Steven Lutvak, a composer and lyricist whose only Broadway show, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” — a black comedy about a killer in London who bumps off the relatives who stand in the way of his becoming a wealthy royal — won the Tony Award for best musical, died on Oct. 9 at his work studio in Manhattan. He was 64.
The cause was a pulmonary embolism, said Michael McGowan, his husband.
Over the years, Mr. Lutvak wrote several musicals that were staged in regional theaters and Off Off Broadway. But none were nearly as successful as “A Gentleman’s Guide.”
Set in Edwardian England, it is the story of Monty Navarro, a poor man who, after learning that he is a distant relative of the rich D’Ysquith clan (and then being denied a claim to its lineage), kills the eight kinfolk (all played by one actor) in the line of succession between him and the head of the family, the Ninth Earl of Highhurst.
The show opened in November 2013 and ran for 905 performances over more than two years.
In his review in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood said that the score — Mr. Lutvak wrote the music and collaborated on the lyrics with Robert L. Freedman — “establishes itself as one of the most accomplished (and probably the most literate) to be heard on Broadway in the past dozen years or so, since the less rigorous requirements of pop songwriting have taken over.”
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” was nominated for 10 Tonys in 2014 — Mr. Lutvak and Mr. Freedman were nominated for original score — and won for Mr. Freedman’s book, Darko Tresnjak’s direction and Linda Cho’s costume design, as well as for best musical.
“Steve was a gifted composer, lyricist and musician, but more than anything he was a born storyteller,” Mr. Freedman said by phone. “I was able to speak to him in my own language about story, plot and characters in a way that not every composer can do.”
“A Gentleman’s Guide” had been percolating inside Mr. Lutvak since he was a student at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York, and saw “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” the 1949 comedy in which Alec Guinness plays the eight murdered relatives of the titled D’Ascoyne family.
“I saw the movie and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s my movie,’” Mr. Lutvak told The Record of Hackensack, N.J., in 2016. “I remember thinking, ‘I know that I don’t know how to do it now, but I know that I will know how to do it.’”
It would take more than 30 years to bring it to the stage. In 2003, he and Mr. Freedman acquired the rights to adapt the film as a musical from the French broadcaster Canal+. But after making the deal, Canal+ placed obstacles in the way of producing the show and terminated their agreement. In 2010, the company sued Mr. Freedman and Mr. Lutvak in federal court for breach of contract and copyright infringement.
By then, they had stripped the musical of any connection to “Kind Hearts” and relied instead on the film’s source material, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, which is in the public domain. After dismissing the copyright and breach of contract claims, the judge ruled against Canal+’s last claim — that the device of one actor playing eight roles in the musical was copyrightable.
The musical has been optioned for a film, for which Mr. Lutvak and Mr. Freedman had written a new song.
“Now Steven will never see it,” Mr. Freedman said.
Steven Jaret Lutvak was born on July 18, 1959, in the Bronx. His mother, Sylvia (Bernstein) Lutvak, was an office manager. His father, Alfred, was the assistant principal of an intermediate school.
After graduating from Binghamton University in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in music, Mr. Lutvak entered the inaugural class of the graduate musical theater writing program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he met Mr. Freedman.
(Mr. Lutvak had taught in that program for the past seven years.)
“We collaborated on some things, nothing notable, but we were friends,” Mr. Freedman said, “and we kept saying we’d write a show together.”
After earning his master’s degree in 1983, Mr. Lutvak began a varied musical career: He wrote musicals, worked as a vocal coach and performed in cabarets.
Reviewing a performance at the Duplex Cabaret Theater in Manhattan in 2006, Stephen Holden of The Times described Mr. Lutvak as an “upper-middlebrow Billy Joel crossed with a lower-highbrow Tom Lehrer with a pinch of Debussy.”
His musicals included collaborations on “Almost September,” based on the Kenneth Grahame children’s stories “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Golden Age” and “Dream Days”; “The Wayside Motor Inn,” an adaptation of a play by A.R. Gurney; and “Esmeralda,” based on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Mr. Lutvak’s first collaboration with Mr. Freedman was “Campaign of the Century,” about the media campaign waged against the muckraking writer Upton Sinclair when he ran for governor of California in 1934. The show, based on a book by Greg Mitchell, had staged readings in New York City, Chicago and San Jose, Calif., but no full productions.
“A Gentleman’s Guide” had its premiere in 2012 at Hartford Stage, in Connecticut. It opened on Broadway the next year, starring Bryce Pinkham as Navarro and Jefferson Mays, who had won a Tony Award for best actor in 2004, as the eight doomed members of the D’Ysquith family.
“Steven showed tireless, endless support and patience for me, a non-singer,” Mr. Mays said by phone. “He entrusted his music to my meager abilities.” Mr. Lutvak was, he added, “a unique combination of extremely focused tenacity and strength of will.”
In addition to Mr. McGowan, Mr. Lutvak is survived by their daughter, Eliot Rose Lutvak-McGowan; his mother; his sister, Ellen Lutvak; and his brother, Larry Lutvak.
For Mr. Lutvak, its heinous murders gave “A Gentleman’s Guide” broad appeal — especially because one actor played all eight victims.
“I’ve always said that we all want to kill our families,” he told Playbill in 2013. “But, because of the way we’ve done it here, we have the cathartic thrill of murdering these people, knowing that he will come back as somebody else.”
“So,” he added, “we get to have our cake and eat it, too, in a certain way.”