In real life, Brendan Dassey is a 32-year-old convicted felon serving a life sentence at the Oshkosh Correctional Facility on charges of mutilation of a corpse, second-degree sexual assault, and being a party to first-degree murder. His lawyers have argued that Dassey, who has a borderline deficient IQ, was steamrolled by police officers into falsely confessing to the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, and thanks to the 2016 Netflix series Making a Murderer, his case has become a symbol of the deeply corrupt criminal justice system. But in the world of Making a Murderer: The Musical, Dassey is a bookish, unassuming pop-folk tenor who can belt up to an A4.
This is Dassey’s character description as outlined by the casting notice for Making a Murderer: The Musical, a production showcase currently in development at the Soho Theatre in London. Written by BBC sitcom writer Phil Mealey and directed by James Baker, who has also helmed productions of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and the Jerry Springer Opera, Making a Murderer: The Musical is described on its website as “a classic Shakespearian [sic] story and a twisted fairytale,” an adaptation of the Netflix series that tells the story of the conviction of Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, in connection with Halbach’s murder. (Avery has also mounted several legal challenges to his murder conviction, but remains in prison as well.)
The production will feature characters based on such real-life figures as Dassey, prosecutor Kathleen Zellner (described as a “mezzo soprano with a strong belt,” with “gravitas” and “real leading lady status”), and Thomas Fassbender, the former Calulmet County, Wisconsin police officer accused of coercing Dassey’s confession (the actor playing Fassbender must be 5’9″ or below, according to the notice, and is encouraged to audition using a song like “Cop Song from Urinetown.”)
The production purports to “examine these actual events through a satirical lens to highlight how a justice system has been so compromised yet can still be allowed to continue to use its powers to victimise the weak and the vulnerable,” according to the casting notice. And the concept of adapting a real-life crime into musical format isn’t exactly new: the aforementioned Parade tells the story of the lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish man accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old factory worker in the early 20th century, while Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins offers a satirical look at American jingoism through the lens of real-life presidential assassins like John Hinckley and John Wilkes Booth.
Yet despite its ostensible satirical lens — and because many of the major players in Making a Murderer, most notably Halbach’s family members, are still alive and well — many on social media have spoken out against the musical, causing the original casting firm, Maven Casting and Associates, to quietly take the original casting notice down, though it is still available on the Wayback Machine.
In an email, Maven confirmed it had been “engaged to cast a couple of roles in the forthcoming workshop of this piece at The Soho Theatre, London,” but said that the production was now on hold until the spring, as “the piece is back in development.” Baker, the show’s director, also confirmed via Twitter that Making a Murderer: The Musical was still in development, but declined to speak further. Mealy, the writer, did not provide comment by press time.
The casting notice for Making a Murderer: The Musical was first spotted by Jessica Dean, 25, who goes by @bloodbathbey0nd on TikTok. On her page, Dean has taken aim at the true crime community and the commodification of tragedy on YouTube and TikTok, and she tells Rolling Stone she came across the Making a Murderer musical after seeing it linked in the replies of a tweet by activist and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki, who posted her criticism of Tiger King 2.
In Dean’s video, she takes the creative team behind Making a Murderer: The Musical to task for exploiting the memory of Halbach. “Could you imagine your daughter, your loved one, your sister gets murdered brutally, very publicly, all the gory details are out there for everybody to just maw over…could you imagine that becoming the basis of a musical 15 years later?,” she says in the video, adding of Halbach, “Her family is still alive. Is this really the best way we want to do this?”
Dean, who grew up just a few counties away from where Halbach was killed, tells Rolling Stone that she was not a fan of the original Making a Murderer series, which she found “extremely one-sided” in Avery’s favor. Yet she says that even if the musical production is intended to satirize the criminal justice system, she still does not find it particularly tasteful. “I feel like true crime content in general has made people so comfortable with the commercialization and blatant entertainmentification of real-life tragedies,” she says. “If this man [Avery] is innocent, he’s being punished, so why would you turn his suffering into a musical? If you’re truly invested in getting him justice, is a musical the best way to go about it?”