Wednesday, December 31, 2008

PIRACY! Gilbert & Sullivan's Copyright Wars

While Andrew Lloyd-Webber is trying to mount three productions of his Phantom of the Opera sequel at once, it bears noting that today is the 130th Anniversary of another experiment in simultaneous - or nearly simultaneous - premiers.

On December 31, 1879, Gilbert & Sullivan's classic comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York City's Fifth Avenue Theater. The day before, a staged reading was performed at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, on the southern coast of England, in advance of the show's April 3, 1880 London debut. Why this unusual move? To guard against piracy, naturally. Yaarh!

1878's H.M.S. Pinafore was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but in those days of lax copyright laws, the show's popularity inspired a legion of copycats and pirate performances all over the United States. Enterprising hacks would sketch the show's script and music, and mount their own unauthorized productions. Apparently, it was this very issue that inspired Gilbert to base the new show on a piratical theme. Chagrined at the loss of income, as well as the shoddy and unrepresentative productions, G&S decided that they would premier their new work in the US right away. The dual premiers established copyrights in both England and America, and The Pirates of Penzance became one of the most popular operettas in history. It is still performed very frequently by opera companies, high schools and community theaters, and the phrase "the very model of a modern ---" has entered the common lexicon.

Gilbert & Sullivan's experiement was only a qualified success. Though copyright was established, and four official touring companies were dispatched from New York - having been rehearsed by the composer and author themselves - the first unauthorized production was given at Boston's Booth Theatre in September 1880.

The Pirates of Penzance is one of my favorite shows, and while it's not exactly "mondo," its deft spoofing of the works of Donizetti and Verdi plays on theatrical conventions with a great combination of knowing irony and total musical commitment. G&S were pioneers of the meta-theatrical gag, such as Mabel's endless bel canto vocal trills, or when the Modern Major-General disdains "that infernal nonsense, Pinafore."

I shall leave you with Sullivan's own words, in a letter to his mother. "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching." Couldn't have put it better myself!

Happy new year to all! See you in 2009.


PHANTOM 2 - Electric Boogaloo

Broadway World has an interesting article on Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, which looks like it is really happening.

Apparently it will be set in Coney Island at the start of the 20th Century, which should be interesting. Whether it's good-interesting or flop-interesting remains to be seen. Also notable is Sir L-W's plan to premier three different productions in three four cities at once - a theatrical first.

UPDATE: The Equity casting breakdown for auditions reveals the lead characters and summarizes the plot thus: "In 1907 New York, the mysterious 'Maestro' who runs the theatre at Coney Island announces a one-off concert by legendary Parisian soprano Christine Daaé. Her arrival in New York with husband Raoul, Victome de Chagny and son Gustave, and their subsequent meeting with the 'Maestro,' bring the cataclysmic events of 10 years earlier at the Paris Opera crashing back into all their lives."

This sounds like a riff on the Jenny Lind concert tours of America, sponsored by P.T. Barnum, who figured that, after making buckets of cash from the Feejee Mermaid and General Tom Thumb, a nationwide tour from "The Swedish Nightingale" would class up the joint. Or to put it in sanctimonious Victorian-speak, "A visit from such a woman, who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed, will be a blessing to America."

Gorgeous photo of Coney Island's Luna Park, circa 1905, at
View the Coney Island photo used in the illustration at StudioPhototrope


Monday, November 10, 2008

REPO! Interview

Now that Repo! The Genetic Opera has opened in selected cities, the good folks over at have a new interview with creator Terrance Zdunich. Check it out!

UPDATE: Despite playing in only 8 theaters (!) the film is apparently doing very good box office. BroadwayWorld has the story.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I am over the moon about Obama's victory last night. God bless America, and here's looking forward to a successful presidency!

Monday, October 27, 2008


According to, it seems that the producers of Napoleon Dynamite and the creators of the unauthorized spoof musical Silence! (based on Silence of the Lambs) will bring the 60s schlock-fest They Saved Hitler's Brain back to life as a sci-fi musical comedy film.

First Mel Brooks, now this - are we going to be in the position, someday, of griping "What, another Nazi-themed musical comedy!?"


Soderbergh's CLEOPATRA

Variety is reporting that respected writer-director Steven Soderbergh will make a live-action, 3D rock & roll musical film based on the life of the Egyptian queen. Music is by the indie group Guided By Voices, and Soderbergh is courting Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hugh Jackman for the roles of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

Mondo? Maybe. Unexected? Definitely.


Thursday, October 23, 2008


The good folks over at have a video report on the new musical of The Toxic Avenger, the 1985 Troma schlockfest that launched a slew of sequels. Check it out!


Friday, October 17, 2008

Levi Stubbs, 1936-2008

Levi Stubbs, the gruff, soulful lead singer of Motown legends The Four Tops, has died at 72. He is beloved by me for providing the voice of Audrey II in the 1986 mondo musical Little Shop of Horrors. He'll be truly missed!

Here are The Four Tops in 1966 singing their huge hit, "Reach Out, I'll Be There." My personal favorite of their songs is "Bernadette" but I can't find a good version online. Other hits included "Baby, I Need Your Loving" and "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch."

Friday, October 10, 2008


If I have any readers in Chicago, I would advise going to see Will Act For Food's production of Clive Barker's 1982 play Frankenstein in Love. Barker, who made his name with the Books of Blood short story collections and the 1987 film Hellraiser, sets the Frankenstein story amid South American revolutionaries and throws in plenty of gore and sex, as one might expect from Barker's blood-red pen.

The show runs through November 1. Tip of the hat to the fabulous Frankensteinia blog.

New Sci-Fi Musicals

Two new science-fiction musicals are featured in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. The first, I Come For Love, finds a lovely alien landing in Roswell and discovering (all together now) "that which you humans call 'love.'" Co-authors Terrence Atkins and Jeffery Lyle Segal pastiche 1950s science fiction - not exactly a fresh field for spoof - and the results sound charming, if not revelatory. You can hear samples of the music here.

