April 14, 2000

Reefer To Hit N.Y.C.
L.A.'s musical smash is
really smokin'!

by Terri Roberts

Everyone involved with Reefer Madness!, the outrageous musical spoof of the infamously awful 1936 scare flick of the same title, is flying high these days–and not because they’ve been inhaling. Billed as "the new ‘hit’ musical," the show is following in the tracks of yet another L.A. born-and-bred musical sensation–the slightly naughty, slightly bawdy, thoroughly delightful Naked Boys Singing!–and is headed for New York.

Maybe success follows shows that sport exclamation points after their titles. Who knows?! Whatever the reason, after close to a year of smokin’ success at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, Reefer Madness! has closed up shop here and is now prepping for the big move to Off-Broadway.

If all goes well, sweethearts Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, reefer sluts Sally and Mae, munchie maniac Ralph, dope dealer Jack, and the rest of the Reefer gang could be lighting up New York as early as this fall. (For a detailed show synopsis and background information, see the website at www.reefermadness.org.) Negotiations are underway to determine exactly when the show will move, who will move with it, and what theater it will move into. Compared to the 99-seat Hudson, the New York houses under consideration are very large at just under 500 seats; the most likely locations at this point seem to be either the East or West Village.

Transferring the homegrown Reefer to the Off-Broadway boards is serious business, but director Andy Fickman is keeping his cool–and his sense of humor. "I’m thrilled about the move," beams Fickman. "Los Angeles has been a tremendous home for our show. And now, with the opportunity to move on to New York and various other cities, we can truly sell Reefer Madness! to the world without fear of arrest or a long-term prison sentence."

Producer Stephanie Steele admits that "Nothing will ever compare with Reefer. This show has expanded my boundaries as a producer in every direction, and I feel truly lucky that it is making this move. It’s rare to find a gem such as this show, and I couldn’t be happier to have contributed to its recognition in L.A."

It was a little over two years ago that composer/writer Dan Studney and lyricist/writer Kevin Murphy were driving back from a film shoot in Oakland, grooving along to Frank Zappa’s "Joe’s Garage" in the car, when the idea for a musical version of Reefer Madness! struck them. " ‘Joe’s Garage’ was like Zappa’s attempt at a musical," Studney explains, "and I was thinking I’d love to stage it. Then there was some line about reefer or anti-authority or whatever, and I said to Kevin, ‘How come nobody’s ever done Reefer Madness! as a musical?’"

You can almost see a light bulb flash on over the heads of Murphy and Studney as the former recounts this tale of inspiration. "Kevin was like, ‘I don’t know! How come nobody’s ever done that?!’ And that’s how the idea was born. The rest of the ride, we talked about where there would be musical moments, and later that week we wrote the first song, ‘Dead Old Man.’ That’s why we’re called Dead Old Man Productions–that and, if you had to have an investor write a check, it was just kinda funny that they’d have to write it to Dead Old Man Productions."

Murphy and Studney have been buds ever since they met in 1985 at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Studney was a theater major and Murphy was a double major in political science and theater. While in college, they wrote and produced two original musicals, Antigone and Valley of Kings. Reefer Madness! would soon prove that the third time was, indeed, the charm.

Both partners had daytime, pay-the-rent jobs in television, so Reefer was written mostly on weekends. The dialogue was penned in about a week, but it took roughly a year to compose the score. Reefer Madness! opened on April 29, 1999 to unanimously positive reviews. And director Fickman could now exhale. "One of my biggest concerns was how the critics would perceive the show," he admitted. "I feared we would be taken to task for being some pro-hemp propaganda piece, which is exactly what I didn’t want to have happen. Thankfully, critics and audiences have seen the show for what it really is: a Fiddler on the Roof for the crack generation!"

Though critics have showered the show with accolades and awards, they’ve also been forthcoming about its weaknesses–particularly the letdown of the second act following the manic-paced perfection of Act I. With its overly long trial sequence, multiple endings, proportionally fewer musical numbers and unsteady balance between sassy satire and serious sermonizing, Act II definitely needed more work.

The authors knew, going in, that some bugs still needed to be worked out, but a chain of circumstances kept them from the necessary polishing before the show opened. Perhaps, in the long run, it was better that way: A general consensus was publicly established about what needed to be fixed, and it has been. Despite its initial imperfections, Reefer Madness! went on to become one of the longest running musicals in L.A. theater history, garnering overwhelming critical recognition at the Back Stage West Garland Awards, the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, and the peer-judged Ovation Awards (as well as a reputation for enthusiastic, ear-splitting screams at every ceremonial mention of the show).

When New York began to look like a realistic goal, Studney and Murphy made major revisions to Act Two. A new song was written. Loose ends were tied up. Racist and political overtones were heightened. And the ludicrous quotes and statistics about the evils of drugs, once so dryly presented, were printed on placards and incorporated into a rousing new patriotic musical number called "The Truth." Now they appear amongst swirling confetti, an American flag, baton twirling, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty.

"We’ve made it a little more scathing–a little more Kander and Ebb," Studney chortles. Adds Murphy, in a lyrical quote, "The idea is that, ‘Once the reefer has been destroyed/We’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud, sex depicted on celluloid/And communists and queens/ America, America, let’s keep our country off the green.’"

What will happen when and if the show hits Manhattan? "I can only hope that Reefer is embraced in New York as it was here in Los Angeles," says Steele. "The thing that kept our show alive was audience word-of-mouth. People came back over and over, and brought different groups of friends. I’ve been very lucky to witness that kind of response. And if it continues after we open at the next level, then Reefer will hopefully enjoy the high for a long time to come."


All text © 2000, TheatreMania.com


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