Mad Men, Cruel Intentions, The O.C. ... What Is the L.A. Stage Turning Into?

Janel Parrish in Cruel Intentions: The MusicalEXPAND
Janel Parrish in Cruel Intentions: The Musical
Katie Buenneke

Name a movie or TV show, and L.A.'s theater scene has probably turned it into a parody musical. Harry Potter? Check. A documentary about people who play Donkey Kong? Yup. Cruel Intentions? Why not? Mad Men? Naturally. Orange is the New Black? Of course. The O.C.? Done. L.A. loves producing tongue-in-cheek takes on popular stories, and a few companies have refined the art. 

One of those, Quick & Funny Musicals, operates out of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Lindsay Lefler, who directs the group's shows, thinks this boomlet is due in part to the city's love for nostalgia. “I feel like a lot of our pop culture is based on nostalgia," she says. "But people don’t want to keep revisiting the things that they loved in the same way, they also kind of want to explore why they love it, or why it was funny to them, or why it hit a chord in the first place. And sometimes musicals can express that in a new way, I think.”

And Los Angeles is a town that loves remakes. Lefler explains, “I think in L.A., everyone’s looking for ways to remake movies, all the time, whether it be another movie or, if you make musicals, you want to remake it as a musical. Kind of whatever genre you’re in, you want to bring everything back in that genre.”

Jordan Ross, a co-creator of the Cruel Intentions and O.C. musicals, agrees. “We have these people that come to town, and they have this vision, and this vision might be inspired by something that’s already happened, and it retools it into a new way. I think there’s something very special about adaptations, because most of the people doing them are huge fans of the originals, and want to do the originals service.”

The cast of UCB's Full House: The MusicalEXPAND
The cast of UCB's Full House: The Musical
Megan Baker

The city is also home to a surplus of talent — writers and performers who are hungry to work and happy to try new takes on characters they know and love.

Lindsey Rosin, the director and a co-creator of Cruel Intentions and The O.C. musicals, is also a TV writer. She says a lot of writers get frustrated with the slow TV development process and ask themselves, "So what could we do with that TV property, that film property, that script that’s sitting in a drawer? It’s like, ‘Well, let’s go put it on a stage!’”

Unlike most New York musicals based on movies, which tend to be more serious adaptations, L.A. is going the other direction in adapting its musicals. Why? "The culture around comedy is really big in Los Angeles right now,” Lefler says. “I think that influences a lot of the work that’s being done. And I think people are more likely to go see a comedy in L.A. rather than something that’s really serious. Because it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll pay $10 to go see a parody musical of something I love rather than go spend $80 to see a very true adaptation of something that I could watch on Netflix for free.’” 

Tilky Jones, Molly McCook, Greer Grammer, Brendan Robinson as the "Core Four" in The O.C. musicalEXPAND
Tilky Jones, Molly McCook, Greer Grammer, Brendan Robinson as the "Core Four" in The O.C. musical
Jordan Ross

Surprisingly, though the studios are known for being fairly litigious, they seem to be turning a blind eye to a lot of these shows.

UCB's productions, which creates its own original scripts and songs, are considered legal under fair use copyright laws that protect parodies. But it's a bit murkier when it comes to shows that tap pre-existing songs. “I don’t know if we want to talk about any rights stuff, I’m going to plead the Fifth on that one," one show creator says. “Everybody who needed to be supportive was supportive.” 

These productions thrive in smaller spaces like UCB's Sunset Boulevard theater which holds 85 people, or the cabaret-style setting at Rockwell Table & Stage that holds 166. (The O.C. recently changed venues from Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal, which has 100 seats, to the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, which seats 960.) Rosin likes staging the action throughout these kinds of intimate spaces. 

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“It’s inclusive to have everyone all over, you can’t ignore the fact that [actress] Molly McCook is crying two feet away from you," Rosin says. "You don’t get that in a traditional theater setting, there’s a ‘fourth wall’ that separates you [from the performers], and we’re just like, ‘Fuck the fourth wall!’”

This trend isn't showing any signs of stopping. “We started doing Quick & Funny Musicals five or six years ago," Lefler says, "and we’d ask people to come in and do things, and I think it started — I’m not trying to take any sort of credit for this — I think it started getting people thinking like that, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s really fun, we could do something longer. So I think it kind of created this culture of parody musicals around here. And now people do their own.”

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