American Theatre

October 1999

High Camp

by Steve Hayes

"No one knows when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveler in a musical heaven... or a murderer."

Not even master propagandist Harry J. Anslinger, who issued that stern warning to Reader's Digest readers in 1938, could have imagined the all-singing, all-dancing Reefer Madness at Hollywood's Hudson Theatre. The hilariously awful 1936 film was originally a staple of high-school hygiene classes, then revived as a camp classic on the college cult circuit. Now it's having a third lease on life, courtesy of lyricist Kevin Murphy and composer Dan Studney.

The musical Madness introduces us to Jimmy and Mary (Christian Campbell and Jolie Jenkins), who enjoy a chaste courtship while studying Romeo & Juliet (they haven't finished it, bit feel confident it will "turn out swell"). Problems begin when the lindy-hopping hophead Jack (Robert Torti) lures Jimmy into the smoky embrace of the local reefer den, starting his quick collapse into a cannabis-crazed, hit-and-run killer. Here Murphy and Studney crank the volume for a 90's audience, adding flesh-eating, baby-selling, hellish orgies and heavenly visions to the mix. When Jesus Christ -- in a cameo role -- pleads, "Jimmy, let me see ya -- kick the sin and sinsemilla," their hero snarls, "I've got a new god now!" Eventually, the increasingly fried Jimmy ends up frying in the electric chair.

Murphy and Studney claim they've "smoked no more marijuana than the President of the United States," and although the pair was originally drawn to a musical Madness by its kitsch quotient, they soon grew fascinated the history of hemp hysteria spawned in the 30's.

"We're not so much pro-pot as anti-propaganda," says Murphy. "Authority figures try to manipulate people by demonizing others."


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