Pop-Culture Parody Musicals Are as Meta as We Get

Growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, I had really weird taste in music. Sure, I liked whatever the Top 40 pop hits were, but I also belted out showtunes, and I had every word memorized of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song parodies. Through his ode to food “Eat It,” I learned how badass young Michael Jackson was. Likewise, I would never have known what “MacArthur Park” without the cheeky "Jurassic Park.”

In a 2003 interview with NPR, Yankovic mused on how his fellow artists would respond as he prepped each album of song parodies. “At this point I’ve got a bit of a track record,” he said. “So people realize that when ‘Weird Al’ wants to go parody, it’s not meant to make them look bad… it’s meant to be a tribute.”

While it seems as if “Weird Al” has hung up the accordion for the time being, there are plenty of creative teams who have adopted that same motivation of writing silly lyrics to poke fun at pop culture and elevated it to the next logical incarnation—the musical. In the past few years, more and more pop culture parody musicals have popped up on the Internet, in universities, and even off-Broadway. They’ve launched the careers of stars like Darren Criss (who played the starring role in A Very Potter Musical), and even famous folks like Joss Whedon (with Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) have joined in.

Pop culture has passed into an incredibly self-reflective and meta phase. We can’t watch a TV show or political debate without immediately reacting through GIF form and then scrutinizing our reaction. We’re compelled to interrogate the highbrow and especially the lowbrow works that capture our attention. But it gets boring and one-dimensional to use the same medium that we’re discussing in our analysis. We’re constantly turning our opinions over and over, seeking out the smart new angle that someone hasn’t thought of. Enter this new breed of musical.

We’re lucky that many of these productions have tested the waters in New York City, where you can stage an outrageous parody for even just a weekend. In the past year, I’ve taken in four shows that probe the boundaries of good taste and challenge the books, actors, and even religious institutions they mock. Last Christmas, I joined the throngs of theatergoers laughing so hard they were crying at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon. Since the, I’ve also giggled my way through song-and-dance parodies of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, its offspring Fifty Shades of Grey, and the ‘90s thriller The Silence of the Lambs.

Whether each show’s attack is sweet or snarky, there is indeed that sense of tribute that Yankovic mentioned—cheeky nods to the genre of musical theater itself, or a hat tip to the impact Clarice Starling or Anastasia Steele has had on pop culture. In fact, 50 Shades! The Musical pokes fun less at Ana’s whirlwind romance with Christian Grey, and more at the way Americans have gobbled up E.L. James’ erotic fanfiction.

“I think anything that is so popular that everyone knows about it, you can start to home in on certain details,” said Emily Dorezas, one of the 50 Shades co-writers. “That’s why, as soon as the presidential election starts, everybody can laugh at the same things about the different candidates. Fifty Shades of Grey is just this brand that doesn’t go away. Even if you know nothing about it, you know everything about it. Part of what we’re doing is making fun of the phenomenon of it. [Audiences] can laugh at that because they’ve seen it in their house, with their wives and girlfriends.”

Twilight: The Musical employs a similar shorthand: They’re betting on audiences’ familiarity with the movies so that they can skewer not only Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, but also Robert Pattinson’s insanely dramatic delivery and Kristen Stewart’s penchant for lip biting. The more layers you can work through, the better you’re rewarded, like when Edward and Bella’s literary contemporaries Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger pop in to declare a wizards-versus-vampires war.

When you’re addressing the young adult fiction booms of the past fifteen years, of course you have to poke fun at the consumers who waited in line at midnight for the new books and movies. But how do you mock a solid film classic from the ‘90s that’s entirely straight-faced and even rather terrifying? You make it self-aware.

What most struck me about Silence! The Musical (which has existed online and onstage since 2002) is that it follows the movie beat-for-beat. I was especially aware because I had watched the film for the first time just a few weeks prior. Aside from the addition of a lamb chorus—paralleling the ancient Greek chorus and performing the same duty of commenting on the action onstage—the musical starts and ends where the movie does. Watching it, you’re delightfully surprised to realize that it is kind of ridiculous to start a movie with Jodie Foster huffing and puffing through the woods near Quantico, and that most of Anthony Hopkins’ dialogue is snarky one-liners. The cast turns even the most innocuous phrasing into a punchline; currently, Pamela Bob amps up Clarice’s unfortunate lisp to an art form.