A review of the show at Discover Magazine segues into a think-piece on the interesting question, "Why aren't there more science fiction plays?" I've wondered that myself - especially since good sci-fi doesn't depend on effects for its impact, but rather, examines the effects on human psyches and society in the face of changing technology or (alien) cultures.

However, I can also point out two very noteable science-fiction stage shows. The 1921 play R.U.R. by Czech author Karel Čapek introduced the term "robot" into the lexicon, while Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a progenitor of both sci-fi and horror genres we know today, has been a stage hit since the Victorian era.

Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City (how often do you get to type that?), the avante-garde show Nguoi Nam 2222 (Human Being in 2222) blends traditional Vietnamese performance with "the sexy moves of physical theatre." Written by Le Duy Hanh and soon to be translated into five languages, the play finds a husband-and-wife scientific team fighting the robots and clones that they themselves created, as the automata try to impose a soulless regime on Earth. Sounds interesting! Report from Viet Nam News here.

Thanks to for alerting me to these shows!


SPIDER-MAN: The Musical

The forthcoming Spider-Man musical, with songs by Bono and the Edge, looks set to be the most expensive show in Broadway history. Reports say it will cost up to $40 million to mount the production, to be directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King). With that price-tag, it will have to run to sold-out houses for 8,000 years to turn a profit!

Pardon me if I don't rush right out and see this totally egregious adaptation of an adaptation, with music by pompous, over-the-hill rockers and flying rigs galore. And pardon me if I don't want to pay for tickets which will probably top Young Frankenstein's famously obnoxious high prices.

Just think - for that kind of money you could mount forty brand-new million-dollar shows Off-Broadway and do them quite handsomely. You might even create a few memorable additions to the world of theatre that way. But that would be too much like art, and not enough like a Universal Studios tour...


Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Over at IO9, one of my very favorite sites, there's a great article about science fiction-based concept albums, including the infamous Jeff Wayne War of the Worlds and Bowie's 1984-based "Diamond Dogs."


Saturday, September 6, 2008

LITTLE SHOP - The Original Ending, Explained

Welcome, Film Experience Bloggers! I am a huge fan of Little Shop of Horrors, and I am thrilled to take part in "Musical of the Month." My post will argue that changing the film's ending to an ostensibly "happy" conclusion actually made the story far more morbid and amoral.

Before getting started on that, however, let me point you to some background on the film.

SCREEN TO STAGE - From the Corman film to the Off-Broadway show
STAGE TO SCREEN - From Off-Broadway to Hollywood
WEIRD AND EXOTIC CUTTINGS - Rare stills of the original ending, as well as storyboards that have never been published anywhere

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS - The Mary Poppins of the 80s?

It's well known that the ending of Little Shop of Horrors was radically altered before the film's release. In the original stage show, Audrey and Seymour are eaten, and Audrey II takes over the world. While on stage, all you see is a puppet surrounded by dry ice smoke, and the actors coming out smiling for their bows at the end, the filmed version was quite a bit more involved, and more disturbing as well.  Preview audiences found it too dark, so it was re-shot to give a happy Hollywood ending - albeit with the sequel-friendly appearance of a smirking seedling lurking in the flower beds.

This post is a look at the fatally-flawed expectations the Warner Brothers marketing department had for Little Shop of Horrors - and why their misguided notions dealt the story a crippling blow. More after the jump...

Film is an expensive art form, and studios are understandably anxious to protect their investments and reputations. And so a peculiar form of the market-branding study has arisen: the preview screening. This process is a trial run, often of an only partially-finished work, before an audience carefully chosen to meet a demographic definition of "average."

In the theatre, such traditions as out-of-town tryouts and weeks of previews are used as a crucible for discovering flaws in the production. When applied to film, this process is of shorter duration and arguably less artistic value. Rather than sampling the average response of several weeks’ audiences, most films receive only a few test-screenings. Armed with questionnaires, studio researchers try to lend an aura of scientific irrefutability to the responses of the single sample groups. When a test audience says something must change, change it almost always does.

Though this process may indeed make a film more palatable to a wider audience, it can also weaken the story, sometimes changing beyond recognition the film’s main theme. One such case occurred with Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, (1987), which originally ended with the Michael Douglas character getting his comeuppance from the spiteful Glenn Close, whose suicide framed him for murder. Test audiences rebelled and the ending was changed to destroy the Glenn Close character and reunite Michael Douglas with his forgiving family. The change was apparently successful, since the film went on to be a huge hit. However, the altered ending totally reversed the point of the film - rather than the man’s callous infidelity bringing down his whole world, his one-night-stand was punished for not accepting her lot. (The original ending is included on the DVD.)

The same thing happened to Little Shop of Horrors. The change to the ending made a fundamental difference in tone and impact, fundamentally altering the film's intent and effectively gutting its moral worldview.


In interviews, Frank Oz noted that “the audience is a very dynamic part of a movie. You don't make a movie for yourself, you make it for the audience." But which audience? This is the paramount question of film marketing, which the test screenings are designed to answer. However, by stacking the deck in favor of a particular demographic - that which movie marketers imagine will be the most profitable - many films are not allowed to find their own audiences by their own merits.

So for which audience was Little Shop of Horrors made? A family audience, a sci-fi audience, a theatre-going audience? Certainly all of the above were represented in the crowds which had given the downbeat ending standing ovations. These same audiences have since made it one of the most popular of all musicals for community playhouses and high-school theatre troupes, right up there with Grease and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

I would argue that this is the point where Little Shop of Horrors failed - not in its conception or execution, but because of the dictates of marketing. Warner Brothers intended the film for the audience least likely to appreciate its genre-bending sensibility. For Little Shop was marketed not as a Halloween treat, nor a summer special effects extravaganza, but as a family-friendly Christmas picture.

