The lurid murder-for-hire plot that claimed Carol Neulander’s life, landed her rabbi husband, Fred Neulander, in prison, and broke the heart of South Jersey’s Jewish community has inspired a full-length musical theater piece. A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill is being produced by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where it is set for a world premiere in June.
The show consists entirely of songs by Matt Schatz, an award-winning playwright and composer who grew up in South Jersey and was in high school on Nov. 1, 1994, when the victim, a mother of three, was bludgeoned to death at her home. The rabbi was having an affair with a local radio personality, the widow of a well-known radio host, and had paid a self-styled private investigator and an accomplice $18,000 to kill his wife.
The investigations and court cases arising from the murder made headlines for years and have long haunted the playwright and the community he knows well. A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill was developed beginning in 2018 while he was in residence at Geffen’s new play program, The Writers’ Room.
“I just want people to see it, give it a fair chance, and get something out of it,” Schatz, 42, said Tuesday from Los Angeles, where he continues to write new songs for the production. A director, Mike Donahue, has been selected and casting is underway.
Schatz said the show will neither be a Broadway-style musical extravaganza nor a comedy. But it may be “polarizing” for audiences nonetheless.
“It’s tough material, you want to do justice to it, and you don’t want to hurt people,” said the married father of a 2-year-old, who described theater as the right place to explore this sort of difficult subject matter.
“You have to handle it carefully. But it’s part of my job to ask questions,” he said.
“What did it mean for a community who knew the rabbi as this person at their bar mitzvahs, at their weddings? How can you separate the times of joy from the horror?
“The rabbi was telling people how to be a person, how to be a Jew, and he turned out to be evil. How do we reckon with that? How do we stay Jews? How do we keep our faith?”
“Jews recount the story of Passover every year because we want to remember and come to some kind of understanding about why terrible things can happen,” said Schatz, who describes himself as a Jewish American writer. He grew up in Washington Township, Gloucester County, moved to Cherry Hill while he was in high school, and is a 2001 graduate of the University of the Arts.
The notion that the gruesome crime could become a musical — even one “written with humor and chutzpah,” as the Geffen Playhouse puts it — seems inexplicable to some in Cherry Hill, where many would prefer the murder be forgotten, while others can’t forget.
“An innocent woman was slaughtered,” said Sherry Wolkoff, a longtime member of M’kor Shalom, the congregation Neulander established in 1974.
“A synagogue was torn apart. A vulnerable alcoholic was duped by Neulander into killing someone for money,” Wolkoff said. “Is this musical material? They have every right to offer the musical, but should they?”
Rabbi Michael Perice of Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson grew up attending M’kor Shalom and vividly remembers the murder and its aftermath — during which he became alienated from, but eventually found his way back to, Judaism.
“I feel conflicted about this play,” said Perice. “On one hand I can see it being very therapeutic for people, because in Judaism we use humor, and song, to touch upon our pain.
“I’ve listened to snippets of the songs and they sound witty and creative,” he said. “But let’s not forget Carol Neulander was a real person, with a real family. This isn’t some made-up story for entertainment purposes. This was a tragedy.”
Through a family friend, The Inquirer reached out to the Neulanders’ children — Matthew, Benjamin, and Rebecca — for comment about the musical but have not gotten a response.
M’kor Shalom president Drew Molotsky, who has directed Chicago and other musicals at the Broadway Theater in Pitman, issued a statement about A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill on behalf of the synagogue.
“We know nothing about the content of the play. This is our history. It involves our friends and our community, and it is very serious to us. To make light of it or to exploit it for entertainment value is not something we will ever condone.”
Molotsky said M’kor would make no other comment. The congregation is in the process of merging with Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill.
Dee Smoke, a longtime M’kor member who is friends with the playwright’s family, said 28 years may not be long enough for the damage caused by the murder to sufficiently heal.
“I loved Carol. I thought she was an amazing lady, and we all felt terrible about what happened,” said Smoke.
“Matt has a lot of talent. Everything else has been set to music ... but it may be too hard [to watch the Neulander play] now. Maybe in another 20 years.”
Demos of eight songs that appeared online earlier this week but have since been taken down offered a sample of how A Wicked Soul in Cherry Hill will sound onstage. The acoustic, pop-rock tunes have titles such as “That’s What He Said” (about Fred Neulander’s knack for ingratiating himself) and “The Cherry Hill Kosher Cake Company,” sung by the Carol Neulander character about her life and her effort to build a successful baking business.
Songs such as “Yes” and “Your Own Story” are sung by characters based, respectively, on Elaine Soncini, the grieving widow Fred Neulander seduced, and Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips, to whom hired hitman Len Jenoff confessed. Soncini could not be reached; Phillips, now an editor, declined to comment.
And in the song titled “A Note From the Author,” a character based on the playwright talks about the impact of the murder on his own life — including having discovered that a Cherry Hill apartment where he and his family were living had once been rented by Jenoff.
It’s hard to face/so you have resigned/to put it out of your mind/someday maybe you’ll write about it/but right now you don’t feel right about it.
As someone who is posing questions in his play, Schatz said he understands why people in the community may have questions of their own — including about the show’s signature promotional image.
It depicts a tabletop where a traditional Jewish cookie called a hamentaschen, sits on a plate, its red jelly dripping like blood from a wound.
“I’ll take responsibility for that one,” Schatz said, noting that the confection is named for Haman, a Biblical figure who was “an enemy of the Jews.”