Whatever else it might be -- "exuberantly gross" (New York Times), "not exactly the height of satirical sophistication" (Hollywood Reporter), "a lot funnier than it has a right to be" (New York Post) -- Off Broadway's hit serial-killer musical satire, Silence! The Musical, is the kind of show critics are loathe to embrace no matter how loudly they're laughing.
Laughing all the way to the bank have been composers Jon and Al Kaplan and librettist Hunter Bell. Following a sold-out run at the 2005 New York Fringe Festival, their camp spoof of Jonathan Demme's 1991 horror thriller, Silence of the Lambs, finally opened Off-Broadway last year and is still running.
Musical parodies of horror films are hardly new to the stage. Re-Animator the Musical closed in L.A. this past June before hitting the New York Fringe, and the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman burlesque Little Shop of Horrors has probably never been out of production somewhere on the planet since it premiered in 1982.
With Silence!'s L.A. franchise set to open officially Sept. 8, however, is enough finally enough? It was time find out. On a recent, sweltering afternoon, L.A. Weekly visited a spacious, un-air-conditioned rehearsal room above the Hayworth Theatre, where musical director Nate Patten was wrapping up a run-though of the score with the L.A. cast.
For the show's ruggedly handsome Hannibal Lecter, Davis Gaines, a man probably best remembered for singing the lead of Phantom of the Opera, both on Broadway and at the Ahmanson, the role is "totally, totally the most perverse" thing he's ever sung. Understandably so -- Gaines will be redirecting Phantom's soaring tessitura to what is perhaps the most notorious tune in Silence! and possibly the most gynecologically explicit love ballad ever written. "I've already told my parents they cannot come see it," he laughs. "And they go, 'Why honey?' And I said, 'Oh ... you're not coming.'"
The company's Clarice Starling -- improv-comedy bombshell Christine Lakin -- concurs. "Oh, this is a 10!" she says gleefully. "I mean, I haven't done much more that is sicker than this. ... It's lowbrow and brilliant, and that's my genre -- that's what I love."
Which is to say, it's a role Lakin fought for, after she saw it in New York. "I thought, 'Oh my god, if this ever comes to L.A., I've got to get my foot in the door and audition.'"
If Silence! is undeniably vulgar, comic character actor Jeff Hiller, who has served in the role of hapless Sgt. Pembry since the New York Fringe days, is quick to defend the production against charges of witlessness. "It's vulgar, but it's also cheeky and winky," he quips. "It's just not like [saying] 'vagina' or something, you know."
The show's other featured victim, Broadway musical comedy-actress Kathy Deitch, agrees. "It just pays homage to those moments that all of us took away from the movie and had nightmares about or laughed about," she muses. "The most exciting parts to me are the ones where I get to reenact those iconic moments. ... It's, like, oh, God, I have to live up to, 'I GOT YOUR DOG, MISTER!'"
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If Deitch is right, then the very outlandishness of its musical incongruity is, in effect, the ultimate fan-fiction tribute to the movie that Silence! ostensibly mocks. And if even a tiny fraction of the film's core audience (it made $270 million in worldwide box office) turns up at the Hayworth, the Los Angeles run will be a long and prosperous one.
Or as John Kassir (a.k.a. Agent Jack Crawford) puts it, Silence! is "just the beginning. We've already had Reefer Madness [the musical]. We've already had Re-Animator The Musical. Horror is growing. I think people love a candy bar. They love the ride."
Silence! The Musical opens September 8 at the Hayworth Theatre.