Prior to its opening, producer William Gilmore enthused, "Little Shop of Horrors will be the Mary Poppins of the 80’s and this year’s ET." Such expectations seem reasonable for a funny musical fantasy, but bizarrely misguided for a funny musical fantasy with bloodsucking, murder, and dismemberment as prominent plot points. How were mall-weary Christmas shoppers supposed to take the film’s bloodletting, Audrey’s "bruises and handcuffs," or the scene where a mincing masochist (Bill Murray, essaying Jack Nicholson’s role from the original) disgusts macho sadist Steve Martin by actually enjoying his root canal? Even without the heroes’ deaths and the doomsday ending, it sounds like a sure-fire case of right film, wrong time. Oz again: "I'm usually the one who complains when they screw up a movie by giving it a happy ending. But the movie is, first and foremost, an entertainment and it was coming out at Christmas - and as an audience member, I just didn't want to see my hero and heroine die at Christmas."

Inexplicable as the decision to release Little Shop of Horrors as a Christmas film seems, there is a precedent which may have suggested that such a strategy could work. The film in question is Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which was a big hit in 1984. Also released by Warner Brothers (with a soundtrack from Geffen records), Gremlins was an extremely dark comedy in which cuddly, mischievous pets grow into scaly green monsters whose antics quickly turn deadly. However, Gremlins was released in June, not actually at Christmas - Little Shop came out December 19. Gremlins was explicitly made and marketed as a sort of anti-Christmas movie: the film is set at Christmas, but the June release date puts it an an ironic remove from the actual holiday. Moreover, the film has a traditional happy ending: the gremlins are all destroyed, and the boy gets the girl. The death and havoc are conveniently forgotten.

Little Shop of Horrors, while morbid, is not nearly so cynical, insisting instead that its characters’ actions have repercussions. Ashman and Oz treated the characters, scenario and, ultimately, the audience with an honesty and respect that ultimately proved just too sobering.


The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony. - Susan Sontag

The great irony is that the story's true point was completely lost with the change, and the addition of a traditional happy ending corrupted a colorful moral parable into a cynical celebration of getting away with murder. The film’s intriguing implications about race, sex, morals and money were rendered senseless, since in its final moments it negates everything stated or implied up to that point.

Howard Ashman stated that Little Shop of Horrors was to be read as "a cautionary tale, a fable which says that if you do these things, this will happen." But just as Marlowe’s Faust allowed the student to escape with his soul intact, Little Shop of Horrors as released demonstrates that murder is acceptable, even rewarded, if you’re not too bright and you’ve done it all for love. Besides, the film whispers, the two characters given to the plant weren’t very likable, so that makes it ok, doesn’t it?

In the original version, Seymour's crimes are punished with irony worthy of the best medieval morality plays or Jewish Golem tales. In the final version, however, the grisly events of the proceeding 90 minutes are rapidly forgotten. The police quickly responded to the dentist’s "disappearance" – are we to believe that they would not inquire into the whereabouts of Mushnik, or the explosion that destroyed his shop and its famous plant? Does Seymour live forever after in suburban bliss, never troubled by memories of blood and dismemberment, or of betraying the flower-shop owner who rescued him from the orphanage? In their attempt to "lighten" the tone, Warner Brothers in fact produced a nihilistic and spiritually hollow film. I would argue that it is this corrupt tone, this falsely-cheerful "happy ending," that turned audiences off far more than the dark thrill-ride of an ending would have.

Though Little Shop of Horrors did decent box-office, it was never the hit that Warner Brothers expected. Even with the "happy" ending, the film was too strange to win holiday audiences’ whole-hearted affection. The decision to change Little Shop of Horrors’ ending hamstrung a powerful and unique film. Warner Brothers, and the test audiences expecting an innocuous musical, were misled by the film's glittery surface and were therefore unprepared for the serious issues it raises. They fell prey to the misconception that important art must be humorless, and that anything which stoops to entertain is de facto devoid of intellectual content. Marketed more boldly – as a summer FX blockbuster or wicked Halloween treat - perhaps the would have tapped into something unexpected among moviegoers. At the very least, it would certainly have become an indelible cult classic. However, studios do not spend such lavish sums to produce cult classics. So while Audrey II and Steve Martin's dentist are generally remembered with affection, it is too odd to become a comedy classic, but too conventional to attract many serious cult fans. Instead of being remembered as a bold, colorful harbinger of the edgy humor of the late 80’s and 1990’s, it is remembered instead as a clever trifle – a precursor to Ashman and Menken’s Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Viewing the deleted footage today (it is available on YouTube), it is easy to see how the original ending would have been a slap in the face of Reagan's America, and a shocking left turn for family audiences expecting the same old Hollywood thing. No one wants to hear that rampant consumerism could be our downfall, or that "aw shucks" idealism could not excuse any brutality. Little Shop veers into darkness by increments, and by the time the audience realizes that the movie and the plant are playing for keeps, it's too late. That said, it is difficult to imagine how, in an era saturated with special effects extravaganzas, such an overwhelming spectacle as the plants' destruction of Manhattan could not have attracted a huge audience of teenagers, thrill-seekers, and horror movie fans.


Little Shop of Horrors was nominated for two Oscars. The song "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space," performed with gusto on the telecast by Levi Stubbs (accompanied by dancers and a 12-foot plant puppet), was beaten out by the turgid "Take My Breath Away," from Top Gun, a feel-good film in which reckless acts of war result in no serious consequences. Little Shop of Horrors’ special effects nomination was trumped by Jim Cameron’s Aliens, a great film in which blue-collar authenticity vanquishes both a treacherous yuppie and another toothy "mother from outer space." However, while Aliens certainly featured more sheer volume of special effects, the effects in Little Shop of Horrors are far more innovative and imaginative. Indeed, the respected effects journal Cinefantastique hailed Lyle Conway's work as "a new standard...another significant advancement in the field of special effects" on par with Dick Smith's makeup for The Exorcist (1974) and Rob Bottin's work on The Thing (1981). It should be remembered that most movie monsters rely on quick cuts and dim lighting to "sell" the effects, while Audrey II holds up to close scrutiny for a large portion of the film's screen time. Audrey II is not only a potent and unique creature, but a memorable character as well, brought to life with such artistry that the effects are nearly invisible. One can only wonder if the Oscar scales might have been tipped by the inclusion of Audrey II’s climactic rampage through Richard Conway's incredibly detailed miniature sets.

