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Theatre / Murder Ballad

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From left to right: Michael (John Ellison Conlee), Sara (Caissie Levy), Tom (Will Swenson), the Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones).
There’s always a killer
So logically, someone has to die.
We sing the murder ballad’s warning;
There but for the grace of God, go I...
— “Murder Ballad”

Murder Ballad, with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan and music and lyrics by Juliana Nash, is a Sung-Through Musical that centers around a woman named Sara who grows dissatisfied with her Upper West Side life and pines for her rougher past, and a love triangle that — as the title would imply — ends in tragedy.

It had two Off-Broadway runs: one at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II in 2012 (which spawned a cast recording), then at the Union Square Theatre in 2013. The casting was the same in both productions, with the exception of Caissie Levy replacing Karen Olivo as Sara in the 2013 production.

Not to be confused with the song form or the Nick Cave album.


This show provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Michael says this in "Little by Little Reprise" after finally realizing Sara and Tom's affair. It's clear he doesn't mean it.
  • The Alcoholic: Implied by Tom in "I Love NY": "It's 2 AM, I'm drunk again/It's 3 AM, I'm drunk again/It's 4 AM, it's 4 AM, it's 4 AM..."
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Sara with Tom.
  • All-Knowing Singing Narrator
  • Arc Words: "Clubs and diamonds, spades and hearts..."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Towards the end of "Little by Little Reprise," Michael delivers a devastating one to Sara: "Tell me, was Tommy inside you when you forgot Frankie yesterday?"
  • Anyone Can Die: "A king, a queen, a club, a knave/One is destined for the grave…"
  • Ax-Crazy: Or bat-crazy, as is the case with the Narrator.
  • Batter Up!: The Narrator beats Tom to death with a baseball bat.
  • Advertisement:
  • Betty and Veronica: Michael is the Betty to Tom’s Veronica.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: In the original production, Tom was played by the white Will Swenson, while the Narrator was played by the black Rebecca Naomi Jones.
  • Bookends: The show opens and closes with songs that directly address the audience and comment on the appeal of stories like these.
  • BSoD Song: “Little By Little Reprise” for Michael. “You Belong To Me” for Sara and Tom. “Clubs and Diamonds” for the Narrator.
  • The Casanova: Tom, at least if the Narrator's lines in "Crying Scene Reprise" are anything to go by:
    The Narrator: All the ladies loved him
    Something 'bout his eyes
    If he had turned them on you
    You'd understand why I-
  • Cock Fight: A slight variation, given that when it goes down at King’s Club, Sara is also an active participant.
  • Commitment Issues: Tom. At least at first…
  • Curtain Call: “Finale.”
  • Dark Reprise: It could be easier to list which recurring songs don't get this treatment...
    • The most drastic example is "Little by Little." Originally, the song is about Michael putting together what's wrong with Sara after bumping into her on the street one night; the reprise has him finally piecing together the truth of Sara's affair and leaving with their daughter.
    • "You Belong to Me" was already a very dark song, where Tom becomes violently possessive when he learns Sara is ending their affair. The reprise features all four characters building up the resolve to kill after the Love Triangle blows up in the park.
    • Certain lines from "Narrator 1" are repurposed in "I'll Be There" to underscore Tom's increasing Sanity Slippage and obsession with Sara.
    • One of the only major aversions is "Troubled Mind," which first appears as Michael takes care of Sara after they first meet, and reappears later as a lullaby the two sing to their daughter, Frankie.
    • In a more amusing example, the second "I Love NY" reprise features the Narrator singing about how much she hates how gentrification has changed New York.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Tom is murdered by the Narrator, who was his girlfriend before the affair with Sara.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Tom’s death solves both Love Triangles.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: A minor case with Sara after she gets married to Michael, explored in "Coffee's On." The life of a stay-at-home mom just doesn't suit her.
  • Destructive Romance: Tom and Sara.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The show opens with a promise that one of the characters will die. Before that happens, though, we spend a solid hour and a half getting to know them.
