Hail, Zombies!

Hail, zombies, thou heav’n-made dead,
Forsaken by the God we dread;
Great metaphor for all we fear!
All hail the end of all that we hold dear!

It was back in 2013, after watching the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (coincidentally starring BBAJ's Benjamin Walker). It was just a few hours after watching the movie that I started thinking about what kind of similar mashup I might concoct in the realm of musical theatre. I've always been fascinated by the idea of art made from other art. Maybe that's because so many musicals are based on stories in other forms, plays, novels, movies. Also, I had been wanting to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

But if I wanted to adapt an existing piece, I realized I needed to find a work in the public domain. I couldn't fuck around with Carousel or Damn Yankees. And then it hit me -- one of my favorite shows ever, the very first show I ever saw on Broadway, The Pirates of Penzance. It first debuted in 1879 and it is in the public domain.

So I would write The ZOMBIES of Penzance. And yes, I was mega-stoned at the time.

I already knew the show by heart, backwards and forwards. And the plot wouldn't have to change much at all. Major-General Stanley still wouldn't want the title characters to marry his daughters, though for slightly different reasons. I went through the plot in my head, figuring how each plot point would translate. It seemed pretty straight-forward.

In fact, that was the key for me. I realized it would be more an act of translation than a rewrite. How do we tell this same story, but in the language of zombie movies? As I've said in other posts, the real appeal for me was the delicious mismatch of form and content, an aggressive, comic rejection of Sondheim's Law, that Content Dictates Form (much like another New Line show, Bukowsical).

I started with a test for myself. I decided I would first work on the new zombie lyric for "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." If I could do that well, I knew I could do the whole show. I started that same night. It took me three days to finish it. I've changed only a handful of words since then.

So I set to work. I don't think I could have done it with a show I knew less well. It took me four years, though there were periods when I had to put it aside for a while. I finished it in summer 2017, and passed it off to my buddy John Gerdes, who had agreed to arrange the score and orchestrate it. He finished our piano score in November, we went into rehearsal, and we presented a public reading in January.

And the response was wonderful. Even with no set, costumes, makeup, or band, our overflow crowd totally loved it. They caught all the jokes, they followed the plot, and it was confirmed that you didn't need to know The Pirates of Penzance in order to enjoy The Zombies of Penzance, but knowing the original does offer extra laughs here and there.

The response from the talkback after the reading was so helpful. I took a few months, did some rewrites, added a song and a half, and reconstructed the last part of the plot. Then I gave it back to John, who had already finished most of the orchestrations. In August, we went back into rehearsal for this first full production of The Zombies of Penzance, or At Night Come the Flesh Eaters, Gilbert & Sullivan's long-lost treasure.

As I mentioned in my last post, in translating the central conflict to one about Monsters instead of Bad Guys, it also shifted the show's thematic content. The Pirates of Penzance is about the absurdity of social class, but The Zombies of Penzance is about the "Othering" and demonizing of those who aren't like us, usually by those who claim the highest morality. Of course, as befits Gilbert & Sullivan, the conflict is raised to ridiculous proportions in this case, since the Others are actually zombies.

Zombies that sing really well.

And partly because I cut the Policemen, this rewrite has also empowered the Stanley Daughters, much more than most (any?) of Gilbert's other women characters.

I know some hardcore Gilbert & Sullivan fans will be terribly offended at what I've wrought. But that's part of the point, part of the central meta joke, that I've chosen the single most inappropriate storytelling form to tell a zombie apocalypse story -- polite English light opera -- and the larger meta joke, that Zombies actually is Gilbert's first draft, rejected by his producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte.

There is a long and interesting tradition of art made from other art, including, but not limited to, half or more of the great American musicals, most of Shakespeare's plays, and one of the greatest short films I've ever seen, Todd Haynes' brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Of the nine other musicals I've written, two were based on true stories, but the rest were all original stories. So this has been a fascinating experiment for me, and it has been really wonderful living in the language of Gilbert all this time, writing in his peculiar voice, both in the hilariously overwritten dialogue and the heavily rhymed lyrics. I kept every rhyme scheme!

The best part of all this is seeing it onstage and getting to share it with our audience. People seem to be really excited about it. There will be some hardcore G&S fans who will be horrified by this, but that's really kind of the point of it all...

I'm so grateful to this superb cast, who not only sing Sullivan's glorious music like they're a cast of forty, but they also nail the wacky, silly, ridiculous, but always straight-faced Gilbertian humor. I often say that I can't make musicals without lots of other talented people, but this time I needed lots of very talented people. And we got them. And my co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor added so much, as he always does, including the most obvious, most perfect final moment -- which hadn't even occurred to me till he said it...

I cannot wait to share this with our audience now. I'm really happy with how it has all turned out, and I'll dare to say that I think Gilbert would enjoy my adaptation, after getting over his outrage that I've rewritten his show, of course...

Come join the crazy fun. When will you ever again get the chance to see a zombie operetta...?

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Long Live the Musical!