The Power of Love Can Make a Zombie Too!

It's hard to believe it's over. It was five years ago that I set out to write The Zombies of Penzance. It seemed so perfect, so deliciously fucked up, and the process of "translating" the story , the changing of Gilbert's pirates into zombies, hardly disturbed the plot at all (though I later made some larger plot changes).

I know you want to ask, so yes, I was seriously stoned when I thought of the idea.

I immediately loved everything about it. I already deeply loved The Pirates of Penzance. I love zombie movies. I love mashups. Plus, I quickly decided that my approach would include an elaborate, though entirely false, backstory about the creation of The Zombies of Penzance. In fact, that meta-layer became an important part of the humor. We tell the audience Gilbert wrote these zombie lyrics, but then throughout the evening, we keep smacking them with anachronisms, four-letter words, and other morsels that Gilbert would/could never have written -- including all the references to zombies, which hadn't entered the awareness of Western culture yet in 1879.

I loved all of that. The inherent wrongness of its very conception, the fundamental idea of telling a horror story in the language of English light opera, possibly the most "wrong" storytelling form imaginable for this content. That was the appeal for me, more than anything else. I love things, particularly art, that are obviously wrong or fucked-up. That's so interesting, and often, so funny -- and it often reveals very cool, unexpected things.

I also loved the idea that this would be New Line's second zombie musical, since we did the very serious Night of the Living Dead in 2013. And its our seventh horror musical, following our productions of Rocky Horror, Sweeney Todd, Bat Boy, In the Blood, and Lizzie. Should we also count Urinetown...?

Throughout the time I've been working on this, I was always mindful of the fact that no matter how funny or meta-ironic my text was, it had no real value on the page. It's only a zombie operetta when it's live (dead?) onstage. I needed lots of people to make it into live theatre. That's true of all our shows, but since this was an awfully odd experiment, it was constantly in my awareness. When I talked to friends about it, at some point I'd always throw in, "...if I ever finish it, and if we produce it..."

We held a public reading in January. To my amazement, 150 people showed up, and to my greater amazement they followed the plot easily and fully embraced my multiple layers of meta, my blatant anachronisms, and the four-letter words sprinkled throughout. The audience loved both the ways in which I had stayed true to Gilbert & Sullivan and their traditions, and also the ways in which I violated that.

It's actually a fairly complex piece I wrote, and I was delighted that many of the reviewers noticed and appreciated that. Paul Friswold wrote in his Riverfront Times review:
Scott Miller and John Gerdes are the responsible parties, tinkering with Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's music to create something more than the sum of the parts. The two St. Louisans have added modern references, profanity and a careful adherence to the spirit of the original operetta. Portraits of George A. Romero and Queen Victoria hang above the old-fashioned stage and its working footlights, hinting at the twin forces at work here. Romero is the godfather of zombies in popular entertainment, and Victoria led the society that simultaneously embraced Gilbert & Sullivan's jaunty work and harbored a morbid fascination with life after death. All of these elements come together on stage, to strange and often comic effect.
. . .
But it's not all fun and pop-culture riffs. Despite his lethal nature, the Major-General has a most troubled conscience. The second-act song "When the World Went Bad" cracks open the show's candy coating to reveal the darkness within. Stanley sings of his fears about the forces bringing the dead to life, and worries about the coarsening of his soul. Is he less moral than the Zombie King, who spares some people (albeit under false pretenses)? The Major-General kills them all, and then shakes with terror and remorse late at night. Is he worse than what he hunts?

It's a question that harkens back to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which was Romero's own inspiration. The book also informs the finale, which is preceded by a delightfully ridiculous brawl between the Stanley daughters, who are in their bloomers and bearing cricket bats and nunchucks, and the zombie horde. Things become very dark indeed. But you know what they say: It's always darkest before the dawn of the dead.

Some people reflexively dismissed the show -- without seeing it of course -- as a stunt, a bastardization, a one-joke show. I'll admit that my new Major-General lyric is a stunt, but so is Gilbert's original. That's what patter songs are. Beyond that, The Zombies of Penzance is also an experiment in form and content, it's a weirdly complex, over-arching meta-joke about lost and discarded works (and also gender norms in 1879), and it's also very much a "translation" of Gilbert's original text, in terms of cultural context and also in terms of themes.