  • First Love: Sara and Tom continue to pine for each other, even after not seeing each other for years and each being in serious relationships with other people.
  • Foreshadowing
    • The synopsis of the show makes mention that a baseball bat is given prominence before the opening number. Take a guess what the Narrator winds up killing Tom with.
    • The Narrator harmonizing with Sara during "Prattle 2" is the first hint that she's more than just an observer in the story.
    • There's also this lyric from "Narrator 6":
    The Narrator: He had someone to come home to
    Who loved him more than he knew...
  • The Gentleman or the Scoundrel: Michael is the Gentleman. Tom is the Scoundrel.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The strange tape-static loop that opens the show.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Both versions of "You Belong to Me" are about this in some way.
  • Interactive Narrator: On occasion, the Narrator will harmonize with Sara, Tom, or both. This is among the clues that she has more skin in the game than she's letting on.
  • Let's Duet: Sara has two: "Turning Into Beautiful" with Michael, and "Mouth Tattoo" with Tom.
  • List Song: “Murder Ballad” references a few of the more famous murder ballads, specifically "Mack the Knife," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," and "Hey Joe."
  • Location Song: Three of them, all called "I Love NY".
  • Love Triangle: Tom, Sara, and Michael. Also, Sara, Tom, and the Narrator.
  • Meaningful Background Event: During "The Crying Scene", Tom can be seen pushing the Narrator aside in order to get at Sara. This hints towards the nature of their relationship.
  • The Missus and the Ex: “Prattle 5”
  • Motifs: For the Narrator, playing cards ("Clubs and diamonds, spades and hearts"). For Sara, movies.
  • Murder Ballad: The entire show, but more specifically “Clubs and Diamonds”.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: In connection with Death of the Hypotenuse above, the Narrator killing Tom resolves not one but two Love Triangles.
  • The One That Got Away: Said word-for-word by Tom in “Sara”.
  • One-Woman Song: "Sara".
  • Please, Don't Leave Me!: Tom in “Answer Me” and "You Belong to Me."
  • Properly Paranoid: "Sugar Cubes and Rock Salt" has Michael fretting over the state of his marriage with Sara, not knowing at the time that he's being cheated on.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Tom and the Narrator.
  • Quarreling Song: "Answer Me"
  • Recurring Riff: The "Narrator" and "Prattle" songs share a basic structure, but the actual composition of each varies from song to song.
  • The Reveal: Not only was the Narrator Tom’s girlfriend, who he neglected during his affair with Sara, but she killed him.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "I'll Be There" can be this for Tom, depending on how it's played.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Towards the end of the original production, thanks to Rebecca Naomi Jones’ snarky performance as the Narrator.
  • Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate: “Free will and fate both play their parts…”
  • The Song Before the Storm: “You Belong To Me Reprise”
  • Stalker with a Crush: Tom becomes this after Sara ends their affair.
  • Starving Artist: "Naive, ambitious and underfed" Sara and Tom trying to make it work as these is one of the root causes of their separation.
  • Sung-Through Musical
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: After building up to it for an hour and a half, the preparation for and act of the murder take 25 seconds from start to finish.
  • The Killer in Me: The Narrator was the killer all along.
  • Time Skip: After "Troubled Mind/Promises," the narrative leaps forward about five years to cover Sara & Michael's marriage, their child, and what Tom's been up to in the interim.
  • Tonight, Someone Dies: Promised by the Narrator at the end of "Murder Ballad."
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: A working knowledge of the French New Wave makes "The Crying Scene" a particularly interesting number, especially as it draws a comparison between the show's love triangle and that of the triangle in Jules and Jim.
  • Workaholic: It's shown that Tom throws himself into his career as a bartender after he and Sara break up, and it's eventually revealed that he's become successful enough to own his own bar, the King's Club.
  • Yandere: Oh, but does Tom get a case of it after Sara leaves him for the second time.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Sara. And Tom, as it happens.

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