This notebook contains spoilers for the Season 3 finale of “Only Murders in the Building.”
Everyone loves a Broadway hit. It’s possible that we enjoy a Broadway catastrophe — “Carrie,” “Diana, the Musical,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” — a little more. Few productions have been as cataclysmic as Oliver Putnam’s “Death Rattle Dazzle,” a misbegotten gothic about murderous infants, re-conceived as a glittery musical. Think “Ruthless” but skewed younger and set at a Nova Scotian lighthouse.
This musical was the centerpiece of Season 3 of the Hulu comedy “Only Murders in the Building,” which brought the amateur detectives played by Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short out of their luxury apartment complex and into a sumptuous Broadway theater. (The theater is actually the opulent United Palace in Washington Heights, subbing for a space more than 100 blocks south.) “Death Rattle Dazzle” bore only the vaguest sequined resemblance to a real Broadway show, while demonstrating deep love of the form. Think of the season as a love letter to Broadway, written in lipstick and blood.
On the original opening night, the leading man, Paul Rudd’s Ben Glenroy, was killed. Twice. Once with rat poison and again down an elevator shaft. Theater has its own violence. A good show “kills,” it “slays,” it “knocks them dead.” But this was s a bit much.
Amid rehearsals for the original play’s transformation into a musical, several members of the cast and crew were accused of his murder. In the meantime, there were in-jokes about superstitions, spike tape, stage fright, Schmackary’s Cookies and the cavalier use of accents. The accent jokes were made at the expense of Meryl Streep. Matthew Broderick also showed up for some method skewering.
During the season finale, which arrived on Tuesday (spoilers follow, so many), the murderers were finally revealed. The uberproducer Donna DeMeo (Linda Emond) had poisoned Ben to protect her son Cliff’s investment in the show. Then her son (Wesley Taylor), defending his mother and his ego, pushed a revived Ben down an elevator shaft.
Was the motive love? Or money? Or artistic integrity? Yes? I think? Motive is never big with the “Only Murders Gang.” (Personally, I plumped for the documentarian Tobert (Jesse Williams), mainly because it’s hard to trust a man named Tobert.)
This season didn’t often mirror what actually happens on Broadway, even as it assembled a crack team of Broadway composers — Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, Marc Shaiman, Michael R. Jackson and Sara Bareilles — to supply the songs. “Death Rattle Dazzle” was, even by Broadway’s variable standards, too inane, too sparkly. Perhaps the most delirious fiction, beyond the dancing crab people, was the notion that a single negative review, delivered here by the critic Maxine (Noma Dumezweni, deadpan and delectable), could be the precipitating event for a murder.
Thankfully (and I write this as someone who covered Broadway for decades), critics don’t have quite that much power, but then again Martin’s Charles-Haden Savage described Maxine’s assessment as “a pan, a massacre.” And also: “The harshest review in the history of theater. A complete bloodletting.” After attending the musical’s opening night, Maxine has warmer feelings: “This dusty old chestnut has been Botoxed, bedazzled and brought back to life.” A complete about-face? Yes, that’s fiction, too.
But what did feel real, just a smidgen, was the madcap commitment to the bit that putting on a musical requires. Most musicals, even those that eschew babies and shellfish, are at least a little silly. Unless you’re attending a theater camp, humans don’t spontaneously break into song, and there isn’t often a full orchestra backing them or a chorus that just happens to sing along in harmony while executing the occasional pas de bourrée. It’s ridiculous to think that a few lights, some spangled costumes and a set that’s mostly plywood will transport an audience to some far-off world.
And yet, that’s what happens. Which is why we have and have had long-running musicals about, say, cats or trainee witches or the wildlife of the African savannah. Those crab people should feel right at home.
A couple of weeks ago, I took the train up to the United Palace for an “Only Murders” pop-up event. Guests wandered the lush surroundings, sifting evidence with specialized flashlights. “Only Murders” is a TV show about a podcast, which this season was about a Broadway show. This event was also a strange hybrid of forms — gallery exhibit, immersive happening, escape room, a live-action watch party, Botoxed and bedazzled. Also you could get your makeup done, which seemed fun. And they gave you a puzzle on the way out.
The best part, for me anyway, was a quiet moment in which I was able to sit in the orchestra and look up at the stage. In that plush seat, I could imagine all of the wonderful, outrageous, demented shows that had played there before and dream about what might come next.