New murder house musical challenges ideas of good and bad

A new musical that's just opened in Wellington hopes to spark a conversation, and flip everything we think we know about heroes and villains on its head.

Welcome to the Murder House tells the story of five death-row convicts and their hero - the inventor of the electric chair.

Yes, the irony of their hero designing the thing that'll kill them is the whole point.

"It's trying to get us to think about people not as heroes or villains, but to understand that we're both heroes and villains, each of us," director and co-writer Justin Lewis told Newshub.

"One of the themes in this play is about listening to people, and giving them space where they can speak. So it's somehow trying to figure out or encourage people to go below the surface."

By making the convicts the leads, it hopes to challenge the audience to rethink what they know about good and bad.

"There's a great tradition in telling great stories and doing them with a wink," actor and co-writer Jacob Rajan says.

The electric chair may seem like an unlikely subject for a vaudeville musical but Wellington theatre group Indian Ink says singing and dancing gets the audience's attention.

"If you take a story that has a dentist, capital punishment, and the electric chair, those are three of the most unappealing things we could possibly put in front of an audience. So we've got to make that fun," Mr Lewis says.

The musical was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre in California, and it's been a four-year journey to get to the stage.

"We were working with ideas on race, crime, and capital punishment which are hot-button issues over there, in a way we don't really understand here. So to take it, find its resonance, and put our own Kiwi twist on it has been a real delight," Mr Rajan says.

Indian Ink says it's the first time an American company has commissioned a play in New Zealand, which presented some challenges.

"Our ambition is big, but our budgets in New Zealand are not American-scale budgets. So one of the challenges is to make all of that work, which is kind of cool because that's where Kiwi ingenuity comes in," Mr Lewis says.

That ingenuity sees five actors playing twenty-five roles - both heroes, and villains, and the set is mostly made from pre-existing objects and designed to be packed up and moved on.

The inspiration for the musical came from an unlikely source.

"There's a thing with sanitary products in New Zealand where they have fun facts on them. And I happened to be reading one of my wife's sanitary products, as you do, in the bathroom, and it said 'did you know the inventor of the electric chair was a dentist?'" Mr Rajan says.

The show's on at Wellington's Te Auaha until June 10. Next year it'll visit Auckland.