Despite the clash of artistic license and fiscal conservatism that made Little Shop of Horrors' initial run a misfire, we have David Geffen to thank for the chance to even make this comparison. Geffen believed in the material enough to shoot the original ending, even though his commercial instincts told him it was folly. Geffen controls the unused footage, and the 1998 Special Edition DVD was pulled from the shelves at his request. "David was upset, because the DVD used a black & white work print of the ending," Frank Oz told the Los Angeles Times. "He's a caring producer - he put his guts into the movie - and after the DVD came out, he called me and said, ‘I have the color version. This could be better.’ David either wants to re-release the movie [with the original ending] in theaters, or at least have a better DVD."

Little Shop deserves to be seen in all its gory glory, and the artists who labored over the beautifully conceived and executed original finale deserve to have their work appreciated. Let's hope a Special Edition DVD materializes soon. There is an excellent article about the recalled DVD featuring footage from the original ending at DVD Savant.


Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1987)
Volume 17, Number 5 (September 1987)

CINEFEX Magazine
Number 30 - May 1987

Number 60, January 1987

by John McCarty and Mark Thomas McGhee
St Martin's Press, 1988

LITTLE SHOP - Strange Plants Are My Hobby

In 2003 I got in touch with Little Shop of Horrors puppeteer David Showler and purchased his collection of memorabilia from the film. These include his satin crew jacket, a cassette of the half-speed "Mean Green Mother" for lip-synch, some photocopied storyboards, and several pieces of the Audrey II puppets. After the jump, see my little pieces of film history!

Here's an unpainted latex skin for the "Grow For Me" pod. It's cast around a hollow resin shell, and measures about 4" long and 3" wide with some lovely sculpted veins and textures. Click on the photos for a large-sized image.

Latex leaves, 3" to 5" long, that were wrapped around the vines. There is a thin metal wire supporting the central vein (it's poking out of the one on the left.)

An unpainted foam leaf, about 13" long.

A molar from the "Mean Green Mother" puppet. It's about 6" wide and 4" tall. The clear, iridescent glitter would have made it glisten wetly in the shadowed recesses of the mouth. I think, based on the shape and the glitter placement, that this was in the left side of Audrey II's mouth (screen right).

Here's the cap from the radiator smashed during "Mean Green Mother." It's hollow resin, about 3" tall.

Here's Dave's crew jacket - it's rayon or similar "satin" material from a company called "The Cloth Tattoo" and the embroidery is hand-made. It features the Off-Broadway logo and plant.


These "mean Green Mother" storyboards, by Marvel Comics artist Mike Ploog, have never, to my knowlege, been reproduced anywhere. One hopes that a Special Edition DVD, if it ever materializes, would include a slideshow of the full set of these. Click the images for a large-sized version.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

THE FLY - Interview with Howard Shore

Salon has a great podcast interview with Howard Shore, composer of the new opera of Cronenberg's The Fly, as well as the original soundtrack to that landmark 1986 horror film. The opera, which premiered in Paris earlier this year, is creating quite a buzz (sorry!) and opens in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 7.

Check out the official website for photos of the production and tons of info.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Online sources are reporting that Little Shop of Horrors may finally be getting the special edition treatment. It's about time! After the jump, a quick history of the now-legendary "deleted" special edition, and my wish-list for a new release.

The first Little Shop of Horrors DVD contained a black & white work-print copy of the original ending. This was pulled from the shelves at the request of producer David Geffen. Whereas Warner Brothers distributes the film, Geffen controls the unused footage. "David was upset, because the DVD used a black & white work print of the ending," Frank Oz told the Los Angeles Times. "He's a caring producer - he put his guts into the movie - and after the DVD came out, he called me and said, ‘I have the color version. This could be better.’ David either wants to re-release the movie [with the original ending] in theaters, or at least have a better DVD." There is a great post about this whole controversy at the DVD Savant.

Little Shop deserves to be seen in all its gory glory, and the artists who labored over the beautifully conceived and executed original finale deserve to have their work appreciated. With the film’s 2006 20th anniversary now gone, Little Shop of Horrors missed a great opportunity for revision. However, the film may yet reward another public airing. The interest seems to be there - the cancelled DVD regularly sells for upwards of $100 on and the deleted footage can be viewed on YouTube. Movie musicals are back in vogue, with Chicago, Hairspray, High School Musical and the gloriously bloody Sweeney Todd (Little Shop was once affectionately dubbed “Sweeney Pod”). The current vogue for "director's cuts" and "special editions" has generated good box-office and critical results for such films as Star Wars, Blade Runner and The Exorcist. As paint-by-numbers digital creatures become ever more banal, modern movie-goers may be ready for Audrey II unbound. The Cloverfield monster might be larger, but it can’t carry a tune.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that this special edition DVD with all the trimmings comes to pass. In the meantime, here is my DVD wishlist. Please note that even with a "Director's Cut" on disc, the black & white rough cut must be included. It's a fascinating look at a film's middle stages - no sound effects, demo versions of the songs, and a final sequence containing much, much more footage than could ever be included in the final cut. Keep that rough cut, please!

A remastered version of the soundtrack album would also be welcome, especially if the opening verses of “Don’t Feed the Plants” were included and some of the overly 80s gloss removed.


