Los Angeles Times

August 8, 1999


The makers of the musical 'Reefer Madness!' go over the top to get a message of liberty across.
by Kristen Hohenadel

In the 1930s, headlines such as "Hashish Goads Users to Blood Lust" and "Marihuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days" screeched from the front pages, and a whole genre of "scare films" such as the 1936 "Reefer Madness" was born, graphically portraying the violent, orgiastic depravity that would befall all American children who didn't "just say no."

"Reefer Madness" has since become a cult film, and now a new musical theater spoof of the same name (subtitled "The New 'Hit' Musical") is playing at the Hudson Theatre.

In this over-the-top production, a Lecturer preaches from a podium about "the real public enemy No. 1," while adorable sweethearts Jimmy and Mary, accompanied by a supporting cast of blood-stained zombie cheerleaders, prom queens, football stars and geeks, spiral into an ever-darker underworld of corruption.

These characters aren't just horny, they turn into whores; they don't just get the munchies, they eat their roommates for a snack. After they massacre unwanted pets, say, or sell their illegitimate children for cash, an actor in a Caesars Palace cigarette-girl get-up carries the moral of the story on a painted sign ("Reefer makes you sell your babies for drug money"). When Jimmy gets stoned and runs over a senior citizen, he croons: "Knackered by a Packard, you bled till dead. You're dead, old man." (The moral: "Reefer makes you kill poor old men.")

Creators Kevin Murphy, 32, and Dan Studney, 33, claim they have "smoked no more marijuana than the president of the United States." They insist that marijuana is a metaphor and are out to make a larger point about personal liberty and the pitfalls of authority and power. In their estimation, marijuana was just an innocent little drug that nobody paid much attention to until evil billionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who had a lot of money invested in lumber and paper mills and was allegedly threatened by the possibility of cheaper hemp production as a wood pulp source, began a smear campaign against the "foreign"-sounding drug.

"Dan and I couldn't care less about the 'legalize hemp' movement," says Murphy, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book. "We care about people trying to influence the way people think by making up big fat lies." "Reefer Madness!," he says, is "big, goofy fun; if anything, it proves that authority is just plain creepy." Murphy and Studney spent a lot of time digging up inflammatory anti-marijuana material and have armed their program notes with plenty of ammunition for the anti-marijuana conspiracy side of the story.

"Because we're trying to entertain, we're absolutely guilty of that," Murphy concedes. "[But] even people who are anti-marijuana, when they hear that in 1986 [White House drug czar Carlton Turner] said 'marijuana leads to homosexuality . . . and therefore to AIDS,' that's just an irresponsible thing to say," Murphy says. "Whether [marijuana] is good or bad, it's certainly not as bad as it's portrayed in 'Reefer Madness!': cannibalism, rape, homicidal rages and the murder of kitty cats."

The not-necessarily-pot-boosting good friends met at Drew University in New Jersey, where they collaborated, among other things, on a musical version of "Antigone."

"Our first love was theater," Murphy says, "but saying 'I'm going to have a career in musical theater' is not the most practical thing you can do coming out of college."

They moved to L.A. after graduation and since then have both worked as television writers and producers, often on the same shows, including "Weird Science" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

The idea to do a musical version of "Reefer Madness" came up on a road trip from San Francisco. "We were talking about musical ideas, and we started to get that itch," Murphy remembers. "The hardest thing is finding what idea is cool enough that I want to kill a year of my life working on it." They began to research the anti-marijuana movement and became avid collectors of "vintage anti-marijuana propaganda." Using the film as a point of departure, they co-wrote the first draft of the book in a week. The music, composed by Studney with lyrics by Murphy, took about a year.

To give the show a consistent tone and voice, the writers told the story from the point of view of the Lecturer, who, Murphy says, believes that "anyone who allows reefer to touch their lips must die." They added a Jesus character and an orgy to give it a modern twist, and upped the murder rate.

"What was salacious 60 years ago isn't necessarily salacious today," Studney says. The creators say they were also conscious of trying to make the musical theater format, their preferred medium, modern and appealing to a young, hip audience.

"A lot of musical theater I see is still stuck in a very long-ago era," Murphy says. " 'Reefer Madness!' is traditional music, but it is a lot more subversive and goes out of its way to thumb its nose at authority, to say something that's relative to people under 23 years old."

Murphy describes their next project as "an adventure musical, Indiana Jones-type thing with a lot of stunts and action and sword fights."

"A big, splashy swashbuckling, romantic comedy," Studney adds.

They say the challenge is adapting a screen hero built largely on flashy technical effects to the more modest realm of the theater. "Nothing can compete with the thrill of live theater," Studney says. "That's why Universal Studios' stunt shows are so cool."

In the meantime, Murphy and Studney are hoping to sell the production and film rights for "Reefer Madness!" and would like to see it staged in New York and/or London. They still consider "Reefer Madness!" a work in progress; after it was reviewed, they cut about 15 minutes, making the show a trimmer 90 minutes.

"I completely agree with [one critic] that there are too many endings," Murphy admits. "Everyone should die in one big scene. It's easy to fix on paper," he says, but harder in practice, with lighting cues and limited rehearsal time. The actors stress the close collaboration between themselves and the producers. "Everybody's here all the time," says Lori Alan, 33. "It's great because you'll do a bit and you'll get told right after, 'That's great.' "

They also say that the farce gives them a lot of freedom to push the comedic envelope. Christian Campbell, 27, uses his dimples and toothy grin to great effect as the all-American Jimmy. "The role allows me to overact," he says with glee. "I get to be a really bad actor."

Larry Poindexter, 39, is Jesus as a lounge singer, in silver lame and knee-high boots. He says that Murphy and Studney encourage him to improvise lines while he works the crowd ("Call me J.C.," he says with a wink, "First time here?") or runs into the audience. "I would ask them, 'Is this too much?' " Poindexter says. "And they were like, 'There is no such thing as too much. Bring on the cheese.' "
At the end of the night, after most of the characters have been killed in a blood bath, the actors file out one by one to recite one-liners from the history of the marijuana debate, among them " 'Marijuana, when mixed with hay, causes death to the horses that eat it,' the New York Times, 1934" and " 'Permanent brain damage is one of the inevitable results of the use of marijuana,' Ronald Reagan, 1974."

Murphy says he is aware that audiences have mixed feelings about the use of quotes, some finding it interesting and others thinking it's too didactic.

"One review pointed out we're at risk of being guilty of what we're making fun of," Murphy says. "We are there to give people great music and great performances. But all it asks is 45 seconds of the audience's time. I like the fact that it is grounded in something. It gives it a point of view, so it doesn't come off as a completely empty-calorie meal."

"REEFER MADNESS!" Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 9 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 28. Price: $25. Phone: (310) 289-2999.

Kristin Hohenadel Is a Frequent Contributor to Calendar

Pubdate: August 8, 1999
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.


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