We'll Hunt the Dead and Mount Their Head

Now that we're running all of The Zombies of Penzance at each rehearsal, it's easier to assess my writing, and I'm pretty happy with it. The public reading we did in January was enormously helpful, and I did tons of small rewrites, and several big rewrites, after that, including 1 1/2 new songs. Watching it now, I think those changes were all good ones.

It's still weird for me because Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance has been a part of me since I saw it on Broadway in 1981, and I've known the show, and the Kevin Kline cast album, by heart ever since. So even though I wrote all these new lyrics, I still hear the originals in my head.

It's fascinating to see the results of my transforming (translating?) of these Penzantian Pirates into Zombies. On the one hand, the essential plot outline changed very little, and the core motivations of the characters changed very little.

But changing mediocre criminals into actual monsters did change some things. As comically high as the stakes are in Pirates, they're considerably higher in Zombies. Sure it's terrible to be kidnapped and married against your will (what is it with musicals and forcible marriage?), but it's much worse to walk the earth as the living dead for the rest of eternity. The horror elements of our story have changed, even super-charged, Gilbert's satire. But also, the Gilbert & Sullivan storytelling form has changed the horror elements.

Unlike a horror movie, our show is populated by funny, clumsy, vaguely charming, and seriously gullible zombies, who are hard to find terrifying when they're singing intricate, Victorian-era, operetta lyrics. And so we get to like these goofy zombies, even root for them (and pity them) a little.

And then Act II opens, and we discover that the proper young Victorian ladies we met in Act I have all been trained as zombie hunters! They sing a creepy lullaby to their troubled father:
Oh, taste the glistening blood,
The giver of life and breath;
Your loving children ache
To hasten the undead death.
You trained us from the cradle,
We must kill again the dead.
We’ll hunt the dead and mount their head,
As Father has said.

The next time we see them, they're all decked out as hunters. We realize we formed opinions about them in Act I -- because of the G&S form, the period costumes, etc. -- and we accepted the convention that women are weak, that they are to be victimized and then rescued. But now they have weapons and they're singing about "a headless zombie running 'round the garden." We realize these women are more complicated than most G&S women; partly because they live in two competing story forms, but also because they live in two competing worlds, 1879 polite society vs. the dangerous, physical, visceral world of zombie hunting. These women have found a way to synthesize those two parts of themselves. Both personas are part of them.

Although, does any of that actually matter in a zombie apocalypse? You'll have to see the show to find out.

Gilbert loved plot twists. He loved subverting his audience's expectations. He also loved toying with his audience's allegiances over the course of the story. In The Zombies of Penzance, this transformation of the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, after we've come to like these zombies (we spend a fair amount of time with the zombies before we even meet the daughters), leaves us torn when the conflict comes to a head. Do we really want the zombies to be killed (again)...?

In The Pirates of Penzance, when the story reaches its climax, Frederic's nursemaid Ruth shows up with some important information, which resolves everything quite tidily. I hope Zombies will be lots of fun for people who know Pirates really well, because we will subvert their expectations around every turn as well. There is no Ruth in our version. So when that big moment comes in our version, the hardcore Pirates lovers will have no idea what happens next! I love that.

When I first thought about writing The Zombies of Penzance, I knew I had to make several important decisions. The center of the plot would remain unchanged -- Major-General Stanley doesn't want the title characters to marry his large family. I tested myself by writing the Major-General's big patter song first. The title ended up being, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Era Zombie Hunter," which forced me to make the character a retired zombie hunter. But he needed to be older and retired because that character is really passive throughout the whole story; and that also let the daughters become the heroes. I figured out how to resolve the central conflict ultimately, in a parallel but different way from the original. The new resolution is only barely logical and supremely silly, and I think Gilbert would approve.

All these decisions made me realize I no longer needed Ruth. Revealed information can no longer save the day at the end of our story. This is a zombie apocalypse. I spent a long time wondering if I needed the Policemen and I realized it would be much cooler to turn the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, and give them all the Policemen's songs. I was worried it would throw the show out of balance, but it doesn't.

In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, the story is a satire about the absurdity of class. The big deus ex machine at the end of the show is Ruth revealing that the pirates are all actually "noblemen who have gone wrong." Since they're of the correct class after all, they can marry the daughters.

But The Zombies of Penzance is a satire about Othering, the practice of dehumanizing those not like us, so that it's easier to hate and/or oppress them. (Some might call that America's Pastime.) It's why soldiers usually have derogatory nicknames for the enemy -- it makes them less human and easier to kill without remorse. Today in America, we see on the political right the Othering of Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, the press, and more. As long as people are "illegals" (they're not even worth a noun), it's easier not to be humane to them, not to think of them as families, not to see them the same as the Italian and Irish immigrants a century before. And frequently that Othering is done by those who profess most loudly their Christianity.

In The Zombies of Penzance, the Major-General and his daughters profess loudly and often their Christian beliefs. But in the song "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing," they also give us a few hints that their Bible-based morality might be flimsier than they would admit. In fact, several of the things they predict (or warn about) in this song will come to pass by the Act II finale. The contrast among their devotion to the Bible, their burgeoning though still sublimated sex drives, and their ferocious hatred for zombies makes a fun parallel to today's fundamentalist Christians, and their demonizing of gays, atheists, feminists, etc.

It's been cool working on this, taking this piece I love deeply, and making a new piece of art out of it. I often thought of the process as "translating" the story from one form into another. I often thought of a professor friend in college, Norman Shapiro, who translates Feydeau farces (among other things), and the conversations we had about the process -- and art -- of translation. I'm seriously thinking about trying another "new" Gilbert & Sullivan show, but next time, not just a variation on the original plot, but a completely different story. That will be harder to write, but should also be fun.

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Long Live the Musical!