November 25, 1999
Up In Smoke
Moving from the screen to
It is highly uncharacteristic for a Los Angeles home-grown theatrical venture to last longer than four weeks. In the dicey world of 99-seat theater venues, shows are often lucky for a one-weekend run. That is why the musical "Reefer Madness!" is so special.
The runaway "hit" musical parody, spoofing the 1936 propaganda film of the same name, has become quite a sensation in the Los Angeles theater community.
"Reefer Madness," playing at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, is now entering its eighth month of production. It recently garnered five Theater L.A. Ovation awards (including nods for best small musical and best ensemble) and has developed a devoted following of fans.
Currently in pre-development to become a movie, the show has its sights set on Broadway.
To say the show is a success would be an understatement.
"It's been so rewarding to have this show produced professionally and get this response," said co-creator Kevin Murphy backstage after a recently packed performance. "There is a big difference between doing something in a real theater and getting real reviews in newspapers and having real paying audiences come out. Before we'd run five nights and be out. This is the coolest thing."
The premise for the show comes from the 1936 "Reefer Madness!" film, just one of many propaganda scare films intending to "instruct" and "educate" the American public about the evils of society, including topics like alcohol, sexuality and marijuana.
"Scare films of the '30s were real clumsy, obvious propaganda. They played on racism, on fear of the unknown and took touchstones that were important to Americans like teenagers and the (ideal) concept of America," Murphy explained.
"They took villains like communists, blacks, Mexicans, drug pushers and gangsters, and it was like a big Halloween party on the screen. It was all about scaring the shit out of middle America," he continued.
"Reefer Madness!" was one of the more gloriously bad films and was screened to teenagers to make them think twice about taking a puff of the "green menace." In 1972, college campuses began midnight screenings of the film, earning the kitschy horror instructional a place in the campy cult liturgy.
With the new theatrical production, the team of Kevin Murphy (book, lyrics) and Dan Studney (book, music) reinvented the concept into a hilariously satiric and fresh musical parody.
The show also makes new statements about the responsibilities of authority and the dangers of scapegoating and takes the original material to a new level.
"I like the message that Dan and Kevin put into the show - defy authority. I knew I didn't want to do a pro-hemp play. It wasn't about being that kind of subversive. I like the subversive nature of what the script is," said Andy Fickman, the show's director.
Despite its subject material, the show is not specifically pro-hemp or pro-marijuana. Instead, the show conveys the idea that authority and power can be dangerously abused and asks its audiences to be aware of propaganda messages.
"Whether you think that marijuana should be legalized or not, personally, I don't have much of an opinion on that, but I'm more interested in the idea of authority lying to people for pretentious reasons," said Murphy.
"If there's any larger point to come out of 'Reefer Madness!' it's that authority allowed to go unchallenged, unquestioned and unchecked can be creepy and we need to question what we are told," he continued.
Yet for all of its deeper meaning, "Reefer Madness!" is definitely meant to be silly and entertaining.
"We rented the movie and thought, 'Wow, this is hideously bad. This could be really funny,'" said Murphy, relating how he and Studney gained the inspiration for writing the show.
Centering around a pair of wholesome teenage lovebirds, it chronicles how they fall into the clutches of reefer maniacs and thus descend into a world of debauchery, hedonism and hell.
In the original story, however, the actions and consequences of the reefer fiends are relatively mild compared to Murphy and Studney's over-the-top version.
The film's lurid incidents involving unchecked lust, suicide and death seem relatively tame compared to the musical's cheeky depiction of cannibalism, dismemberment and electrocution, not to mention the murder of innocent kitty cats. Throw in an orgy scene and a Vegas-y dream sequence featuring a sequined Jesus singing a la Tom Jones, and it becomes obvious that this is a musical that is not taking itself too seriously.
This zaniness was one of the main reasons director Fickman, who said that he missed a lot of subtext on first reading, decided to take on the project.
"Dan and Kevin gave me the script and a demo tape and I put (the tape) in my car, and by the time I got to my destination, I knew," said Fickman.
"As a director, when I read material or listen to music, I ask 'do I see a vision right away?' If I'm laughing at it, than I figure someone else will laugh and it's funny," he continued.
Fickman's irreverent, off-beat handling of "Reefer" has been critically hailed, and audiences obviously adore his style. He recently received L.A. theater's highest accolade for his work, a best director award at the Ovations, beating out starry competition from "Cabaret's" Sam Mendes and "Fosse's" Ann Reinking.
Fickman credits his success to the quality of material and stellar ensemble of actors and creative team that he, Murphy and Studney have assembled.
"Dan and Kevin laid such a phenomenal groundwork for me. If a director has great material to work with and finds that remarkable cast that he wants, my job is pretty easy. I'm like that guy who gets to say 'You stand over there and say that line, but be funny,'" said Fickman.
Both Fickman and Murphy emphatically boast about the special cast they have gathered. "Reefer" now has a base ensemble of 21 actors whom they feel exactly embody the written roles.
The youthful group is full of infectious energy and vibrancy. Most of the actors have been with the production from the very beginning yet remain excited about the material and performances.
"It's great quirky writing, a lot of fun, a good satire and everybody likes to see an old classic spoofed on the stage," said lead actor Christian Campbell who plays the naive all-American boy, Jimmy Harper.
"In any other situation where you are working with lesser material, it might be a challenge to work on a show for so long. But when you are inspired and you want to go see something go well, it makes it fun," he continued.
Cast member Harry S. Murphy, who plays the stern lecturer narrating the story, feels that the long run is a great luxury while also posing new, often unforeseen effects.
"There are times when I actually have forgotten what I'm going to say next even though I've said it 60 times," Harry said.
"But on the plus side, I've seen pretty much every single member of the cast naked by now. There are some of the tattoos in some of the most amazing places," he continued with twinkling candor.
Harry's sense of humor and fun is just one of the many elements that work to make "Reefer Madness" such a success. With the amazing response the musical is presently receiving and its exciting future prospects, it is easy to understand why production morale is so high, even after eight months.
"This show will always continue to evolve. It's been a journey and a party but there is more work to be done." said Fickman "I look at next year and I think next year is 'Reefer,' too. And that is good. Very good."