A Dirty Rotten Show: How teenagers play a dirty musical

Dec 1, 2015

Emery Major (left) and Lyon Hamill play Lawrence and Freddie in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

  Theatre Aspen is putting on a performance of the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Now, you may know the movie that the musical is based on, which stars Michael Caine and Steve Martin. When the show hit Broadway, it kept the con men and added lots of crude humor and innuendo. So how do you make the show work for teenagers?

Let’s start with the plot. Lawrence lives in France. Then Freddie, a petty con man, who tricks women on the train out of $20, shows up. Lawrence is also a con man, but you could say he is a big game hunter. He doesn’t go for the small fish. Soon, they are involved in a deep, spiraling game of lies and manipulation.

The show is, in traditional Broadway fashion, gaudier and crude, even more sexual, than the source material. So, to put on the show for a younger audience and cast, the script had to be edited.

Graham Northrup, the director of education at Theatre Aspen, was in charge of making sure that the show still worked even after changes to lines and lyrics were made.

“We really kept the spirit of the piece together,” says Northrup. “Some of the changes were actually suggested by the authors, so this isn’t stuff that we’re doing just on our own. It’s something they recognize that for school aged audiences to be able to perform, they want to make it a little more palatable to them in the particular and then the community we’re performing it for.”

Graham Northrup is directing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He says the show is one of the funniest he has read in years.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

  John Lithgow originated the role of Lawrence on the Broadway version of the play, and performs the character as a debonair, sly, middle-aged man. Emery Major, who graduated from Aspen High School this year, plays the part in the same way. His counterpart, Lyon Hamill, a junior at Aspen, plays Freddie, the small-time con man.

Freddie is a character that is written to be a wacky, off-the-wall kind of guy. He makes up a story about being paralyzed from the waist down to trick a woman. That story arc has lots of sexual references that had to be taken out, and replaced with lines that were more straightforward, and less obscene.

It’s the subtle jokes like this that Graham says make having a cleaner show even more effective.

“When I teach them about the nature of comedy, I teach them that sometimes it’s better to play it straight, play it innocently, rather than really emphasizing the crudeness of the joke, because that way a sophisticated audience will understand the reference, but they won’t think we’re being crude for the sake of being crude.”  

A perfect example of this is the character of Jolene, played by Jessica Garner, a recent high school grad from Mississippi.

Jolene is a woman that Lawrence, through a series of events, finds out that he is going to marry. She is your typical young enthusiastic new-money type. She’s loaded with cash from the oil business, and her biggest moment in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the song ‘Oklahoma?’ With a question mark at the end.

And like we talked about earlier, let’s drive home how wacky this musical is. The end of ‘Oklahoma?’ comes with the full ensemble singing the word melanoma.
Luke Ryan is a junior at Aspen High School and plays Andre, the chief of police and a cohort of Lawrence. He says that the musical holds up even after being cleaned up.

“You’d think that it would hurt the jokes sometimes and make it less funny, but I think they did a really good job of making it just as good,” says Ryan.