As I wrote in another blog post, The Pirates of Penzance is about how absurd and arbitrary class distinctions are. But though I changed the basic story very little, the substitution of monsters (zombies) for "monsters" (pirates) changes more than you'd expect. The Zombies of Penzance is about the Other-ing of those who are different from us, particularly by those who claim the moral high ground.

And also, because I cut the policemen from the story, and gave their songs to the Stanley daughters, who are now trained zombie hunters, it's also a story about women standing up for themselves, fighting back, solving their own problems. I was honestly shocked at how empowering it apparently felt for women in our audience when the daughters marched on in their zombie hunter clothes in mid-Act II, particularly I think for women who know Pirates.

The journey's been five years for me, but it's also been two years for John Gerdes, who adapted the music and orchestrated it. He adapted and orchestrated all the music before our reading last January, then he orchestrated Yeast Nation for us, then he came back to Zombies, finished his work and incorporated my rewrites from the reading. And then John and his wife Lea played in the band for the show. So I suspect John will have some zombie withdrawal as well.

This amazing cast has been working on this show since last November, when we started rehearsals for the reading. They have worked so hard on this score, both musically and conceptually. I realized early on that we had to apply the lessons of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown to The Zombies of Penzance. The more seriously we take it, the funnier it gets; and in parallel to that, the better we sing the music, the more seriously we take that, the funnier the show gets. This isn't Evil Dead. To maintain the crazy meta-story, our audience had to believe this was intended to be performed at the Savoy Theatre in the 1880s. The more legit the music, the funnier the show.

And likewise, the better the craft -- rhymes, scansion, etc. -- the funnier the show. The Major-General's big patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Era Zombie Killer," is funny partly because the craft is good. Really, I guess all this is a lesson Gilbert and Sullivan learned long before Little Shop of Horrors. Almost all their shows are inherently ridiculous stories (about inherently ridiculous aspects of Western culture) which they present utterly straight-faced. No matter how wacky Gilbert's text gets, Sullivan's music is always straight-faced.

This has been such a wonderful experience for me, bringing two of my greatest loves together, G&S and zombies. To quote my own lyric:
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!

I was very lucky to find a cast full of really strong, funny, talented, fearless actors to bring my show to life, and almost all of them have stayed with the show since last November. I am very grateful. And then to get such warm, overwhelming responses to it! Look at some of these press quotes:
"Another triumph for New Line. . . a hilariously inspired joke." -- Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"The funniest show that New Line Theatre has ever mounted." -- Judy Newmark, All The World's a Stage

"Both a nightmare and a delight — let's call it a delightmare." -- Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Uproarious." -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"It's amazing. . . so much fun." -- Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

"A wonderful whirlwind of apocalyptic delight." -- Tanya Seale, BroadwayWorld

"Reverently irreverent and witty. . . a delightfully fun, pointedly funny musical." -- Tina Farmer KDHX

"Let the wackiness ensue." -- Lynn Venhaus, STL Limelight

"In terms of humor and sheer musicality, it’s remarkable." -- Michelle Kenyon, Snoop's Theatre Thoughts

But our show has closed and my zombie journey ends, for now. We've already gotten a couple requests for rights to perform the show, so the Zombie King may live (die?) on. But for all practical purposes, the ride is over. I will miss these characters and this beautiful music, and this extraordinary cast. It was so thrilling every night when they sang the a cappella chorale late in Act I, "Hail Zombies!" -- such a massive, gorgeous sound (due in large part to music director Nic Valdez)!

John and I will be cleaning up / correcting the script and score, and then we'll publish them on Amazon, so they'll be available soon. And I won't swear to it, but we also may be releasing a live cast album. And yes, we will license other theatres to produce the show.

And don't tell anybody... but I'm already working on another "new" G&S show. No promises, but I may end up writing a G&S horror trilogy before I'm done. I can hear the heads of G&S fans exploding as I type this...

Suggestions are welcome for source material for the third in the trilogy.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits from Zombies. Thank you, St. Louis, for once again, taking a chance on us and totally embracing the insanity we've wrought. We owe you so much!
My zombie hunting habits, though a potent, little metaphor,
Are really more subversive than the critics give me credit for.
In nineteenth cent’ry operetta, comedy or thriller,
I am still the very model of a modern-era zombie killer!

Long Live the Musical!