• Anamorphic widescreen high-definition re-mastering
• Dolby 5.1 soundtrack


• Original Theatrical Cut with Frank Oz commentary
• Rough cut of original ending, plus optional Oz commentary
• Trailers and TV Spots
• Promotional documentary
• Out-takes & bloopers with Oz commentary


• Director’s Cut with new commentary by Alan Menken and Ellen Greene
• “The Meek Shall Inherit” dream sequence
• Howard Ashman retrospective
• Gallery of Mike Ploog’s storyboards
• “Evolution of Audrey II” design featurette
(with input from Lyle Conway, Roger Corman and Martin P. Robinson)
• Levi Stubbs singing "Mean Green Mother" on the 1987 Oscar telecasts
• Photo gallery
• PDF or Screen Shot versions of the FX articles from Cinefantastique and Cinefex (like those included with Cronenberg’s The Fly)
• Isolated music option to showcase the songs and Miles Goodman’s score.
• Any video footage – TV commercials and the like – of the Off-Broadway musical that can be found

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TENACIOUS D - The Clips of Destiny

In 2006 the long-awaited Tenacious D movie, The Pick of Destiny, was released to more or less underwhelming response. The film just didn't capture the brilliant insanity of the duo's best recorded work, instead opting for a rote buddy-movie formula.

However, the opening and closing sequences are pure mondo old. Mock-rock YouTube goodness, with special guest stars Meat Loaf, Dave Grohl and Ronnie James Dio, after the jump!

(Lord, how I long to be a "special guest star" someday!)

In the opening scene, Jack Black narrates how his character was punished as a child for rocking out. It's great to see Meat Loaf exercising both his acting chops and his well-worn pipes as Jack Black's dad. You know you're in for an ass-whoopin' when Meat Loaf takes off his belt! And Dio sounds as great as ever as a poster of himself come to life.

The film's finale is a cross between D's own "Tribute" and Charlie Daniels' "Devil Went Down to Georgia". Here, Jack and Kyle face off against Satan (Dave Grohl) in a guitar challenge with their souls (and Kyle's virgin ass) at stake. Dave Grohl is great in heavy makeup and doing his best hardcore "Cookie Monster" vocals, and never has the word "fuck" been so perfectly harmonized.

"Check this riff, it's fuckin' tasty!"

It's too bad the rest of the movie didn't live up to this standard, but these two scenes are classic.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

ROCKY HORROR - So it's come to this...?

Variety reports that Lou Adler will produce a new film of The Rocky Horror Picture Show - to be titled, simply, Rocky Horror - for MTV Films, to air on the erstwhile music video channel at Halloween 2009. The tele-pic will use the original screenplay, but include music not in the film - presumably the cut songs "Super Heroes" and "Once In A While."

Update - Author Richard O'Brien tells the BBC he will not be involved, nor does the remake have his blessing. O'Brien controls the stage show, while Fox owns the film rights.

This seems an exercise in perversity - the wrong kind. Rocky Horror is sui generis, a product of its time and a distillation of a unique set of personalities and sensibilities. Its very success was a fluke, a case of the audience making the film their own. If you do a slick, well-made version, then it loses the amateur charm. If you do it intentionally cheesy, then it's a too-knowing spoof of a spoof. I get the heebie-jeebies imagining Rocky Horror as a sort of High School Musical for the Hot Topic set.

Much as I hate the idea of a remake, my theatre brain can't help but stray into thoughts of casting. First and foremost is the impossible task of finding someone to fill Tim Curry's platform heels. Online speculation reports that Marilyn Manson has been approached to star as Frank N. Furter. As Manson can't sing, act, dance or be funny, he's hardly qualified to embody cinema's grandest camp divo. If they MUST make this film, then impish Alan Cumming would make a vivid, lascivious Frank - and he has the box office credibility to be attractive to financiers. British comedian Russell Brand, so funny and sexy in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, would also be a good choice, though I've no idea if he can sing. Though I insist on a British Frank, John Barrowman might be good - a bit wholesome maybe, but he can trade on his musical theatre cred and sexy Torchwood rep. If budget were no object, I think Robert Downey, Jr. would be a revelation in the role.

While we are dream-casting, Justin Timberlake as Brad would not only be perfectly appropriate, but a major coup as well - and how about Reese Witherspoon as Janet? These two blonde cuties have the all-American look, and both sing quite well.

Marilyn Manson, if you insist, might make a great Riff Raff - though the vocals would need to be transposed to baritone. Once upon a time, Axl Rose possessed the perfect tenor yowl for Riff-Raff, and though Sebastian Bach can't act his way out of a paper bag, he sounded amazing on Broadway in the role. Killer tenor pipes and the ability to lurk and smirk are a must. As Magenta, Amy Winehouse would be an intriguing match for Manson's Riff, but Daphne Rubin-Vega, sounding just like Darlene Love, was fabulous in the Broadway show and would be more reliable. Jack Black as Eddie seems a no-brainer (get it?) and he'd even be a good Dr. Scott, in make-up. Or, get Meat Loaf to play the Doctor - he was both Eddie and Dr. Scott in LA and on Broadway. Patrick Stewart and Anthony Stewart-Head, with their gravitas and genre associations, would both make excellent Narrators.

Of course, all this misses part of the charm of the original film - the cast were mostly unknowns at the time, and so audiences saw Frank and Brad instead of "Tim Curry as Frank," "Barry Bostwick as Brad," etc. Celebrity casting in Rocky Horror will just make it seem like karaoke. It's the same problem that plagues many projects that rely on casting to sell themselves. Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was was never able to generate horror and pathos for the creature, because all you saw was "Robert DeNiro as the Creature." Then again, this new Rocky Horror will be a pop-culture Event, not a strange cult item that comes out of nowhere, so celebrity casting might actually work in its favor.

Lou Adler has always said that he didn't like the Hammer Gothic style of the film - he wanted it in black and white, with cardboard sets, in a more self-consciously kitschy style. Perhaps this is his attempt to do what Stephen King, who never liked the Kubrick film, did with his made-for-TV version of The Shining. That turned out great, didn't it?

