April 24, 2004
Cult pot film turned movie musical has timely warning, say writers, stars
By Steve Mertl
VANCOUVER (CP) - In the post-9/11 era when irony is supposed to be dead, there's a rich
vein of it running through Reefer Madness. It's a made-for-cable movie adapted from a subversive musical stage play based on a salacious 1936 exploitation flick - later a counterculture cult classic - about the dangers of the evil weed. The play originally debuted in 1999 in a 99-seat Los Angeles theatre, followed by a successful off-Broadway run in 2001.
But authors Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney believe its humorous run at fear-peddlers has become even more relevant as the United States draws in on itself after the terror attacks. "Right now there's a real sense of people using power and the bully pulpit and being the guy behind the podium to tell us what we think," says Murphy. "In the wake of 9/11, there's been a lot of that from the Bush administration in particular." So couched in a cautionary tale about the murderous side effects of pot is a warning to analyze the motives of people in authority. "It became, for me, about a guy who stands behind a podium and says 'Your children are in trouble' and drags out Jesus and the flag and tells you what to think," says Studney, who with Murphy is in Vancouver to help oversee the six-week shoot for Showtime, a U.S. pay-TV channel.
Movie X-Man Alan Cumming, who won a Tony as the emcee in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, stars as The Lecturer, preaching to a 1930s smalltown U.S.A. audience about the corrupting power of marijuana. Showing a film depicting the depravities awaiting children who succumb to its lure, he whips the crowd into a lather of intolerance that goes beyond marijuana, says Murphy. "They sing: 'Once the reefer's been destroyed, we'll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and the sex depicted on celluloid and communists and queens. "America, America, the end will justify the means.'"
Much of the movie's cast comes from the stage version but adds star power with Cumming, Steven Weber (Wings, the D. A.), Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live) and Canadian Neve Campbell (Party of Five, Robert Altman's The Company) in key roles. Campbell's brother Christian reprises his stage portrayal of Jimmy, the impressionable teen who ends up on death row when his life goes to pot.
The original Reefer Madness, a touchstone for Baby Boomers, was subversive in its own way. It was based on a 1936 film produced by a well-intentioned church group and entitled Tell Your Children. It also had a straightlaced narrator warning parents about marijuana, says Murphy. Then Dwain Esper, a notorious producer of exploitation films, got a hold of it. He recut the film and inserted titillating sequences of stoned, half-clothed girls cavorting as boys played demon jazz to illustrate the effects of pot - for educational purposes of course. He renamed it Reefer Madness. After a run in exploitation grindhouses and school gyms, it sat dormant for decades. Marijuana advocates rediscovered it in 1971 and put it on the college film circuit, where it was often viewed through a haze of pot smoke.
Murphy and Studney, longtime college "theatre rats" and now veteran Hollywood writers, were driving up the California coast one day in 1998. "We were listening to a Frank Zappa song about Catholic girls smoking reefer behind the rectory. Dan said, 'what about Reefer Madness as a musical?'" Murphy recalls. "There was just silence in the car. I said, why not?" The show debuted the following year in LA to huge success and several awards before moving to New York for a well-received run.
Murphy and Studney then reworked it into a screenplay and invited movie and TV producers to a reading by the original stage cast and the show's pit orchestra. One of the guests was Robert Greenblatt, who was on his second day as Showtime's entertainment president. He greenlighted what will be the channel's first full-length musical when it airs sometime next year. "We're all about trying to do things that nobody else would do," says Greenblatt, who says it's like the Rocky Horror Picture Show crossed with Grease. "This just struck me as something that you couldn't find anywhere else. That's what made it just seem right for us." Greenblatt brought in Apollo Screen, a German production company, to help finance the project. He won't reveal the budget but says it's generous for a TV production, especially a musical, enhanced by the cost advantages of shooting in Vancouver.
Filming for Showtime solves several problems, says Murphy: no handwringing over a restricted theatrical movie rating and no dumbing it down for network television. For Campbell, the draw was her brother's participation and a "genius" script co-written by her friend Studney. "I really think this piece is amazing and fun and entertaining," says the Guelph, Ont., native. "It's one of the best things I've seen in the last 10 years, I would say." The writing also attracted Cumming, well known for his stage work in Britain before coming to Broadway and Hollywood. "I was reading a lot of scripts and this one just seemed really witty and clever," says Cumming, who accepted the role without ever seeing the stage version. "I haven't read something this biting and satirical in quite a while."
Translating the musical's dance numbers to movie sets was a challenge for choreographer Mary Ann Kellogg. She also had to allow for Weber, who plays pot pusher Jack in a key dance encounter with Neve Campbell as the den-mothering Poppy, whose Five and Dime soda shop is a haven for the town's teens. Weber, unlike the ballet-honed Campbell, is no dancer. "But he's very musical, he's very physical," says Kellogg. "He has a very keen sense of movement and drama." "He did an amazing job," agrees Campbell. "I know he was really nervous about the dance piece but he did a really great job learning it."
With its blend of drugs, sex, cannibalism and devil jazz music, Reefer Madness aims to be more entertaining than preachy, so is unlikely to ignite an Establishment backlash. "Cloaked as it is in humor and satire I don't think it's that big an issue," says Greenblatt. "This movie's relatively harmless. You could look at it at face value and say it's all about the dangers of drug use. You could interpret it either way."
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