'Glensheen': Murder and a musical

Actress Jennifer Maren
Jennifer Maren as Marjorie Congdon Caldwell in the History Theater's world premier production of "Glensheen."
Courtesy of History Theater

On June 27, 1977, one of Minnesota's grandest homes became the sight of one of its most notorious crimes.

Elisabeth Congdon, 83, was murdered, along with her nurse, Velma Pietila, in the Glensheen mansion on the shores of Lake Superior.

Pietila was beaten to death with a candlestick, Congdon was smothered with a pillow.

Hearing the details, most people don't think "Let's make a musical!" — but that's exactly what Ron Peluso, Chan Poling and Andrew Fleser have done. "Glensheen," the musical, is now playing at the History Theatre in St. Paul.

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"Writing a brand new musical based on tragedy — that's one of the things we've been wrestling with the whole time," said Poling, better known for his role in bands The Suburbs and The New Standards. "How do you turn a real tragic situation into a musical, which is typically known for lightness and entertainment?"

The final production plays with the absurd — there's a top hat song and dance during the courtroom scene, for example — and the actual murders are suggested, rather than depicted.

"We did deal with the victims," Poling said. "I tried to give the nurse a song that she could sing that expressed her humanity and the real sadness of her plight."

"Glensheen" doesn't stop with the murders; it delves deep into the aftermath as well. The musical spends time on the police and the prosecutors as they sort out the details of the crime. After the murders, Elisabeth Congdon's son-in-law, Roger Caldwell, confessed and was found guilty. Her adopted daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, was charged with conspiracy, but later acquitted.

Joe Kimball, author of "Secrets of the Congdon Mansion: The Unofficial Guide to Glensheen and the Congdon Murders," said the musical gives an accurate overview of the complicated and tangled case.

Kimball, Peluso, Poling and Fleser appeared on MPR News with Tom Weber to talk about the adaptation, and about balancing tragic facts with musical theater. The leads of the musical joined them to perform a collection of original songs from "Glensheen."