A Theatre Insider's Guide to Only Murders in the Building

Special Features   A Theatre Insider's Guide to Only Murders in the Building
 
Broadway stars and theatrical Easter eggs are everywhere in Steve Martin's new true crime sendup.
Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin in <i>Only Murders in the Building</i>
Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Season 1 of Hulu's Only Murders in the Building is halfway through—and the only surprise bigger than Selena Gomez's comedic chemistry with her septuagenarian costars is how the show rivals The Actors Fund in its financial support of the New York theatre community.

For those of you late to the game, Only Murders in the Building spoofs the world of True Crime podcasting by sending three unlikely neighbors on an amateur crime-solving mission. They set out to uncover the truth about a (possible) murder committed in their swanky Upper West Side apartment building named the Arconia, all while producing a (hopefully) viral podcast about it.

There's Charles-Haden Savage (played by Only Murders creator Steve Martin), a reclusive actor whose glory days came and went with the role of campy 1980s TV detective, Brazzos. Then there's Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), a washed-up but hopelessly theatrical Broadway director who's had one too many flops to pay his lofty building fees. And finally, there's Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), a young woman with a mysterious past, an unflinching deadpan, and an uncanny ability to pull off bright yellow faux fur.

As these three misfits traverse the Arconia in search of answers to the question "Who killed Tim Kono?," theatre lovers can lead a parallel investigation into all the Broadway nuggets scattered along the way. Oliver, of course, with his penchant for silk scarves and line readings, is always ready to drop a name to prove his Broadway bona fides. But after six episodes, it seems you can't change your thermostat in the Arconia without ticking off a Tony winner. Here's a breakdown of our favorite show biz gems so far.

Jackie Hoffman
Jackie Hoffman Andrew Werner

1. Yes, that is Jackie Hoffman flipping off Steve Martin.
About a minute into the pilot episode, Hoffman and her middle finger flash on the screen just long enough for theatre Twitter to perk up and say, is that who I think it is? It is, and soon we'll meet her more formally as burdened Arconia resident Uma Heller—a woman eager to use her fireplace now that her asthmatic neighbor is too dead to complain.

No one plays cranky quite like Hoffman, and she's lent that indomitable poker face to Broadway productions of Hairspray, Xanadu, The Addams Family, On the Town, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ahead of the pandemic, you may have also seen her as Yente in the Yiddish language production of Fiddler on the Roof, where her famously expressive mien did more translating than the supertitles.

Calling all Hoffman fans: She'll be back onstage this October in Douglas Carter Beane's new comedy Fairycakes at the Greenwich House Theatre.

2. Splash! The Musical
In Episode 3, we flash back to 2005, the year of our lord that added Spamalot, The Light in the Piazza, and Spelling Bee to the musical lexicon. It was also the year of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, the play that gave Adriane Lenox a Tony Award for her featured performance as Mrs. Muller. It was a good year for Lenox, but not so much for her character Roberta, Oliver's wife, who makes her Only Murders debut in this flashback scene where she watches her husband dive into a big Broadway flop. A ponytailed Oliver pitches a table of producers on a production value upgrade for Splash! The Musical—presumably a stage version of the 1984 rom-com, starring Tom Hanks as a fruit vendor who falls in love with a secret mermaid played by Daryl Hannah.

Though already $4 million over budget, Oliver requests additional funds to build an onstage pool, a dangerous and pricey ask that portends (and lightly alludes to) the 2010 injury-laden disaster that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. To top it all off, who is leading the team of producers at this meeting but Broadway's most famous and Tony-winning Producer, Nathan Lane. Lane plays theatrical investor and deli owner Teddy Dimas, who, though only a few years removed from The Producers' 2001 Tonys sweep (which must have still happened in the Only Murders universe), fails to remember Max Bialystock's greatest piece of advice: Never put your own money in the show.

Fucking_A_Signature_Theatre_Opening_Night_Party_2017_HR
Zainab Jah Marc J. Franklin

3. A police lineup meets A Chorus Line… and a few other musicals
Put a Broadway director at the center of a crime scene and it's only natural that his mind will conjure fantasies of Fosse. In an attempt to narrow down the list of suspects, Oliver imagines a scene that blends Chicago's "Cell Block Tango," Sweet Charity's "Big Spender," and A Chorus Line's "I Hope I Get It." It's an entertaining homage for theatre fans and offers the perfect opportunity for a full line-up of all the stage talent inhabiting the Arconia.

Among the lineup of suspects are theatre veterans Zainab Jah (Eclipsed), Russell G. Jones (Saint Joan), Jeena Yi (Network), the aforementioned Jackie Hoffman (flipping another bird), Michael Cyril Creighton (The Amateurs), and the one-and-only Jayne Houdyshell. Houdyshell won a Tony for her nuanced performance in The Humans, but brought more of her Hattie Walker energy from Follies to the scene for a brief musical performance of "Pay Your F*cking Bills!" She plays an Arconia board member named Bunny, and her profanity-laced bourgeois indifference to all of the homicidal drama is award-worthy.

4. Show art is worth a thousand words
Nathan Lane and Martin Short—as defeated producer Teddy Dimas and more-defeated director Oliver Putnam—recount a few details of their professional history (Teddy enjoys reminding Oliver about how he talked him out of investing in Les Mis, Mamma Mia!, and Hamilton). But the show posters hanging in their respective apartments tell an even better story.

In episode one, we spot art for a musical called Newark! Newark! on Oliver's wall, a fitting tribute to the long lineage of musicals that prefer to say (or exclaim) things at least twice (e.g. I Do! I Do!, Spend Spend Spend, Romance/Romance, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). You have to admit, it's a winning strategy.

When we venture over to Teddy's apartment, we catch a glimpse of two more Dimas-Putnam collaborations: One that looks like your standard-grade production of A Doll's House, except that Nora is drawn like an angry giant bursting out Pee-Wee's Playhouse in lieu of the traditionally subtle artwork that shows Ibsen's heroine gently yearning for freedom within a birdcage. The other is for a production of Everyone Can Whistle in the Rain, a show that the poster claims was dubbed "the most engaging musical of 1992" by New York Drama Fest (a nod to the deceased New York Musical Theatre Festival, perhaps?) This fictional 1992 masterpiece, I can only assume, was a mashup between the lesser-known Stephen Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle and Singin' in the Rain — which could explain Oliver's inclination toward onstage water features. Back story is everywhere. You just have to look for it.

Eddie_And_Dave_Atlantic_Theater_Company_Opening_Night_2019_HR
Adina Verson Marc J. Franklin

5. Behind every big Broadway star is an underappreciated assistant
We can't put to rest a Broadway deep dive of Only Murders in the Building without mentioning two of the starriest cast members Broadway can claim for itself. Sting, who earned a Tony nomination for scoring the 2015 musical The Last Ship, appears as himself for two episodes. Meanwhile, Tiny Fey, who wrote the Tony-nominated book for the Mean Girls musical, makes sporadic appearances as true Ccrime royalty Cinda Canning. Fey is perfect as an off-brand Sarah Koenig, and she's even better in the presence of Adina Verson, who plays her dutiful assistant Poppy White. Verson made a memorable Broadway debut in 2017 as Rivkele in Paula Vogel's landmark drama Indecent—and you should absolutely remember that fact as she spins comedy out of concentrated typing, skittish eyes, and a blunt bang.

Only Murders in the Building is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes premiering Tuesdays.

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