Downstage Theatre gives audience a peek at musical collaboration inspired by comic book controversy

A brunette clad in heels and a sexy low-cut peasant blouse chastises her square-jawed boyfriend for two-timing her. In response he backhands her across the face.

A blond in a cleavage-flaunting red dress who is on a date with the guy chimes in “Step aside Frankie!! Let me give her a goin’ over woman style! I’d like to sharpen my nails on that fat face!”

This abusive exchange forms the cover of a late-1940s issue of the popular comic book Crime Does Not Pay . That comic book — and the controversy surrounding it — is the inspiration for a musical collaboration between David Rhymer ( Why Freud Fainted Songs from Nightingale Alley ) and Calgary poet laureate Kris Demeanor ( Buzz Job! The True Story of Cal Cavendish ).

Also titled Crime Does Not Pay audiences will be able to see the work-in-progress with its more than 20 songs on September 12 and 13 in the Theatre Calgary rehearsal hall. Downstage is presenting the show as part of its 2013-14 Fieldwork Series a series dedicated to work-in-development.

“Comic books (during the 1930s and 40s) were incredibly violent. A great number of comic books were being sold to children totally unregulated. It was very similar to the way the Internet works today” says Rhymer.

Crime Does Not Pay was one of the main culprits. “It was lurid by any standards” he adds noting that it ignited a public backlash across America.

As a result of the public outcry the Comics Code Authority came into being and a strict code was introduced in 1954 — comic books couldn’t portray violence disrespect for authority blood or vampires. Rhymer says this code changed comic books “overnight.”

“A whole part of an industry was lost” he explains adding that a number of comics — and the people they employed — went out of business.

“The story Kris and I are telling is that moment in time. We’re telling a moral melodramatic tale. It’s a story about censorship and the artist’s relationship with censorship.”

Demeanor and Rhymer’s musical also tracks the “rise and fall” of Bob Wood one of the editors of the infamous Crime Does Not Pay who got involved in a lurid tale of his own after the code put him out of business. In 1958 Wood was convicted of murdering his fiancée after a “drunken tryst” in a hotel room.

“He went from driving sports cars and living the high life to being down and out” says Rhymer.

Rhymer who admits to a long fascination with comics approached Demeanor about the project as they had collaborated successfully a couple of years ago.

“We do it in tandem. We sit there and stare at each other. We throw chords back and forth. One plays a chord the other plays a chord” says Demeanor describing the duo’s method of co-creation.

He adds that he and Rhymer also like to “ping pong lyrical ideas back and forth with each other.”

Their approach seems to be working. “We agree on most things. We’ve written around 25 songs with nary an argument” says Rhymer laughing.

In addition to the character of Wood Crime Does Not Pay features a social activist who wants to ban comic books because she says they corrupt children’s minds and a publisher who represents free enterprise and capitalism.

Demeanor says the show lives on “very murky moral ground in terms of taking a stand” on the issues the play explores.

“It’s just too difficult…. No one side in our research came out as a clear hero” he adds.

The cast is a who’s who of local musical theatre notables including Onalea Gilbertson Jamie Konchak Scott Shpeley and Edmonton’s Jesse Gervais. Crime Does Not Pay will officially première as part of Downstage’s 2014-15 season.

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Crime Does Not Pay will preview as a work-in-development on September 12 and 13 at the Theatre Calgary Rehearsal Hall.