I do think the more abstract, subtextual stuff matters, but only when it has concrete results onstage, only when it actually makes our storytelling better.
Who cares if I've done research into the history of zombie movies if our show sucks?
I recently wrote a blog post about fear – as a central force in Night of the Living Dead, but also as a fact of life in our politics and religion. We live in an era of fear, most of it irrational. Just as in 1968 when the film debuted, the fear in Night of the Living Dead stands as a metaphor for all the various fears America suffers under today.
And there's a lot of fear out there. Or as Jon Stewart put it last week, "fear, anger, mistrust, and discontent." Of course, he was talking about Fox News, the American Corporate Fear Industry, and its conservative echo chamber. But Stewart could have been describing Harry in Night of the Living Dead. It's easy to assume that Harry would be a Fox News watcher and a Rush Limbaugh listener if the story were set today.
What's interesting about this stage adaptation is that every song in the show is about fear at its core. As I've told the actors, everything here is about fear. Deep-down, hardcore fear underlies every moment in the entire show. And the trick for the actors is never to let go of that. This isn't the kind of show that gives the audience respite every now and then; it's the kind of the show that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for a tense, intermission-less 75 minutes.
The fear isn't always obvious and on the surface. Sometimes a moment is about experiencing fear directly, but sometimes it's about blocking out fear, or remembering fear, or imagining fear still to come. The whole show is about fear, but humans deal with fear in a thousand different ways, and we see several of them in the show. It's kinda like Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith wrote this show as a theme and variations, exploring various people grappling with various kinds of fear in various ways – which is not all that far removed from what George Romero wrote.
But it is different, in that the stage musical can go inside the characters' heads in a way the film can't, and that allows Conner and Smith to explore further.
The first song in the two-song prologue, "Perfect," isn't about fear on the surface; it's about the calm before the storm. But the calm before the storm only exists if there's a storm coming. Because the show is called Night of the Living Dead, and because even people who haven't seen the film know its basic storyline, the audience knows the calm described here is an absence of fear that cannot last.
That song segues directly into "Night," which includes the first quote of the music that will later accompany the radio and TV broadcasts throughout the show. Unlike its companion piece, this is a song directly about fear. They refer to the situation as "pictures from a nightmare, shattering the frame." And then it segues into a frightened, disjointed section entirely about fear, about keeping the monsters out, and then finally a full-out expression of fear – "What's happening here?"
As our story gets underway, we've told the audience this is a story about fear.
"The Music Box," a duet between Barbra and the old lady's music box finds Barbra facing her fear, but obliquely, since she's near-catatonic. Her lyric is mostly questions as she remembers only fragments of the horror she's been through. Her mind has shut part of it down, but the fear remains, unfocused and vague as it may be for her. This segues into "Ben's Song," in which he recounts the horror he's been through, and his fear of what's next.
The musical broadcasts, which recur throughout the show, bring us the collective fear of a collapsing society, warning people to stay inside because of an "untold threat." The more vague the threat, the scarier it becomes. And while our characters crowd around each broadcast expectantly, hoping for information about rescue and survival, the broadcasts all end with "Please stand by..." Information is incomplete. All they can do is wait.
And wait... and wait...
Harry and Helen's "Drive" and Judy's "This House, This Place," are about memories of a time before the fear. "Drive" also hints at their marital problems, which now seem trivial compared to a zombie apocalypse. Everyday pleasures are gone forever, this song tells us. Now there are zombies outside who want to eat us. Because "This House" is about the past but also about this house they're all barricaded into now, it melds past and present, happier times and today's apocalypse, human contact then and now. And it's the first time we get a hint of survivor's guilt, which all of them will grapple with.
The next musical broadcast steps up the fear considerably, with mentions of an "epidemic of murder by [a] virtual army, unidentified assassins," and it invokes our perennial boogeymen, the FBI, CIA, and KGB. But again, nothing specific, no plans, no information on rescue.
Harry's lullaby to his daughter, "The Cellar," seems on the surface to be completely divorced from the fear the permeates everything else. But his daughter is "sick," and for those of us who see a lot of zombie movies, we know what that means. And he knows it too. And that knowledge swims around underneath this lyric the whole time. This song will be reprised later, and the fear behind it will become more literal.
Barbra's big breakdown, "Johnny and Me," recounts her horror in the graveyard in great detail. She's finally present enough of mind to remember what happened, how she got here, but still not rational enough to save herself. With this song Barbra brings her past fear into the present, and that will lead directly to her final moments.
"Ten Minutes to Three," in which they wait expectantly for the next broadcast, is about the fear that no one will ever come to save them. Their last hope that the outside world can help them is all tied up in this song about waiting. And the news isn't good –
Acts of random violence
Starting to evolve,
Rescue stations are filling up...
We cannot tell you
A course of action, destination
To a safe venue...
What little hope was left is dead now. There's nothing but fear.
The show is bookended with Ben reprising "Ben's Song," but with fragments of everyone else's songs, in a kind of breakdown of his own; followed by a darkly ironic reprise of "Perfect." That time before fear is now colored by everything that has come since, guaranteeing that the time before fear is gone forever. It's a particularly brutal way to end the show, emotionally speaking...
And like all the songs, every action in the show is also about fear, whether it's an argument about the safety of the cellar, Harry's discontent with Ben having the only gun, the decision to make Molotov cocktails, Harry and Helen's reticence to talk about Karen's injury, the boarding up of windows and doors, along with various accusations and fights.
I can't think offhand of any other musical in which every moment is suffused with fear. Even thrillers like Sweeney Todd have moments without fear. This is different.
In so many ways...
And that's part of what makes it so satisfying to work on. We move into the theatre next week!
Long Live the Musical!