October 8, 2001
High Times for Hard Times
All the dope on the musical satire 'Reefer Madness'
by Henry Cabot Beck
Despite the Great Depression and distant rumbles of war, it seemed as though the 1930s were a simpler time than ours a time of singing cowboys and the Sunday funnies, when people wore hats, listened to radio shows and traveled primarily by rail. And yet, when one watches the new stage musical "Reefer Madness," it's clear that there was danger lurking in the shadows, like a wolf at the gate.
That wolf was marijuana!
At least, that's what some people thought. The members of a church-funded production company were determined to show how deadly pot-smoking could be to the average American community, so in 1936 they made a movie called "Tell Your Children." It revealed how easily the average teenager could be led astray, driven down an unholy path to insanity, murder, sexual rapaciousness and utter degradation.
How? Simply by inhaling the smoke of a weed that grew wild throughout much of the United States, and that was legal at the time (the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 changed all that).
The movie was picked up by others, re-edited to make it even more lurid and rereleased in the exploitation market at different times as "The Burning Question," "Doped Youth" and "Reefer Madness."
Robert Torti, who plays both the neighborhood dope peddler and Jesus Christ, says, "According to what some people believed, it only took 30 days to turn a good, clean kid into a dope-crazed fiend it's like the reverse version of the old Charles Atlas advertisements."
"Nearly everything that's said in the show, despite how outrageous it seems, was taken almost verbatim from either the film or the literature of the time," says Christian Campbell, who plays young Jimmy, the clean-cut victim of dope-pushing fiends and their foul-smelling cigarettes, also known as muggles, joints or reefers.
By any name, the original movie was bad beyond belief; it was cheaply produced, the acting was wretched and the story was absurd. In other words, it was instant kitsch. Hip audiences rediscovered "Reefer Madness" in the early '70s when some viewers found that the movie was hysterically funny when viewed in the right frame of mind.
It became one of the first examples of what came to be known as "cult" or "midnight" movies. Others included "The Night of The Living Dead," "El Topo," "King of Hearts" and Andy Warhol-produced movies like "Flesh" and "Trash." Eventually, those gave way to audience-participation screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and, most recently, "The Sound of Music."
Bringing "Reefer Madness" to the stage was the brainchild of author-composer Dan Studney and author-lyricist Kevin Murphy, who joined forces with director Andy Fickman and choreographer Paula Abdul to reconfigure it as a flamboyant musical satire. It played for a year at Los Angeles' Hudson Backstage Theater and won five Ovation and seven L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards.
It has now been transplanted, with much of the original cast, to New York's legendary Variety Arts Theater, where it opens today.
But how relevant can a play be that satirizes the demonization of marijuana, especially at a time when the public is far more focused on the harmful effects of Ecstasy and other designer drugs? According to cast member Chris Campbell (brother of Neve), "There's still a war on drugs and marijuana is still demonized. But this play is not really about pot as much as the hypocrisy of the propaganda."
Torti agrees: "Without sounding too serious, it's really a satire on middle-American values, how the public can be swayed and the fact that if something is repeated often enough, it's believed."
John Kassir, the voice of the Crypt Keeper in the TV series "Tales from the Crypt," plays Ralph, the worst-case example of what young Jimmy might eventually become.
"The show is kind of relevant right now, as we go to war," Kassir says, suggesting it is a kind of counterbalance to "the rhetoric of those kinds of reactionary headlines we're seeing. As a righteous furor grows, there's a tendency to oversimplify issues."
Erin Matthews, who plays Sally, the play's "reefer slut," says one of her favorite aspects of the show is that "while it pokes fun at the propaganda of the '30s, it recognizes the patterns that still exist today. The narrator, for example, who raves about sin and temptation, could easily be Jerry Falwell."
Still, is it inappropriate to satirize religion, patriotism and American values at a time when so many homes in American are flying the flag?
"The timing is a bit touchy," admits Torti, "but audiences seem to understand that the play isn't mocking patriotism, but more the exploitation of patriotism as a means of selling an agenda. There's a huge difference.
"The audience we're looking for is the audience that laughs and then goes, 'I can't believe I'm laughing at this.'"
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