Ray Gun Magazine

June 1999


Reefer Madness Lights Up the Stage
by Natalie Nichols

At first it was about high concept, not a higher purpose. When television writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney decided to turn the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness into a campy rock musical, Murphy explains "we thought it would be funny."

But the play, which opened April 28 at the Equity-Waiver Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood, quickly acquired a perfect subtext for our truth-is-out-there times. Through their research, the pair discovered stories about newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and other 1930s billionaires who conspired to inflame public fears about "marihuana" -- through alarmist articles and government strawmen -- in order to stop hemp production that threatened their own paper and synthetics industries. The original film reflects that paranoia, warning parents about "killer weed" through the unintentionally hilarious tale of wholesome teens gone to seed after just a few puffs.

Though loosely faithful to that storyline, the new Reefer Madness pushes a radically different message in a staging that's equal parts Oklahoma! and Sweeney Todd.

"Our take is more like beware of bullshit, rather than pro-pot or even pro-hemp," says Murphy. Disingenuous? Not really. When Murphy expresses amazement at "the huge underground network" of marijuana/hemp information on the internet, echoing the gee-whiz guilelessness of Madness protagonist Jimmy Harper, it's apparent these guys aren't card-carrying cannabis-heads. "It could have been 'Communist Madness' or 'Jesus Madness,'" he continues, 'or even 'Democrat and Republican Madness,' anything in which one side demonizes the other."

While the '30s film warned parents to "protect the children, because they can't think for themselves," notes Studney, the musical update says "think for yourself," whether it's about drugs, sex, or what the meaning of "is" is. Rather than "the bluehairs," as he puts it, who normally attend musicals, the production is aimed at the younger audiences who have been discovering the joys of musical theatre via Hedwig and the Angry Inch and recent stage revivals of The Rocky Horror Show.

To snare the "South Park" set, along with live rock music, late-night performances and a relatively low ticket price, they've ratcheted up the sex-and-violence quotient with simulated orgies, horrible beatings, demonic sex acts and even cannibalism, making the original's then-racy "Play faster!" piano scene seem even quainter. In another modern twist, the character of The Lecturer not only narrates this cautionary tale, but also insinuates himself into it by playing several roles.

"The Lecturer is a little man who's found his cause, and it gives him glory," says Studney. "He's jumping in everywhere: he's the Mom, he's the Dad, he's the Goat-Man. It starts to seem like maybe he's enjoying it too much."

Fortunately, the actors are charismatic and properly deadpan, and their well-honed comic timing helps sell such over-the-top bits as "The Monkey Song," in which a chastened Jimmy (played by adorable up-and-comer Christian Campbell) literally dukes it out, WWF-style, with his addiction. From the deliciously cast Harry S. Murphy -- who created the role of Monicagate prosecutor Ken Starr for the LA production Starr-Struck, a Musical Investigation -- to Tony nominated vet Robert Torti (as Jack the reefer-den king, and Jesus Himself), all the players revel in the absurdity, giving the production the surreal zest of Rocky Horror.

With the in-your-face glee of that stage-to-screen spectacular, Reefer Madness features such un-subtle dramatic devices as "The Placard Girl," who periodically flashes such ripped-from-Hearst-headlines omens as "Reefer Gets You Raped and You Won't Care!" Other lessons loom large when Jimmy's well-meaning parents spew racist nonsense about dope, also taken nearly verbatim from Hearst papers, and when the actors quote disinformation by public officials all the way up to William Jefferson Clinton.

Yet Murphy and Studney are strangely coy about their own positions on marijuana. "It should be obvious from our work," says Studney. Murphy is only slightly more forthcoming: "I can definitely say it's not as bad as it's portrayed in the play."


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