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Smoke Alarm 

Like wine, Reefer Madness ages just fine

Wednesday, Jul 4 2001
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Photo by Olga Matlin

Hemp sympathizers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney are still a bit stunned at the success of their hit musical Reefer Madness. (It’s a parody of the 1936 cult film of the same title.) The play will open off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theater in the East Village on September 14, after being performed at Hollywood’s Hudson Backstage Theater for most of 1999 and part of 2000. Studney likened the difficult process of securing a theater in Manhattan that was large enough to support a cast of 12, plus five band members, to a morphine or opium high — “slow and sedate.”

The advance buzz on Reefer Madness has been strong in New York, thanks in part to the popular cast album (available on Footlight Records), and Murphy and Studney are banking on word of mouth similar to that which made the play such a smoking success in L.A. Reefer Madness capitalizes on the shifting attitudes over the past few decades toward pot and its alleged dangers. As Murphy pointed out, “If everyone hasn’t actually tried marijuana, they probably know someone who has, or they’ve perhaps seen someone smoking it. And so far, I have yet to meet anyone who has gotten terribly violent. Usually they just kind of giggle and fall asleep.”

 

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L.A. WEEKLY: And is overreaction to hemp’s dangers the underlying message about marijuana in your play?

DAN STUDNEY: If you take the play just at face value, reefer is 100 percent evil and it will destroy you, and you should not have anything to do with it. That is the boldface lie of the play.

KEVIN MURPHY: It tries to be very pokerfaced and never let go of that point. Every scene, every character, every moment is all built around the central thesis that marijuana will destroy you, and here are the many ways that it will destroy you. Obviously, Dan and I don’t think marijuana is quite as bad as it is portrayed in the play. This character of the Lecturer, who is the central authority figure, has a captive audience of terrified parents. And he stands up at the beginning, in front of a podium, and basically goes on this fire-and-brimstone harangue about how dangerous marijuana is. The play is basically a little morality story, as was the movie, about poor Jimmy Harper and how reefer ruined the lives of him and his girlfriend.

STUDNEY: We just sort of knocked up the insanity of it. Like, in our version everybody dies. In our version if you smoke it, you have a giant orgy and there’s a Roman bacchanal of a goat man and fire dancers. In our version Jesus comes down and sings a song to you about not doing it, and then when you finally wind up in the electric chair for your crime, Jesus won’t forgive you.

MURPHY: One character sells her baby for drug money, and the baby has a little lullaby solo about how sad it is to be rejected by your own mother. Jimmy, the lead character, goes after a cute little kitty cat with a chain saw.

STUDNEY: The writing trick of Reefer Madness has always been — and will probably always continue to be, as we refine it — one joke, ultimately. It’s about keeping that joke interesting for 90 minutes. First of all, what was hellacious and shocking in the ’30s is not necessarily what is hellacious and shocking in the aughts.

 

So why the need for the parody?

MURPHY: All through Reefer we were very coy about this, because we really thought that Reefer is about something larger. It’s not so much about the marijuana issue — I think it’s more about the information issue, and about how people try to control information to get their way. There’s a quote from Matt Groening that I love: “The authorities don’t always have your best interests in mind. No matter what they say.” I see why some drugs are regulated, because they’re really dangerous, but I think that everybody is being kind of ridiculous about the medicinal-marijuana issue. I honestly don’t understand the difference between alcohol and marijuana in terms of which is more or less dangerous as a recreational drug. The line that’s been drawn there is sort of arbitrary.

STUDNEY: Our show is not as much about drugs as it is about hysterical disinformation.

 

Then who is your audience?

STUDNEY: I wrote Reefer Madness for the disenfranchised 16-year-old boy. But we wound up getting an audience that was across the board.

MURPHY: After a few months, because we were selling out, we started Sunday matinees, and suddenly we just started filling up Sunday matinees! We were getting, like, real older audiences. Little old ladies who were, like, “Hee, hee, hee! Oh, this is so nutty! I shouldn’t be laughing at Jesus, but my gosh, he’s so cute!”

STUDNEY: Yeah, black, white, young, old . . . across the board. We wouldn’t have thought that two years ago. You write this thing that’s so kind of nihilistically young in terms of its point of view. You know, authority is creepy, and don’t let the Man tell you what to do. It has this sort of rebellious, youthful energy to it. So what winds up happening is that people who are my mom’s age — who were at Woodstock — are like, “Yeah, I know that! Don’t discount me! I put Clinton in the White House.”

MURPHY: We had a lot of repeat customers. By the end of the run, we had people showing up dressed up as the characters, and they were called our Reefer Zombies. They would sing along with the show, and they would hold up joints and stuffed animals.

 

How has the prevailing attitude toward pot changed?

MURPHY: Just the fact that we’ve been able to appeal to a pretty wide cross section, at least in Los Angeles, says a lot. Because now I don’t think anyone is afraid of marijuana. People sort of roll their eyes a little bit when they hear a politician get up and talk about just how horrific it all is. The intensity with which the “establishment,” for want of a better word, has gone after marijuana in the past has sort of backfired 50 or 60 years later. Because they tried so hard to make it sound so evil, that now you can pull out those old vintage cartoons and those old hysterical screeds, and you just sort of laugh at it.

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