If you’re looking to sum up the zeitgeist of ’80s Milwaukee, look no further than the Violent Femmes and Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek.

The legendary folk-punk group formed in 1981 and were famously “discovered” busking outside the Oriental Theatre by The Pretenders. Two years later, in 1983, the Femmes released their stone-cold classic debut album. Three more ’80s records followed (Hallowed Ground, The Blind Leading The Naked, 3), and the excellent Why Do Birds Sing? ushered the band into a new decade in 1991.

Bembenek, meanwhile, was a former Milwaukee police officer (and a former waitress at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club) who was charged with the murder of her husband’s ex-wife in 1981. One year later, she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. After years of professing her innocence, Bembenek escaped from Taycheedah Correctional Institution in 1990. The media circus surrounding her escape transformed Bembenek into an on-the-lam Milwaukee folk hero. She was captured after several months but saw no more prison time. She died in 2010, at the age of 52, while living in Portland, Oregon. (Bembenek legally changed her name to Laurie Bembenek in 1994.)

Despite the zeitgeist overlap, Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano has few firsthand memories of the Bembenek saga. Turns out he was too busy, well, being in the Violent Femmes.

“Right at the time that was happening, I was getting in a van and going to every punk rock club we could find in every city across the whole country,” Gano says. “That was before 24-hour news, so I remember seeing something about the story in the paper, but it was already in progress. I just wasn’t around for it to be coming up in conversation or anything like that.”

Why ask Gano about Bembenek now? Well, because he’s written original songs for Run Bambi Run, a new rock musical about the city’s “infamous femme fatale.” The musical, with a book by Eric Simonson (Lombardi) and directed by Mark Clements, will run at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater September 13 through October 22. Opening Night is set for Friday, September 22. If you’ve ever dreamed of a story of murder, prison escapes, and the miscarriage of justice set to the jittery punk of the Femmes/Gano, you’re in for a treat.

Run Bambi Run is set entirely in a Milwaukee tavern, with the tavern’s patrons acting as a Greek chorus. It covers Bembenek’s entire life: her childhood (“Polish-American Girl”), her early adulthood (“I Wanna Do What I Wanna Do”), her conviction (“The Law Is The Law”), and her time as an unlikely folk hero (“The Truth Is For Losers”). “Fueled with original rock songs and lyrics,” the show’s description proclaims, “this rollicking hometown story about the search for truth and justice is a wild ride that you have to see to believe.”

Like Gano, Milwaukee native Simonson experienced the Bembenek saga from a distance. Still, its many twists and turns stuck with the Academy Award-winning writer and director throughout the years.

“I was going to college in Appleton at the time of the trial, so I wasn’t really cognizant of it,” Simonson says. “But the thing about this story is that it never went away. It just kept on making news. She was going for appeal after appeal, maintaining that she was innocent. And then she escaped from prison and that’s when it really started to become a kind of mythic story. She captured people’s imaginations. There were T-shirts that said ‘Run Bambi Run.’ People were really cheering her on.”

From the moment Gano was contacted by Simonson and Clements about the project, the songwriter saw it as an opportunity to write brand new material—and not turn the production into a Violent Femmes jukebox musical.

“I was interested in writing new songs for this show and not saying, ‘Okay, where can we put “Blister In The Sun”?'” Gano says. “Even just one or two [Femmes] songs, or drawing from the whole catalogue and finding a way, I wasn’t interested in that. There are a lot of shows like that, and I think there’s a place for them, but this, to me, didn’t seem like that at all.”

As for Gano’s relative unfamiliarity with Bembenek’s story, he saw it as a plus, not a detriment.

“I didn’t have a personal bias or opinion that everybody in Milwaukee seemed to have at the time,” he says. “So when I was writing songs, I could just be like, ‘What’s this character’s point of view?’ rather than drawing on something I believed or something people were talking about at the time.”

For anyone with even a passing familiarity of Bembenek’s story, the idea of turning it into a rock musical may sound absurd. But both Simonson and Gano hope audiences will see Run Bambi Run as an ambitious—and, yes, entertaining and even funny—mix of drama, true crime, mystery, and music.

“First and foremost, I want people to be interested in Laurie, and to be entertained by the music and the way we’re telling the story,” Simonson says. “But in the end I want them to form a judgment about the information we’ve given them. Once you get to that information, once you get to the facts, you can form a better opinion about what it all says about individuals in our society who come up against forces like city government. Or people who want you to act a certain way or behave a certain way. Or people who try to push your life in a certain way that doesn’t conform to what you want out of your life. That’s what Laurie was really fighting against. She was fighting for her own truth.”

“I briefly told somebody about the musical and said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a murder and then an escape from prison and oh yeah, it’s a comedy,” Gano adds. “Eric’s written stuff that’s so funny, and hopefully it’s in the songs, too. That can sound bad, of course, because it’s also a very serious subject. But I think we’re being very ambitious. We’re trying to hit all these different things.”

Find more information, show dates, and tickets to Run Bambi Run HERE.

Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.


Tap your toes, profess your innocence to songs from upcoming ‘Run Bambi Run’ musical

Milwaukee Rep is doing a ‘Run Bambi Run’ musical with songs from Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano

About The Author

Avatar photo
Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.