Each film is not simply a broad, slapstick comedy, but is also a satire of some of the popular film genres of the day, including jungle, Arabian nights, Alaskan adventure and high seas. In 1977, an eighth and final Road to… movie was planned, titled Road to the Fountain of Youth, but Crosby died that year of a heart attack. Though the libraries do not own any of the seven Road To… films on DVD or in our streaming services, many of them can be viewed on YouTube. ( See Wikipedia entry on this series )

Recommended by Michael Booton, who plays Roger Hopewell in this production.


The Cat and the Canary
directed by Elliott Nugent

When an eccentric family meets in their uncle’s remote, decaying mansion on the tenth anniversary of his death for the reading of his will, murder and madness follow. The Cat and the Canary is a 1939 American horror comedy film directed by Elliott Nugent starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. It is a remake of the 1927 silent film The Cat and the Canary, which was based on the 1922 play of the same name by John Willard.

The Bob Hope version of The Cat and the Canary is one of the direct inspirations for the writing of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. Although this film is not in the libraries’ collection it is viewable on YouTube, on the Retrospective channel.

Recommended by Scott Clark, Assistant Stage Manager for this production.


The Game’s Afoot
by Ken Ludwig

It is December 1936, and Broadway star William Gillette, admired the world over for his leading role in the play Sherlock Holmes, has invited his fellow cast members to his Connecticut castle for a weekend of revelry. But when one of the guests is stabbed to death, the festivities in this isolated house of tricks and mirrors quickly turn dangerous.

This play was produced by the Lincoln Community Playhouse in 2015. Among its cast members were Karen F. Wills and Scott Clark, who are both working on The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. Although the script to The Game’s Afoot is not in the libraries’ collection, and the Lincoln Community Playhouse production isn’t available for online viewing (see a set of LCP still photos from that show), there are recordings of several other productions available on YouTube.


Recommended by Karen F. Wills, who plays Bernice Roth in this production.


Created in partnership with the Lincoln Community Playhouse by lg/Gere Branch May 2023 | Modified for use on BookGuide by sdc/bmpl