The horrors of marijuana rolled into a musical
Marijuana has been called a "gateway drug" that leads those who smoke it into heavier and more destructive narcotics and life of crime.
That’s was the whole premise of a 1936 propaganda film and cautionary tale called "Tell Your Children," which resurfaced 40 years later as "Reefer Madness."
The story is about Jimmy Harper and how his and his girlfriend’s lives are ruined through a haze of drugs, sex and murder. Of course all this happens after they are lured into attending pot parties at a nearby reefer den by a hostess named Mae and her pusher boyfriend Jack.
Although the original actors’ earnest, anti-cannabis portrayals remained intact when the film reemerged in the 1970s, they were seen as campy and over-the-top, which helped relaunch the film as a cult comedy, said William Richardson, the director and choreographer of the Dark Horse Company Theatre’s production of "Reefer Madness: The Musical," which opens at the Egyptian Theatre this Friday.
"The film was screened at film festivals and midnight movies across the country, and then adapted as a musical by lyricist Kevin Murphy and composer Dan Studney in 2001," Richardson told The Park Record. "The production didn’t receive much commercial success, because it opened in New York on Sept. 15, four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center."
In 2005, Murphy and Studney decided turn the production back into a film called ‘Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical,’ and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Richardson said.
While the film version is can be rented or bought, there are still theatre companies that prefer performing the musical live.
So, when Dark Horse Company Theatre presents its live production in Park City, the cast will perform the show like it’s a public service announcement in the 1930s, Richardson said.
"The take is the whole cast is very much against marijuana, and we’re on mission to tell the all the people from sea to shining sea about the dangers of marijuana," Richardson said.
The musical starts off with a narrator who says he received a letter from Harry Anslinger, the late Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department ‘s Federal Bureau of Narcotics who headed the campaign against marijuana from 1930 to 1937.
"The letter urges people to spread the news about this new drug menace that is violently turning kids into degenerates and murders," Richardson explained. "It’s so over the top, but you can tell the actors are serious."
Richardson first saw the film with a friend and couldn’t stop laughing.
"I thought it was hilarious, but I also thought it was a fantastic production because there is so much visual stuff to take in," he said. "I think that’s because the filmmakers back then took the topic so seriously, but what happened was there were a lot of things that had become ridiculous over the years."
Richardson first saw the stage version of "Reefer Madness" in 2010, when Dark Horse Company Theatre first presented it.
"Christopher Glade was the director then and I thought it was a perfect musical," Richardson said. "I mean, the material was perfect, and there was no way you could go wrong with it, especially when you had great people working on it."
When Richardson was asked to direct the show’s revival, he felt comfortable doing his own thing.
"To start off, we have a completely new team going into this production, except for our set designer Daniel Simons and lighting designer Gamyr Worf," Richardson said. "Secondly, we have an entirely new cast, and our costume designer Jyllian Petrie built new costumes, so the visuals and choreography will be different."
The cast began rehearsals on March 18 and worked every night for four hours and two Saturdays for five hours.
"We’ve decided to take it and build it on the cast that we have, rather than stick with anything that worked on the cast in the past," he explained.
The 12 actors will be performing with a live five-piece band.
"The musicians, who are led by a fantastic director and conductor, J.D. Dumas, will be set up in front of the stage, so we can create a show-within-a-show feel," Richardson said. "It will be fun."
Part of the fun is presenting "Reefer Madness" in the Egyptian Theatre.
"That venue is a pleasure to work with, and I’ve been working on shows up there for years," Richardson said. "The space is so intimate, but you are able to create these large-scale pictures when you’re setting things up in a choreographic sense."
Richardson likes its versatility.
"Depending on what the designs look like and who performs, it basically becomes whatever you want it to be in the moment," he said. "With this show, the space fits perfectly with the old 1930s atmosphere.
"So, we’re asking the public to come to the Egyptian Theatre to learn about this new drug menace and education their minds so they can educate the world," he said.
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., will present Dark Horse Company Theatre’s "Reefer Madness: The Musical" on April 19 through April 21, and April 25 through April 28. Curtain for April 19, 20, 25 through 27, is 8 p.m. Curtain for April 21 and 28 is 6 p.m. "Reefer Madness: The Musical" is based on the 1936 propaganda film, "Reefer Madness," which warned of the misinformed horrors of marijuana in society. Tickets range from $25 to $44 and are available by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com .
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Local songwriter and producer Tanya Taylor wants to show that people around the world can become stronger if they work together.