A Zombie Hunter's Life's a Bloody Drag

In adapting The Pirates of Penzance into The Zombies of Penzance, part of the process was reverse engineering my crazy meta origin story. Our origin story says that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote The Zombies of Penzance first, but their producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, so they rewrote it as the now famous Pirates of Penzance.

Just to be clear, that didn't actually happen.

So as I was figuring out how to translate the original story into a zombie story, I was also imagining Glibert's fictional rewrite process. In The Zombies of Penzance, General Stanley's daughters have been raised to be zombie hunters. But when Gilbert rewrote the show as The Pirates of Penzance (are you confused yet?), he couldn't find an equivalent for the daughters as zombie hunters, so he invented the bumbling police. In Zombies, the story begins with Frederic as a freshly made zombie. But since being a pirate isn't a blood disease, Gilbert had to find some other reason for Frederic to be trapped in his pirate family. So he created Ruth, the leap year device, etc. Gilbert even moved a song from Act II to Act I to introduce Ruth.

If you're keeping up... none of the above is really true.

But some of the changes I made as I rewrote the show had a cool, but unintended consequence. By cutting Ruth and the policeman, I made the roles of the Stanley Daughters much bigger and more important. And because of the way it all worked out, we ended up with a cool double-cross on the audience. It was an accident, but I think it will be very effective.

In Act I, the daughters are pretty much the same as they are in Pirates, very girly, very Damsels in Distress. As Act II opens, they seem the same outwardly, but they mention during "Dry the Glistening Tear" that they've been raised to be zombie hunters. And then the next time we meet them, mid-Act II, they're dressed as hunters; and ultimately, the daughters save the day. Almost.

Our audience will start will preconceptions about the daughters, based on knowledge of the period (1879) and/or knowledge of Pirates of Penzance, and Gilbert and Sullivan generally. We won't mess with those assumptions in Act I, but we will comically shatter the audience's preconceptions in Act II, by turning the Good Girls into ruthless zombie hunters who find the slaughter of zombies rather funny. At the same time, the daughters will transform, over intermission, from Gilbert and Sullivan characters into horror movie characters, in a long tradition of kickass female heroes who kill the monsters in horror movies.

And then there are even two more surprise reversals after that, which get our story to its eventual resolution...

I didn't set out to do all that. I just wanted to write a zombie version of my favorite operetta. The idea itself seemed funny, interesting, and wrong in all the right ways. It's the worst possible storytelling form with which to tell a horror story. But however it happened, this is where it took me, and it delights me. I imagine the surprises will be particularly fun for fans of Pirates, who'll be expecting the police to show up in Act II.

But all of that also presents challenges for the women in the show, to find an internal logic that includes both their period-appropriate behavior in Act I and their horror-movie-appropriate behavior in Act II. I think the answer is that these women are both these things. They've been raised by their father, and trained to be killers; and yet they also know there are rules about Polite Society and women's "role" in their culture.

But we get a hint that these are not the blushing flowers of Pirates of Penzance, in Act I when the women almost discuss some sex acts, before Frederic reveals himself and prevents their detour into improper topics. Though they strive to live proper outward lives (as detailed in "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing"), there are adventurers and cynics among these women. At the end of "Christian Girls," they sing:
All our lives our Bible has protected us;
For this moment Jesus has selected us
To be paragons of pure,
All of this week, to be sure!
To be paragons of pure,
But predictions would be premature!
Ev’ry moment brings temptation,
And despite our inclination,
Satan could just win and we could
Waltz with sin!

They'll do their best, they're telling us, but they're not promising anything. These aren't the women from Pirates, but we only get hints of that this early in the story. At the top of that same song, we realize how sexual they are, even though most of them don't realize it themselves. Their sexuality is still sublimated, metaphorical:
We’re Christian girls on a Christian outing,
No bad words and please, no shouting,
Far away from male temptation carnal;
Where our nethers never quiver,
By the ever-throbbing river,
Swollen where the summer rain
Comes gushing forth;
Gushing forth in spurts and sputters
Sloshing through the roads and gutters,
Pounding through the virgin hills below us.
Scaling rough and rugged passes,
Working out our shapely asses,
There are greater joys, we know, in purity!

In Act II, we'll find they're not only brave and battle-ready, but also smart and quick-thinking. In this version of the story, without the character of Ruth, it's the daughters who deliver the G&S deus ex machina at the end, to resolve our plot. Although, in true-G&S fashion, there's a second, horror movie deus ex machina right after that...

For people who know Pirates, there are lots of funny moments where the text is almost the same as the original, but just different enough to be funny in this new context. But more fun than that, even if you know Pirates well, you will not know where our story is headed until the very end...

We're still blocking the show, but I cannot wait to share this delicious lunacy with our audiences. We move into the theatre next week! The adventure continues!

Long Live the Musical!

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