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Dancing around the Dahmer files

Nathan Schilz is walking a fine line by putting Jeffrey Dahmer at the center of a musical.

If he goes too far in one direction, he risks making the man that killed 16 young boys and men – and also cannibalized some of them – seem like a sympathetic figure. The other direction, though, could lead to a production where an audience doesn’t care about the main character and what happens to him.

It’s a balancing act, but Schilz, a Minneapolis-based playwright and musician, thinks he’s up to it. He plans to premiere “American Nightmare: The Trials of Jeffrey Dahmer” around Halloween.

He said the musical – which Schilz has worked on for more than a year – will be a two-act production influenced by industrial music and the inner demons Dahmer must have faced in order to commit the acts for which he was ultimately convicted.

“The line that is attractive to me [involves] morality,” Schilz, 28, said. “Most people don’t cross this line … [but] once you do and dance on that line, all of those experiments followed this progression of ‘well, I did this. I may as well do this.’”

Schilz has spent a good amount of time in the criminal division of Milwaukee County Clerk of Court’s office, combing through a box of Dahmer’s case files. He was there last week, taking cellphone photos of transcripts, motions and briefs that now read like a portal into a different era of criminal prosecution and defense work.

While he knows the outline of the story, he said reading the court files would “leave a little nugget to inspire something” such as a detail or part of a song.

Caress Adams, who works in the clerk’s criminal division, said that the office has only received one request in the past five years to see Dahmer’s court files.

Schilz said he hasn’t done that, but has seen evidence lists and knows what is in there.

Now, Schilz is hardly the first person to write about a mass murderer. Searching “Jack the Ripper musical” on Google will bring up several results. And let’s not forget “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which features a good bit of throat slicing at the hands of a hairstylist – the one person you should trust more than anyone else.

But Dahmer was only convicted in the past 25 years, and his story occupies a dark corner that many may not want to admit exists in Milwaukee.

Schilz knows this, and knows that it could provoke more visceral reactions than the standard musical. At the same time, part of the play hinges on the idea that Dahmer was a lonely man, and that loneliness could have led to the gruesome killings.

As Schilz said before, he is trying “to show that without showing too much sympathy for somebody who shouldn’t get too much sympathy based on his actions.”

He said he still has a way to go with the script and music, but he said this happens each time he works on a project.

“I wish I were more done than I am now,” Schilz said, “but that’s the ways it’s always been for me.”

About Eric Heisig, eric.heisig@wislawjournal.com

Eric Heisig is the Milwaukee courts and legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. He can be reached at eric.heisig@wislawjournal.com or 414-225-1826.

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