If they want a new version of Rocky Horror out there, what they should do is have a good director - Sam Mendes maybe, or Julian Crouch - stage it, and release a live DVD. There are excellent videos of stage shows like Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other Broadway musicals, not to mention many iterations of operas such as Don Giovanni, Aida, etc. A new Rocky Horror in this vein would be much more acceptable.

I grow weary of this world. Why can't Hollywood leave well enough alone?


Friday, July 18, 2008


Updated -the second and third installments of Joss Whedon's hilarious internet musical, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, are up! But hurry - they will be taken down Sunday, July 27, 2008!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

ROCKY HORROR - Once More, with Puppets!

In March 2006, the Collin Theatre Center at Collin College in Plano, TX, presented what must be the most unique and innovative Rocky Horror in years - The Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show! Directed by Dane Hoffman and Brad Baker with puppets by James Ortiz, this production looks like a bracing blast of fresh imagination for the fairly stale Rocky franchise, as exemplified by the touristy Broadway production of a few years ago.

Read more after the jump (to the left!)

It's rare that I see photos of a Rocky Horror and wonder what, exactly, was going on. The entire cast seem to have their own little puppet avatars, somewhat akin to the combination puppet / costumes created by Julie Taymor for The Lion King. Rocky is a 10-foot rough-hewn rod puppet with five operators, and there appear to be some "Transylvanian" marionettes. Meanwhile, a faux Statler and Waldorf provide audience participation heckles from their box. Wow. Now this is something I'd have loved to see!

Check out the production's website for a gallery of intriguing photos (including a smoking hot Frank) and rave reviews. I wish more people would take up the gauntlet of making Rocky Horror fresh and interesting again!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


The first installment of Joss Whedon's internet musical, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, has been posted. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as the dastardly and romantic Doctor Horrible. Check it out!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

SHOWGIRLS - The Musical!? has a great interview with Gina Gershon, the multi-talented actress currently appearing in the Tony-nominated Boeing-Boeing. In the interview, she raises the possibility of a musical based on her 1995 über-flop Showgirls:

"It wouldn't be Showgirls as we know it - it'd be Showgirls as told by me...You think Showgirls was good? You should have seen what went on behind the scenes! So, I would mix up my own weird thought patterns with what was going on with Showgirls...It's funny in my brain, but it would take a lot of time...If was my version, it could be great. If it's just a dumb version, it'll be dumb."

All I can say is: please oh please oh please make this Broadway wish come true! The original film was a delirious blend of All About Eve, 42nd Street and A Star is Born, mixed in a cocktail shaker and laced with tits, glitter and monkey shit. I fully believe that Verhoeven intended it to be a very sly, European joke on American audiences (just as his next film, Starship Troopers, was a spoof on gung-ho Reagan-era blockbusters by way of WWII) - and a musical version, as told by La Gershon, sounds like a delicious mix of bitchery and back-biting to warm the cockles of every show-queen's heart.

You're going to make a lot of money for the Stardust Shuberts!

Tip o' the hat to the FIlm Experience Blog...

Broadway Gets Creepy, Kooky, Altogether Ooky

Word on the street is that there is a new musical of The Addams Family in the works, with Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane being mentioned for Morticia and Gomez - great casting, it must be said. And with Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch on board - they designed the seriously cool Shockheaded Peter, as well as the ENO / Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Philip Glass' Satyagraha - there is some reason to believe it might turn out to be quite clever. No word on book or music, which will be the life or death of the project.

Is this just another case of Broadway's current lack of inspiration, mining old TV shows, book and films for sure-fire material since producers are too risk-averse and tourist-oriented to take a chance on something original? The idea of an Addams Family musical is not, in itself, a bad idea - the characters are so quirky, with a strange romanticism about them, and strong, if peculiar, takes on the world - and then there's the twisted love affair between Gomez and Morticia. (Once again, it's a shame that Raul Julia, with his wild eyes and booming baritone, isn't with us to reprise his Gomez! He is truly missed.) Certainly, the source material - Addams' comic panels, the TV series, the movies - provide a very fertile field of inspiration, and offer a wide variety of gags and situations for the writers to choose from and interpret as they will. I was among those who pooh-poohed the films, and they turned out pretty funny (and Addams Family Values is one of those rare sequels to better the original). So, time will tell, I suppose.

NY Post story here.


Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Congratulations, Patti LuPone!

OK, a bit off the "mondo" track but...I recently returned from a trip to New York City where I was lucky enough to see Patti LuPone in the revival of Gypsy (1959) at the St. James Theater. This classic musical, with score by Jules Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has been handsomely mounted by script writer Arthur Laurents, and was one of the most powerful and affecting shows I have ever seen. The entire cast was excellent, but all eyes were on Hurricane LuPone, who portrayed Mama Rose with more ferocity and vulnerability than any other actress I can think of. She also sang the role with more musicality and power than anyone, Merman included. This is one of the most difficult and multi-faceted roles in all of theatre, and she nailed every nuance and tore the roof off the theater with her pipes of burnished brass.

LuPone won a well-deserved Tony award on Sunday night, three decades after winning for Evita. Brava! Sondheim also took home a special Lifetime Achievement award. And let's not forget Boyd Gaines as Herbie and Laura Benanti as Louise (the future Gypsy), both of whom also took home Tonys for Featured Actor and Actress in a Musical. All three are featured in this clip from the Tony Awards, performing the famous Act 1 closer "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Sing out, Patti!

THE FLY - The Opera

An opera based on David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly is set to premiere next month in Paris under the baton of Placido Domingo. The opera, with music by Howard Shore (who composed the film score), has a libretto by Henry David Hwang (M. Butterfly) and is directed by Cronenberg himself. The world premiere is July 2, 2008 at the legendary Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with the American premiere set for the Los Angeles Opera on September 7.

