Sitting in the audience at MCC Theater’s The Wrong Man, the new musical starring Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry as a man wrongly accused of a violent crime, it’s easy to draw connections to our world today, as the show shines a spotlight on racism, domestic violence, and, most potently, America’s broken criminal justice system. But that’s not how it started.
Fourteen years ago, songwriter Ross Golan found himself thinking about Eminem—specifically his murder ballad “Stan.” “I was really into Merle Haggard and I was really into Tupac and I was really into Johnny Cash and I was really into Tom Waits—these great storytellers, who, in one song, would make you empathize with a murderer,” Golan told the audience at a talkback after an early performance of his new musical. “And I thought it was interesting that there was no one who was writing a murder ballad where the guy didn’t do it. So it started with that.”
Golan’s innocent murder ballad spun into a full concept album. In that time—in which Golan rose to fame writing pop songs for the likes of Ariana Grande, Lady Antebellum, and Maroon 5—his story gained contemporary resonance. “What’s happened in the world of Netflix and serialized podcasts and streaming services with The Night Of and Making a Murderer and you have Serial, that didn’t exist when this was being written. It really helped shine a light on what’s become known about privatized jail systems…the Innocence Project is gaining a lot of steam…” he explains. Though Golan had simply been experimenting with the perspective of a narrator, “it’s fascinating to see that people are now looking at this story through the lens of 2019, and it’s taken on new meaning.”
On the original cast album, Golan sang the role of Duran, the titular wrong man. Now, Henry plays the lead role seven performances a week with Ryan Vasquez as his alternate. (Vasquez regularly plays the Man in Black, and Anoop Desai takes on that role when Vasquez plays Duran.) Different men of different color in the roles changes the experience and causes audiences to contemplate ugly truths at the intersection of race and criminal justice, as well as the consistent, inherent sadness at any wrong man’s fate.
Those nuances are intentional, and director Kail wants the final product to be malleable enough to hold differences and complicated questions. “The hope is if you make a show it gets done all over,” said Kail. “This is not about a show going to Broadway, this is about a show being done in talented communities by many, many actors.”
As The Wrong Man continues to morph, it’s the origin of the story—the innocent murder ballad—that grounds Golan. As Kail put it: “With Ross, [changes are] never a problem, [they’re] a question: Is this telling the story we want to tell?”
The Wrong Man is currently playing the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theatre Space through November 24.