That title up there: “Lindbergh Kidnapping Musical.” When I’ve told people that the History Theatre in St. Paul was mounting a production of Baby Case and that it was a musical about the kidnapping and the trial, I was greeted with a lot of skepticism.
“A musical?” Well, yes, a musical play (note: I don’t say “musical comedy”). If your image of “the American musical” is something frothy and giddy and funny and lightweight, then…. think again. And the more you think about it, the more you can come up with musicals with dark themes about difficult subjects. This includes classic works such as West Side Story (gang violence, teenage death); Sweeny Todd (murderous revenge); South Pacific (racism and World War II); as well as more recent works such as Parade (the Leo Frank lynching in the South); Floyd Collins (tragic spelunker, media circus); not to mention blockbusters like Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera. Even Showboat— the grandpappy of American “book” musicals (shows that are story-driven, rather than silly musical revues) — deals with racism and miscegenation, and that show was written in 1927.
Michael Ogborn was inspired to write about the Lindbergh baby case sometime in the 1980s, when he happened to catch a episode of the Phil Donahue Show, of all things. Among Phil’s guests that day were Anna Hauptmann, the widow of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who had been executed in 1936 for the crime of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh, Jr., four years earlier. Also on the show was Ludovic Kennedy, the author of The Airman and the Carpenter–a sensational “expose” of the Lindbergh case, in which he argued for Hauptmann’s innocence and the probable involvement of Lindbergh himself in the crime. More than 10 years later, Ogborn got back to the idea of writing a play, and the result was Baby Case, which received its first production at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater in 2001.
The show focuses on the media circus that engulfed Charles Lindbergh from his first moments after landing in Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, and then even more overwhelming with his marriage to Anne Morrow in 1929, followed by the birth of their first child in 1930. All of that is compressed into a thrilling opening number–“American Hero”– that introduces the theme of popular adulation that gets out of hand, inflated and overheated by the American press. The show moves swiftly–propelled by the major-domo character of Walter Winchell, the enormous radio news star of the age, and by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, voracious for news to feed to sensation-seeking, tabloid-reading public– through the kidnapping, the few weeks of manhunt and ransom-paying, the discovery of the child’s dead body in May 1932, and ending the first act with the arrest of Hauptmann. The second act deals with the trial and the tragic and ridiculous media circus that the trial became. The show ends with the electric-chair execution of Hauptmann (which even reproduces the double jolt required to kill him). The show proceeds at breakneck speed, piling up the relentless, grotesque and at times embarrassingly hilarious events of the “LKC” (Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, in the shorthand of “LKC” buffs).