Going to pot with Reefer Madness


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“It’s not so much about the reefer.”

A bold statement regarding a production titled Reefer Madness, but actor John Watkins insists it’s true.

“The operative word in the title is ‘madness,’ not ‘reefer,’ ” director Brandon Bruce said.

Plenty of both reefer and madness will abound when the University Theatres Mainstage production of Reefer Madness: The Musical opens at the Theatre Building’s Mabie Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday.

“We’re in excellent shape,” Bruce said about the cast and crew as they ready the show. “We’re working extremely hard.”

Reefer Madness: The Musical is based on the 1936 film Reefer Madness, also known as Tell Your Children. In the film, marijuana dealers Mae Coleman and Jack Perry decide to increase business by peddling their wares to local teenagers. The film began as a statement meant to educate people about the dangers of marijuana. However, it gained popularity as an exploitation film when filmmaker Dwain Esper toured his scandalous recut around the nation.

Reefer Madness eventually became a public-domain film — meaning it is not subject to copyright laws — and in the 1970s, it was rediscovered by Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws. He bought a print of the film and began distributing it to (where else?) college campuses nationwide.

As marijuana legalization became a major issue again recently, writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney adapted the film into a stage musical. Reefer Madness: The Musical premièred in Los Angeles in 1998. Seven years later, it was adapted into a film.

The musical film served as Bruce’s inspiration for bringing Reefer Madness to the Iowa City stage.
“I laughed a lot,” Bruce said in describing his first time seeing the 2005 film. “As time went on, I realized this was more than just a silly, campy musical.”

When the cast and crew were stumped about how to approach certain parts of the play, however, they turned not to Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical but to the original 1936 film that the musical parodies.

“We did everything we could to stay away from [the movie musical],” the director said, because they wanted to make sure to create their own version.

Bruce said the film is not just camp — it carries a valuable social message.

“It’s about quieting those who want to scare you,” he said. “On another level, it’s about monsters. Every character, good or bad, is a kind of monster.”

One such monster is the Lecturer, played by Watkins, who presents a play within the play in which the story of Mae and Jack and the teenagers they “addict” is told. The Lecturer, who plays numerous roles, is the ringleader who uses the show to preach the perils of pot, Watkins said.

“[There’s] a little bit of Glenn Beck in there,” he said. “A little bit of Hitler, too.”

Woven into the Lecturer’s dialogue, Bruce said, are direct quotations from the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Harry J. Anslinger, the most vocal opponents of marijuana in the 1930s.

“The Lecturer has been made into a media monster,” he said, comparing him with modern pundits Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. “He usually [says] horrifically offensive things.”

The Lecturer’s play within the play centers on Jimmy Harper, the typical All-American boy, and his girlfriend, Mary Lane. Their ultimate plan is to one day get married “just like Romeo and Juliet,” they sing.

Everything goes well for the couple until, through Mae and Jack, Jimmy is introduced to the second Mary in his life: Mary Jane.

As Jimmy plumbs deeper into the depths of “addiction,” Mary tries to stop him, but even a personal visit and song by Jesus don’t persuade Jimmy to clean up his act.

“I want to see these actors reacting to [marijuana] as if it is this deadly drug,” Bruce said.

While Reefer Madness: The Musical does have many political and social undertones, the fun has not been done away with. Watkins said that while the performers have “worked to not play the scenes for camp,” the satire of the musical remains.

“Everything about the show is over the top,” the actor said.

Both he and Bruce cited the set as an example of the satire and sensationalism at play in the musical.
The background, Bruce said, is a hodgepodge of sensationalistic newspaper headlines, and the props are made to look comical.

“The visual inspiration would be pulp comics,” the director said, referring to the inexpensive and often low-quality novels and comics that were popular in the ’30s. “[The set is] as sensational as the script.”

Some of the comedy of Reefer Madness: The Musical comes not just from making a farce out of drug culture and sensationalism but by satirizing other musicals, such as Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar.

For Bruce, who directed Chicago at the UI in 2007, the musical is not just another directing gig, it is also his master’s thesis. Though he enjoys the musical for its camp and comedy, he said, the social message really drew him to it and led him to pitch it as a thesis project.

“I don’t want to do anything unless there’s a social need for it.”

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