When our society’s in crisis, sometimes the best thing to do… is sing about it. The plans to revive Reefer Madness The Musical and bring it to the New York stage have been in the works for quite some time, but with the recent vaping crisis bringing whispers of prohibition back into the news, the American public has never needed this savvy satire more.
Fortunately fans of the cult-classic musical, a parody of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, will have the chance this Friday September 20th to experience it like never before. Watch BBQ Films transform Brooklyn’s world-famous House of Yes into a “reefer den” where live performances and general debauchery will ensue at a special screening of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, the 2005 film adaptation starring Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, and Christian Campbell. BBQ Films is an award-winning production company known for its immersive reimaginings of iconic movies and television shows. This immersive screening of Reefer Madness is part of their “Green Screen” screening series – which celebrates cannabis, cinema, and community.
In a takeoff from the original, which was a government-funded effort to spread anti-pot rhetoric ahead of the Marihuana Tax Act (a law that federally criminalized cannabis and hemp in 1937), Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical delivers a laughably over-the-top cautionary tale that prods viewers to question what they accept as “truth.” A mysterious Lecturer (Cumming) narrates the story of naïve teenager Jimmy Harper (Campbell), whose first experience with marijuana gets him involved with a gang of shady characters, ruins his relationship with his innocent girlfriend (Bell), and ultimately lands him in a fight for his life. Meanwhile hilariously clever musical numbers and tongue-in-cheek references to historical anti-marijuana arguments jab at our nation’s legacy of hypocrisy. Fake news has been a trope far longer than we realize.
Let’s get one thing straight: Reefer Madness is a riot. You have a stellar ensemble cast performing their hearts out (special mention to John Kassir as dope fiend Ralph), delightfully catchy songs, sequences involving everything from a sexy Jesus to pothead zombies to an animated brownie orgy (really). But beneath the fun lie some crucially important statements about who we are and what we believe.
It’s 2019, and more states than not have legalized cannabis at least for medicinal purposes. We should know better. Yet the authorities are sounding the alarm, despite the evidence, to demonize the plant again. So Reefer Madness is gaining new relevance, this time as propaganda with a much different goal – to lead you to seek the real truth.
Dan Studney, the musical’s composer and co-writer with Kevin Murphy, never could have predicted the show’s journey when they started working on the project in 1998. The pair had initially intended to adapt Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage for the stage, but were intrigued by the ridiculousness of the original Reefer Madness. The more they researched the history behind the film, Studney says, “the more we learned about the collusion between government and the media and corporate interests to criminalize the drug, we started to realize that there was a bigger message underneath it than just singing and dancing potheads. We took that charge very seriously and we tried to present that in a variety of ways… We tried to get that content into the show somehow, to get that into the DNA… That’s kind of what drives the satire [and] political underpinnings of the show.”
Christian Campbell, who also played Jimmy in the musical’s Off-Broadway run and is a producer on the upcoming revival, recalls that Reefer Madness was a turning point in his personal views on the plant. “For a little while… I was neither here nor there on cannabis. My mom was a cannabis smoker; she’s from Amsterdam… I had a different experience with it. [But when] I got involved with the show, Kevin and [Dan] brought a lot of their research… pages and pages on William Randolph Hearst, just the history for the cast, to contextualize it for us… I think what got me really turned on [to the cause] was the corporate corruption behind it, and that’s where I wanted to go… For me it was simply the justice aspect of things – to show ‘If this [happens], then what?’”
Then what, indeed. The story is a genius study in the art of manipulation. Beyond the smooth-talking Jack (Steven Weber), who lures unsuspecting teenagers into his reefer den, Cummings’s Lecturer character reappears throughout the film to spew facts cribbed from real prohibitionist documents. As he slyly recites the dangers of jazz music and racial miscegenation, spurring concerned citizens to hysteria, subtle hints reveal that the Lecturer knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s provoking a reaction to something patently untrue for much larger, unseen authorities. (One is reminded of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s famous quote: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”)
“We are, as a culture, because of [social media], much more susceptible, much more willing to accept, what is thrown in front of us,” Studney observes. “So much of our social life is involved now in reading very short bursts of questionable information, you have the ability to manipulate people in a much larger way… I think we do more of that now than in 1937… and I think so much of Reefer Madness speaks to this, and that’s why the song ‘The Truth’ is so important as our closing number… What I hope this show helps to reinforce with people, if not teach them outright, is to question the motivations of those [coming at them], especially when they use a god like our Jesus number, or when they use patriotism as in [‘The Truth’].”
“Our challenge is making sure that this still is all going to convey to a new, fresh audience,” Campbell adds. “A lot has happened since 1999 [when the stage musical first premiered]. There are now a lot of people who don’t know the original Reefer Madness and so… how do we make a show work that no one has to understand all the history to enjoy this thing? Going into our [eventual New York production], part of our marketing has got to be educating people so that by the time they arrive to the theater, they already have an inkling of what to expect… That is going to be an important aspect for us… How do we set our audience up to win?”
It’s a good question, and the BBQ Films event is a terrific answer. Visitors to the House of Yes will not only enter the world of the movie, but they’ll also get the opportunity to learn about the many facets of New York’s cannabis culture. Partners such as PrestoDoctor, a leading online resource for medical marijuana cards; Come Back Daily, an acclaimed CBD education and retail store; and SunBud Solutions, a sleek homegrow system, will be onsite to introduce audiences to what cannabis life actually looks like. (Don’t forget to stop by the Honeysuckle table too, where you can read the first edition of our all-cannabis magazine The Honey Pot.)
This immersive screening is a fabulous kickoff for the campaign to come, as Studney, Murphy, Campbell and their team are hard at work retooling Reefer Madness to be back onstage in 2020. While they can’t divulge much info yet, Studney will confirm that at least five new songs have been added and certain plot points rewritten to address different sensibilities in the modern era, like pointed racial slurs and the reefer den owners’ domestically abusive relationship. “It’s going to be very powerful,” Studney affirms of the revival. “What keeps the show so interesting for me is the constant evolution of it… Everything is under consideration. Reimagined staging, scripts, orchestration, lyrics, choreography. We’re trying to take it to the next level in every way.”
“I think it’s why we’re all still working on the project,” Campbell asserts. “We’ve been doing this for twenty years and I believe in that material. I believe in the message. It is more relevant than ever and it’s why I continue to take that into a story and a project worth putting back on stages. So yeah, it makes it easy for me to get up in the morning and work on this for free. That’s what you do when you’re in theater.”
So if you’re ready to be on the right side of history – or you love musical theater – or you want to indulge all five senses in a once-in-a-lifetime evening, just say “YES” to this offering of the Devil’s Lettuce. The truth is out there; pass it on.
BBQ Films’ immersive REEFER MADNESS event is one night only, September 20th at the House of Yes in Brooklyn. For tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/green-screen-reefer-madness-the-movie-musical-tickets-69037487985