Night of the Living Dead

I'm a George Romero fan from way back. I own all his zombie movies -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead. Before Romero, zombies were just people under a voodoo spell (see White Zombie with Béla Lugosi, 1932). But Romero was a zombie post-modernist, and he changed all the rules.

So a couple years ago, when I heard that David Norwood and Musically Human Theatre Productions in New York were producing a new stage musical adaptation of Night of the Living Dead, I was very intrigued.

Honestly, I figured the odds were against this show being really wonderful and worth producing – for some strange reason, the film is not protected by copyright, so anyone can adapt it, which means there are a bunch of really stupid parody musicals based on this movie.

Someone needs to tell the new generation of musical theatre artists that intentionally bad writing and intentionally bad acting aren't as funny as they think.

But no, I found that this show is dead serious. Okay, undead serious.

When I got hold of a recording (of a reading) and a script for this Night of the Living Dead, I was extremely excited. The show is written by two actors in Washington DC (who also happen to be married), Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. Conner has written other musicals, including Nevermore (which Webster Conservatory has produced) and The Hollow.

This Night of the Living Dead is very faithful to the film, although we stay inside the farm house all night. Matt and Stephen have done right what too many musical theatre adapters do wrong. They found the most emotional moments in the story and musicalized them, rather than just saying, Hey, that line would make a good song! But these aren't conventional musical theatre lyrics – they're sometimes as fragmented as the mind of the character who's singing, they often don't rhyme, and since this is a thriller, the songs often don't have a conventional "button" at the end to cue applause. Like Sweeney Todd, Love Kills and Lippa's The Wild Party, the more the writers short-circuit the applause, the more they build tension in the audience.

Film director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) says, "Horror – showing something horrifying – is easy to do. What's hard is to create genuine suspense, which only comes when you care about the outcome."

But while thrillers like Sweeney Todd and The Wild Party use almost continuous music, like a good horror film, Night of the Living Dead doesn't do that. Like the film, this stage version spends much of its time waiting – we know the zombies are coming, and we know these trapped few may kill each other – we just don't know when. And the more we wait before each confrontation, the tenser we get. Matt and Stephen learned all the right lessons from the film, and they followed the Sondheim rule, that Content Dictates Form. The result is a really original piece of theatre, unlike any other show in its music, its lyrics, and its pacing. While most musicals are built for perpetual motion, this one is not.

What I've always loved about zombie movies is that now, in the Romero Era, the zombies serve as metaphor. Romero has made a zombie movie each decade, starting in 1968, and each film comments really insightfully on America in that decade. More than anything, Night of the Living Dead and its sequels remind me of that famous line from the political comic strip Pogo – "We have met the enemy and he is us." The film and our show ask the pointed question: Who are the real monsters here?

Kim Paffenroth writes in his book Gospel of the Living Dead, “Zombie movies imagine a scenario far worse than nuclear war or a cabal of vampires taking over the world: they present us with a world in which humans and monsters become very hard to distinguish, and therefore the moral rules that guide our dealings with other humans – it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, thou shalt not kill, love they neighbor, turn the other cheek – are discarded as irrelevant and unfeasible. . . The horrific nature of zombies and, many would say, terrorists, is that they may force us to act as barbarically and impetuously as they do. . . Zombies dehumanize humans by eliminating their chance to experience normal feelings of grief, mortality, or sacredness, and forcing them to substitute callous, unthinking, reflexive violence.”

Are the zombies outside the monsters, or are the bickering humans inside the real monsters? In other words, will The Others kill us or will we kill each other? And having asked those questions, then we have to ask, Is this 1968 or it is 2013? Aren't we just as angry, just as full of fear, just as divided today as we were in the tumultuous 1960s?

As Adam Lowenstein says in the documentary The American Nightmare, "The apocalypse isn't now. The apocalypse is always." Kind of makes me want to see zombie versions of Waiting for Godot and No Exit.

Like classic fairy tales (the Grimm Brothers' versions, not the Disney versions), we take from zombie movies (and zombie musicals!) what we need. The zombies may represent different threats to different people, depending on what scares them most.

In the excellent documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, George Romero says, "Zombies to me could be any natural disaster. They could be anything. My stories are about the people that deal with it, don't deal with it, deal with it improperly, deal with it stupidly. The stories are about how people screw up." Maybe that's why zombies have become so prominent in American pop culture lately – we've been screwing up a lot these days...

Paffenroth writes, “Perhaps because individually zombies are not too threatening, the suspense in zombie movies comes more from how the human characters interact. Each movie has the suspense, paranoia, and claustrophobia of a movie about a siege, or a lifeboat full of survivors with limited supplies: the besieging army or the sea is a ‘given’ and is not really the enemy, the real enemy is within the group, with the fear and ignorance that tears them apart and sets them against one another. More than other genres of horror, zombie movies are deeply psychological dramas.”

But it's important not to make the zombie metaphor specific. Zombies act as a Rorschach test. Just as we shouldn't tell a kid what lesson to take from a fairy tale, likewise we shouldn't psychically handcuff our audience by insisting on a single metaphor.

In the film, "Ben" is played by a black actor, and much has been written about the idea of a black man as hero in 1968, but Romero swears he was making no statements. He has said in several interviews that he never intended the leading role of Ben in Night of the Living Dead to be a black character – he was written as a white truck driver. But Romero says Duane Jones was the best actor among Romero's friends, so he got the role, and he happened to be black. Romero claims that he never rewrote a single line after casting a black actor.

Some people may see the zombie apocalypse as a racial metaphor, but as I said, we shouldn't insist on that reading.

Because this show is very faithful to the movie, the question for us New Liners is what from the film is as relevant today as it was in 1968, and what do we have to reimagine for an audience in 2013? That's a question we'll answer as we work...

It's also important for us to remember that, however much we may love the film, we're not producing the film. We're producing a stage musical and we have to take it on its own terms. We start rehearsals in a couple days, and from this point on, I probably won't watch the movie again.

I can't wait to start work. We have an amazing cast of New Line All-Stars – Zak Farmer, Mike Dowdy, Marcy Wiegert, Sarah Porter, and back together again after their New Line debuts in Next to Normal, Mary Beth Black and Joe McAnulty. Our new scenic designer Rob Lippert is already building, and his set is going to be amazing, probably the most realistic set we've ever had. Rob will also design our lights. Marcy and Sarah are also both costumers and they will team up to costume this whole season for us.

We're all so excited about this project. It's really something special and it's going to be such fun living inside this world for the next few months.

A new adventure begins... They're coming to get you, Barbara...

Long Live the Musical!