I am most intrigued by this project - I love the opera, love Cronenberg, and The Fly is one of my favorite horror films. The remake's brilliant take on the material - less monster movie than love triangle gone horribly, tragically wrong - provides the outsized emotions that might lend themselves very well to operatic treament. Howard Shore's score for the film was excellent; I still have my vinyl copy of the soundtrack album. This promises to be a modernistic listening experience, with some romantic touches. With Cronenberg and Domingo on board, I have high hopes that this will be a daring, unusual, emotionally wringing operatic experience. Mondo Opera? Be afraid - be very afraid.

The Fly: The Opera Official Website

Photo from Doctor Who: Ghost Light (1989)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

THE EVIL DEAD - The Musical

Those wacky Canadians have given the camp-musical treatment to the classic Sam Raimi film The Evil Dead. Looks fun...can Broadway be far behind? I love the posters, which spoof Broadway hits.

You can see clips from the show here!

Zombified versions of Les Miz and Mama Mia after the jump!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

ROCKY HORROR - It was great when it all began!

Richard O’Brien was an unemployed actor living in London when he came to write They Came From Denton High, later called The Rock Horroar Show, soon to be famous as The Rocky Horror Show (1973).

"Rocky started as a way for me to spend winter evenings shen I was an out-of-work actor," remembers Richard O'Brien. "To me, it was just like doing the crossword or making a collage. I just wrote some songs that I liked. I wrote some gags that I liked. I put in some B-movie dialogue and situations. I was just having a ball." Allied with musician Richard Hartley (who thought “oh no, not another rock musical!”), O’Brien made a demo tape and approached Australian director Jim Sharman – for whom the New Zealand actor had recently performed, briefly and ignominiously, as Herod in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar - with an idea for a musical B-movie spoof with a bit of sex thrown in. Sharman loved it, and the show was soon on the boards for a limited run at the experimental 75-seat Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.

Read more about the origins of The Rocky Horror Show, and why this seminal piece of rock theatre is now lost to us forever, after the jump...

The Rocky Horror Show sort of came together rather than being worked out in detail; rehearsals started with a bare-bones script that was embellished by the director and cast, with the actors providing their own improvisations which then became canon. Some of the songs O’Brien had rattling around for years: “Science Fiction Double Feature” was written for a party at an Elstree film studios, “Super Heroes” and “I’m Going Home” were tunes O’Brien had doodled with for ages and “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” was a late addition when director Sharman noted “We need a song here.” “The Time Warp” evolved in rehearsals to give the three household retainers something to do. “Eddie’s Teddy” was added for the move to the show’s second venue, the Chelsea Classic. Though it does not appear on the cast album, it was released on 45 by O’Brien and his then-wife, Kimi Wong (she is the Asian Transylvanian with the long hair) as Kimi & Ritz.

Richard O'Brien sings "Over at the Frankenstein Place."

Director Sharman gave free reign to his team’s creativity. Set designer Brian Thompson – another Australian who, with Sharman, had made a camp sci-fi film called Shirley Thompson Versus The Aliens (1972) - came up with the idea of an Usherette singing the opening song – the original concept was a kid watching TV. Brian Thompson’s ingenious shoestring set consisted of little more than a couple of platforms, an old Coke machine and some tubes and wires for the lab. In a move of pure genius, he erected scaffolds and draped tarps around the space to suggest a cinema in the process of demolition (indeed, after the Royal Court engagement the show moved to an actual cinema, the Chelsea Classic in the King’s Road). The actors clambered over the scaffolds and played in front of a sagging, dusty movie screen, as if the flickering images of a thousand forgotten films had suddenly popped into three-dimensional life. Thompson’s settings put bones into the shapeless body of the work, just as his designs for the film version placed the story in a setting that, rather than mere background, provided context and coherence to the proceedings. But that is in the future.

The original Brad and Janet were Christopher Malcolm and Julie Covington. Canadian Malcolm is now well-known to Brit-com fans as Eddy's ex-husband Justin on Absolutely Fabulous and now walks with a cane due to a near-fatal motorcycle accident.
After angrily turning down the role of Ralph Hapschatt in the film version, he went on to become a successful theatrical producer. He is part of The Rocky Horror Company Ltd, which oversees new productions of the play. Actress Julie Covington had a career acting and as a recording star in the 1970s. Her biggest success came with the original concept album of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Evita, in which she sang the title role and had a #1 single with "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Covington left the show early in the run, and was replaced by Belinda Sinclair, who is featured on the original cast album.

Richard O’Brien originally planned to play Eddie – sing one song and then retire to the green room, collect paycheck – but Sharman convinced him to play the sinister Riff Raff instead. Marianne Faithfull was sought for Magenta, but Patricia Quinn snagged the role. She accepted the part on the strength of the opening number, "Science Fiction Double Feature," which she sang as an ice cream-vending Usherette. Her agent warned against taking the role sight unseen - after all, what if there were only four lines? It turned out there were not many more than that - it depends on which iteration of the script, but there are fewer than 20 - but Quinn's turn as Magenta in the play and film is nonetheless indelible. (Surely I am not the only one who sees Riff Raff and Magenta as the descendants of Lolita's Claire Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom, lurking on the sidelines with mocking smiles, planning the protagonist's downfall?) Columbia was a late addition to the story – Little Nell used to clean Jim Sharman’s apartment, and he thought the spunky, tap-dancing Australian deserved a role, so Magenta’s part was split in two (à la Eddie's brain) to accommodate her.

Richard O’Brien met Tim Curry outside a gym while scouting for muscle-men to play Rocky. Sharman and O’Brien had considered an actor called Jonathan Kramer for the role of Frank, but Curry’s audition blew them away – he ripped through Little Richard’s manic “Tutti Fruitti” and the show had its leading man. Curry's Frank N. Furter was originally a bleach-blonde. His hair later was dyed blue before reverting to his natural brown ‘fro. Curry flirted with a Lugosi-like “Transylvanian” voice, then an American accent, before settling on the familiar posh “Kensington” intonation. The American-accented portrayal is enshrined on the original cast album. When Tim Curry was indisposed, O’Brien would take over the role of Frank – in fact, when film producer Lou Adler saw the show and decided to bring it to 20th Century Fox, it was O’Brien vamping it up instead of Curry. One longs for a recording or photo of O’Brien as Frank to surface!

