Chan Poling is best known nationally as keyboardist/vocalist for legendary Minneapolis rock band The Suburbs, as well as the same role in The New Standards.
Locally, though, he’s equally renowned for his musical theater work, and on Friday the original cast album of his most successful theatrical project, Glensheen, is being released.
Called “a murder-mystery-musical,” Glensheen was written by playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (his credits include a theater adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, co-writing the stage adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie with author Mitch Albom, and the upcoming film The Good Liar starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren). Poling wrote the music and lyrics.
The show portrays the notorious 1977 Congden murders and trials, which took place on Glensheen, a 20,000-square-foot mansion in Duluth that is located on waterfront property on Lake Superior and operated by the University of Minnesota-Duluth as a historic house museum.
Built in the early 1900s as the family home of lawyer/capitalist Chester Adgate Congdon, the mansion was the site of the murders of Elisabeth Congdon (Chester’s youngest daughter) and her nurse, with Roger Caldwell (second husband of Elisabeth’s adopted daughter Marjorie), convicted on two counts of first-degree murder.
Caldwell committed suicide in 1988 after his conviction was overturned and he pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Marjorie was tried but acquitted, and years later was convicted of arson and insurance fraud—and was suspected in the death of her third husband.
The critically-acclaimed Glensheen debuted in 2015 at the History Theater in St. Paul and has run yearly to sold-out crowds ever since. In 2016, it won the Twin Cities’ prestigious Ivey Award for “Best Overall” production.
“I always did theater,” says Poling. “My first score was for a French theater group that was based in Minneapolis, Theatre de la Jeune Lune. They won a Regional Theatre Tony Award, and I toured with them in the early ‘90s after The Suburbs first broke up. I’ve been doing theater off and on ever since.”
Poling’s friend Hatcher called him in 2015.
“He said a local St. Paul theater wanted him to do a play about the Congden murders—which everybody in Minnesota know about: It was a big scandal, with the mother and her night nurse murdered for the daughter’s inheritance, but the daughter wasn’t in town that night, and they couldn’t figure out who did it. So it was an interesting, sordid story, and Jeffrey didn’t want to do it unless it was a musical—which I thought was crazy! But we had a blast with it and it turned out to be a big hit.”
In composing the songs for Glensheen, Poling considered murder mystery musicals like Sweeney Todd and Assassins.
“Glensheen wasn’t unprecedented, so I cast the tone of the music in dark, minor keys,” he says. “But the more I got into it—in courtroom scenes with lawyers—I realized it was a Chicago kind of world, so some of the music turned more poppy and jazzy and funny, and some of the confessions were pretty outrageous, so there was an underlying humor to the whole thing. But we treated the victims as tenderly as possible, and a couple relatives saw the show and gave me their blessings as far as some of the songs written for the murdered victims.”
Indeed, Poling was worried about hurting feelings, he says, “but I told that to a younger person the other day and she went, ‘Why?’ She grew up on South Park and stuff like that! The new generation doesn’t understand the possibility of being an a—hole!”
Glensheen plays every summer, and has sold 43,000 tickets so far.
“It keeps me busy every year,” says Poling, “and this is the first time we’ve been able to go into the studio and get the whole show recorded. There are 25 songs and some bits of dialogue to tie it together--with enhanced arrangements by my pal Robert Elhai [Tony Award-nominated orchestrator for The Lion King].”
Meanwhile, Poling’s award-winning musical/dance theater piece Heaven, which premiered at the Guthrie Theater in 2011 (it was commissioned by Tony-winning Rent and Avenue Q producer Kevin McCollum) and concerns an American photographer who helps a Muslim couple in war-torn Bosnia, is being revived in May at St. Paul’s Park Square Theater. He’s currently working on a new show “more geared for Broadway,” he says, and is excited about a forthcoming high school production of another one of his shows.
So “I love the rock,” maintains Poling, “but at 61, I love sitting back at the theater and watching people on stage.”
This isn’t to suggest that Poling has stopped rocking, not by any means.
The New Standards, the jazz-pop acoustic trio also starring Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare bassist/vocalist John Munson and featuring a repertoire of rock classics delivered in the acoustic jazz format of pop standards, played their annual holiday show at home at The Dakota, and managed to play out of town more frequently last year. As for the reconstituted Suburbs, they’re playing famed club First Avenue Friday night, having performed before 10,000 at their last gig, a free show last summer.
“Our last album, Hey Muse! , got us to L.A. and Seattle and Chicago,” says Poling. “I’m actually working on new Suburbs songs, and pop songs for the theater, all the time. In fact, we’re thinking of opening with a brand new Suburbs song Friday night.”