October 5, 2001
Leading a cast of jubilant junkies in the spliffy new "HIT"
musical Reefer Madness, Trick Star (and Neve's Big
There's a large bong in the center of the room. People are loitering in front of it, apparently hopped-up on something. I overhear a conversation: A woman confesses that she's sold her young son to buy dope. "I've got another kid on the way," she sneers venomously. Across the room, a mysterious man claims to be Jesus. In a corner, another wild-haired fellow bellows an odd lullaby in a childish, high-pitched falsetto. Nearby, a couple tokes on a doobie. Seconds later, they're wildly making out. It's a seedy scene. I'm surrounded by sex, drugs and-show tunes!
"We're about two-thirds into the first act," whispers playwright and lyricist Kevin Murphy, seated next to me in a midtown rehearsal studio. The scene is from Reefer Madness, a new musical version of the 1936 cult film of the same name. Murphy, who co-wrote the production with Dan Studney, continues his play-by-play commentary of the run-through. "This is one of our big action sequences," he explains, as an actor whizzes past us carrying a cardboard cutout of a Packard. "[The scene] concludes with 'Dead Old Man.' That was the first song we wrote. It set the tone for everything that followed."
The tone, not surprisingly, is pure camp. Directed by Andy Fickman, this "hit" musical begins with an ensemble of demented, drug-mad kids: zombie prom queens, football players, honor students and Boy Scouts singing about the evils of "the dread Marihuana." According to the exploitation film upon which the show is based, the righteous bud's first side effect is "sudden, violent and uncontrollable laughter."
The company is hoping that their musical adaptation has a similar effect on New York audiences. "[Reefer Madness] is big, goofy fun," Murphy told the Los Angeles Times, during the production's acclaimed run in LA. "We're trying to entertain. We're absolutely guilty of that."
Everyone involved in this quirky spectacle is riding high as Reefer Madness prepares to open Sunday (October 7th) at downtown's Variety Arts Theatre. Originally staged during the 1999-2000 season in a small Hollywood theater, the musical ran for more than 18 months. It also received numerous honors, including LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for its direction, score, sound design and musical direction. The low-budget tuner even scored High Times Magazine's coveted "Stony Award" for Theatrical Production of the Year.
Now being produced by Broadway's prestigious Nederlander Organization, Reefer Madness offers an impressive roster of talent. Pop star and choreographer Paula Abdul steps in to transform its previous "musical staging" into full-fledged production numbers. Broadway veterans Gregg Edelman (City of Angels) and Michelle Pawk (Seussical) have joined the troupe. And several members of the original ensemble-including Erin Matthews, Robert Torti and John Kassi-are on hand to revive their roles. "We were loyal to the LA cast," states Murphy emphatically.
One actor who returns to Reefer Madness is Christian Campbell. Moviegoers will recognize the baby-faced thespian from his star-turn in the gay indie Trick (with Tori Spelling) or on the short-lived television series The $treet and Malibu Shores. In the musical, Campbell plays Jimmy Harper, an all-American teenager whose life spirals tragically out of control after one puff of "the stuff."
"The first hit is basically like taking a speedball, heroin, coke, crack, ecstasy-every drug imaginable-and rolling it into one joint," says Campbell, who spoke to me following the rehearsal. "After he inhales, my character becomes a bug-eyed, crazed murderer. It has nothing to do with the reality of smoking marijuana. That's how drug use is portrayed in the movie."
A native of Toronto, where he grew up with his sister Neve (Party of Five, Scream), Campbell is thrilled to be making on his off-Broadway debut. For the moment, he's abandoned the more lucrative worlds of film and television to concentrate on Reefer Madness. "The decision to do this show isn't about making a 'career move,'" he confesses. "I've always wanted to do theatre in New York. I get to fulfill a dream."
That dream was almost shattered by the World Trade Center tragedy. The theater, located below 14th Street, was closed for several days. Under the circumstances, the production canceled a week's worth of previews. Nevertheless, Campbell is ready to face audiences and critics at Sunday's premiere. "I'm looking forward to it. I have complete confidence in the material," says the young actor enthusiastically. "We've done this show before. [In LA], we threw it together at the last minute and it was a total success."
Campbell is also quick to dismiss any comparisons to The Rocky Horror Show, Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical and other current or recently closed high-camp productions. "I know people are comparing us to shows like Urinetown and Bat Boy," he concedes. "That's because they don't know what else to do. We are nothing like Urinetown. Reefer Madness stands on its own. I'm hoping that as soon as we're out there, we'll be the next thing to generate comparisons."
However, for Los Angeles fans who catch the New York production, comparisons are welcome. "It's gonna be even better," Campbell asserts. "We've always tweaked and experimented as we performed. Over the past year and a half, we developed a more solid second act." Since moving from LA's 100-seat Hudson Backstage Theatre to the 500-seat Variety Arts Theatre, the scenic design has also changed considerably. Illustrator Chip Wass (of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon) lends his stylized touch to several set pieces, including that aforementioned Packard. The stage is also festooned with large, spiral slides salvaged from a children's playground. "Reefer Madness is a very physical show. By the end of act one, it's as if I've just run a marathon," remarks the slim actor who is an avid long-distance runner. "Those slides are gonna give me a great workout!"
Additionally, several new songs were recently added to the production. Although the plot is set in the late 1930s, the score and libretto do not necessarily reflect the sounds of that era. "The music goes all over the place," Campbell says. Featuring show-stoppers sung by reefer sluts, dope pushers, weed-psychos-and Jesus-the songs span musical influences from Cole Porter and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Elvis and Donna Summer. "Every time we break into a musical number, it can be anything from the twentieth century!" laughs Campbell, who was kicked out of acting school because of a performance in Man of La Mancha. ("It was one of those Shakespearean schools that doesn't allow students to work on outside productions while you're training with them.")
Another challenge for Campbell is working with Paula Abdul, the superstar choreographer who parlayed a cheerleading stint into an impressive musical career that's spawned two number-one albums, a half-dozen number-one singles, a Grammy Award and seven MTV moon-man statuettes. "I've got two left feet!" Campbell admits. "Paula is so talented. Her choreography is amazing. It's intimidating! Fortunately, my character doesn't have to do a lot of dancing. I just have to stand still-and look cute."