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How Does A Community Heal?

An Interview with Playwright & Composer Matt Schatz

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

Amy Levinson: Understanding that this is sensitive subject matter, what inspired you to write a play about the events in Cherry Hill?

Matt Schatz: Though I also write for television and film, I consider myself first and foremost a playwright. Most playwrights I know write when they are wrestling with something. And this is a story I’ve been wrestling with for a long time.

I am Jewish. My family is from South Jersey, where we’ve been part of the Jewish community for generations. In 1997, when I was a senior in high school, we moved to the Landmark Apartments in Cherry Hill. When this trial was broadcast on Court TV, we learned that the hitmen had lived not just in our building but in the very same unit. I found this to be fascinating, haunting, and a little embarrassing. There are moments in this story that take place in the same room where my prom pictures were taken, where I sat at the piano and made up songs, and where I spent time with my family.

My family were never members of the temple at the center of the play, and I did not grow up in Cherry Hill. But because of our history in the area, I have many personal connections to the material. And I’m not saying that a writer needs to have a personal connection to retell a story, only that these connections certainly influenced my desire to explore it, and I believed I could do so honestly and authentically.

This story has been covered and retold in so many ways over the years, but always with a focus on the event rather than the impact it had. For me, the questions raised by this story are universal. How does a community grapple with terrible events, especially when it involves someone the community admired and trusted? How do we keep our faith when our faith leader turns out to be a murderous sociopath? And should we even try?

After the rabbi was found guilty, I remember my grandmother saying that she believed he was innocent because he was a rabbi. A rabbi would never do such a thing. And that always stuck with me.

AL: How does music help tell this story?

MS: I’m a songwriter, and I find that music and lyrics are the best way to connect with an audience. It’s a way to talk about difficult things. It evokes emotion in a way that it’s hard to with words alone.

But another reason I chose to recount this story using a series of songs is that I wanted to hew as close to the documented facts as possible. Music and lyrics, rhythm and rhyme, various song styles, and narrative points of view help me retell this story clearly and hopefully compellingly without needing to make stuff up. Though it was still necessary for me to change some details given the sensitivities surrounding this subject, I would have had to change more if this were a conventional docudrama or a traditional musical.

AL: What inspired the idea of a community coming together to look back and retell this story?

MS: Jews are a people of memory. We don’t bury the ugly chapters of our history. We remember. Basically, every Jewish holiday includes a recounting of something terrible that happened to us. Jews are also known to use music to deal with such things. By their very nature, all true-crime stories are about actual people, many of whom are still grieving and reckoning with what happened in a very personal way. In telling this story, I made every attempt to honor the life and memory of the very real victim and be respectful to those who mourn her.

It’s important to remember what happened because it can happen again. And it can happen to any community, not just the Jewish community. Blind faith in our leaders can sometimes be misplaced. I think that’s one of the themes of this show. In recent years, we’ve had to reckon with a fair number of leaders, artists, and entertainers who have done bad things. Can we still enjoy what they’ve given us? Can we still learn from what they’ve taught us?

AL: What do you hope audiences take away from the piece?

MS: In any play, artists hope that audiences are compelled by, and even learn from, the story. And I think all playwrights want their audiences to engage with the play. I hope that audiences come away from this story asking questions. I firmly believe theater is a way to try to answer unanswerable things. It’s a way to try to make sense of the senseless. There are two ways people try to do this: art and religion. With A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill, you get a little of both.

The Anna M. Sample Shelter for Women & Children

This show deals with violence against women and the impact of that violence within a community. The Anna M. Sample Shelter for Women & Children serves as a crucial lifeline for residents of Camden County New Jersey, where Cherry Hill is located. We encourage you to support this organization at voadv.org/family-shelters; your donation will help provide safe harbor for women and children in this community.

A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill

JUNE 23 – JULY 24, 2022
Words & Music by Matt Schatz
Directed by Mike Donahue
Featuring Jahbril Cook, Zehra Fazal, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Rivkah Reyes, Danny Rothman & Jill Sobule

On a November night in 1994, a murder was committed in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In this poignant true-crime story told completely through song, a tight-knit Jewish community gathers to recount, remember, and reckon with the details of what happened in—and to—their town. This wholly original production, written by South Jersey native Matt Schatz, asks what it does to our souls when our leaders fall from grace.

This play was created during the Geffen Playhouse inaugural The Writers’ Room program, in which six Los Angeles playwrights develop new works with the support and guidance of the Geffen Playhouse artistic team. Recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Major support for this world premiere production provided by the Edgerton Foundation New Play Production Fund.


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