Sue Blane created the distinctive costumes, which have become as iconic as any in cinema history. Frank’s famous corset was left over from a production of Genet’s The Maids. Magenta was not promoted to housekeeper until the film - in the original show she is just a hanger-on lurking about in naughty underwear. Most of the other costumes are more or less what made it to the film version.

The show premiered on an appropriately dark and stormy night in June 1973, with legendary horror-movie ham Vincent Price in the audience, as if giving his dark blessing. What must have that first audience thought, as masked ushers silently thrust mimeographed programs - with a crude illustration by Richard O'Brien himself - into their hands, then climbed onstage to whip the tarp off an Usherette, as if she were yet another mothballed relic of the cinema's past glories?

The show was an unexpected hit – its run was extended, and it was later moved (appropriately enough) to a converted cinema seating 400. Rocky Horror was the toast of London - a London giddy with David Bowie and T. Rex, a London in the wake of the decriminalization of homosexuality, a London with the Sex Pistols just around the corner. Rocky Horror presaged the 1950s nostalgia boom that took off with Grease and American Graffiti, a wave of Boomer sentimentality that infused pop culture for the next 20 years. Productions in Los Angeles, Broadway and Sydney followed, as well a movie deal…but that’s another story.

The infamous Jonathan King recorded the original cast album in a single marathon session – and it shows. The sound is garage-band crude and the singing more enthusiastic than accomplished. And yet this record is, for me, the definitive Rocky Horror in many ways. It’s rawer, crazier, and just plain more fun than any version that came after. This is Rocky when it was an impromptu labor of love, staged in a dusty old theater on a shoestring budget. You can just hear the relish with which the actors jump into their roles. The band attacks these brand-new songs with a gusto that almost makes the polished movie versions seem tame. “Sweet Transvestite” is sleazier than ever, all piano and cowbell and squawky guitar, with Tim Curry oozing oily charm and Brad’s verse “rapped” in time to the music. "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me" has an innocence that all other versions lack, and Chris Malcolm's performance of the oft-deleted "Once In A While" has never been bettered. Curry’s rendition of “Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?” on this disc is unequalled, especially his “Whoa-oh-oooh, don’t dream it…!” The pounding Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano on “Wild and Untamed Thing” never fails to get my heart rate up, and Frank’s breakdown in “I’m Going Home” is hilarious. “I - I’m sorry, I can’t go on,” he sobs. This is the Rocky Horror ur-text, and its cheesy charms seduce me every time.

Jonathan King remembers: “I had to preserve that raw, rough and ready, totally fresh and exciting feeling that had come over in the Theatre Upstairs. And that ethos of amateurishness, that thrown-together quality.” Mission accomplished!


Why do I call The Rocky Horror Show a "lost masterpiece"? Well, the masterpiece part is obvious. This is Richard O'Brien's best work, and what he will be remembered for. But lost? Isn't Rocky Horror alive and well?

Perhaps, but the fact remains that we can never again see the show that premiered that dark and storm night in 1973. The show's fame and cult following have robbed it of its transgressive, revelatory power. Imagine going to see a show, having no idea what was in store, and suddenly that score comes blasting out of the pit, and Tim-freakin'-Curry storms down the aisle! Imagine seeing a live production and never hearing the audience anticipate every joke or throw back their own comments, but rather being allowed to experience what is on stage. Rocky Horror helped define a moment in pop culture that has resonated through the intervening 30 years - glam rock, goth, punk, gay liberation, Baby Boomer nostalgia, all have made their mark in Rocky's wake, and all have robbed the original of its status as a uniquely fabulous beast. The wild and untamed things that cavorted on stage at the Royal Court are now VH-1 relics and Hot Topic commodities. How transgressive is a sweet transvestite when the malls of America routinely host fishnet-hosed, black-lipsticked baby goths? Don't get me wrong, I am glad to live in a world where such things are commonplace - but I can't help mourn what is lost in the process.

The show itself has become a museum piece, a bit of commedia dell'arte, with stock characters who resist directorial re-interpretation at risk of alienating an audience who thinks they know what they want. An enterprising director can't do a "new" version - despite such intentions, the fans will be reacting to the show they remember, and will be bemused if not hostile to any true originality. Rocky Horror is a victim of its own success, as are many such seminal works - but few works have suffered so much from being mummified by its own fans.


Many of the quotes in this blog entry come from 2002's Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult by David Evans and Scott Michaels. The book contains many fascinating, unvarnished interviews with the creators and stars of Rocky Horror, including Richard O'Brien, Jim Sharman, Richard Hartley, Brian Thompson, Patricia Quinn, and other Transylvanians and backstage crew. Particularly intriguing are the revealing information from Kimi Wong and the elusive Peter Hinwood. It's out of print but available used.

The Rocky Horror Show Book by James Harding is a large format book focusing on the original show and the touring productions. Most of the pictures of the original London cast in this article appeared in Harding's book. It's also out of print, but not impossible to find.

The Rocky Horror Show: As I Remember It by original Rocky performer Rayner Bourton is an invaluable memoir of the actor's experience from audition to first read-through to smashing success. Buy it!

And no fan should be without The Rocky Horror Scrapbook, designed by Brian Thompson, which gathers a treasure trove of photos, drawings, press clippings and miscellany into a large-format book. Print quality is a bit fuzzy and low-contrast, but the book itself is a treat. Buy it!

Fun fact - when film and music producer Lou Adler saw the show, he was immediately enchanted and sought the film rights. But Tim Curry was out that night, and Richard O'Brien was playing Frank in his stead! (I wonder who was on as Riff Raff that night?) Here's a brief, low-quality video of O'Brien as Frank in 1990.