The decision to do a shot-for-shot spoof had less to do with the movie itself and more with how co-writers Jon and Al Kaplan write all of their parodies. “We’re very detail-oriented,” the brothers said of what began as a collection of songs and evolved into a screenplay. “We focus on details and blow them up. It’s meant to be a love letter to the movie; we want to tailor it to people who are big fans.” It helped that Hunter Bell, who wrote the book for the stage show, and original director Christopher Gattelli had the same M.O.: “They love the movie and wanted to focus on the details—sometimes different details [from us].”

To be fair, the brothers were wary of audience reaction to some of the songs. But when the original movie brings Lecter and Clarice together after another inmate comments on her vagina, how can you not give Lecter a love song called “If I Could Smell Her Cunt”? However, it wasn’t until Book of Mormon opened in 2010 that the Kaplans felt more secure about their bawdier musical numbers.

“I think we’re proudest of Lecter’s song,” the Kaplans said. “It’s not the typical song you would expect from him, the ‘liver and fava beans’ number. It’s the moment where the audience really has to buy into the concept or not buy into it. It has to be well performed; Lecter has to really sell it as a love song. We’re also proud of Buffalo Bill’s song ‘I’d Fuck Me’ because it came late in the game. We felt like we had already written our Buffalo Bill songs.”

”I’d Fuck Me” represents perhaps the closest adherence to the source material. Our audience was on the edge of their seats during this swirly burlesque number because we all knew the iconic sequence from the film and were waiting with bated breath to see if David Ayers would attempt the infamous dick tuck. When he did, that prompted the most cheers out of any point in the show. Honestly, we wouldn’t have respected the creative team if they hadn’t included that moment.

Each of these shows has unlocked a new take on the source material through the medium of the musical. The visual nature of a stage show has been most beneficial for 50 Shades! The Musical. One of the book’s most ludicrous elements was Anastasia’s “inner goddess,” the subconscious manifestation of her repressed horniness. Sadly, she was absent from the New York production, but Dorezas said that she showed up in Chicago in “a scene with Christian and Anastasia, [where] the inner goddess comes in and basks to have this whole moment to herself,” and that she’ll appear in future iterations.

Some of the most fun that the 50 Shades! The Musical cast and creative team had was subverting the audience’s expectations of the characters’ appearances. For the past year or more, fansites have cast achingly smoldering types like Ian Somerhalder and Alexis Bledel for Christian and Ana, but what makes Chris Grace and Amber Petty’s portrayals so refreshing is that neither are stereotypical beauties. They play up the comedic contrast between the prose and their onstage looks and behavior.

“It was totally a conscious decision,” Dorezas confirmed. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna be 100 percent satisfied with whatever Christian Grey they choose [for the movie]. We just wanted to go the complete opposite direction, but Chris plays it so sexy, and he owns it! There’s a certain point where it’s like, ‘This is our Christian Grey, and everyone in the audience is sold on it.’

”It’s always my favorite when he walks onstage for the first time, ‘cause you see the audience pointing at each other like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t what you said!’ I know they think Ryan Gosling is gonna come out there. I think in Chris’ mind, he thinks he’s Ryan Gosling. And Amber as Anastasia—she’s so funny. We wanted it to be more of a wink at these characters, not the actual characters. I think if we went for super hot and sexy, we’d lose funny.”

Similarly, the writers grappled with the first draft because if they gave in to the temptation to absolutely skewer James’s admittedly ridiculous novel, they wouldn’t be able to keep an audience. “I think the first round, we felt like there was just too much punch and not enough heart to it,” Dorezas said, citing their shared experience in the comedy world. “We wanted the audience to want these two people to be together outside of a bondage/S&M situation.”

The parody can’t just be about the content; the creative teams must also consider conventions of musical theater itself. One of the first big laughs in The Book of Mormon is “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a seemingly joyous African chant that brings to mind The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” but actually translates to “Fuck You, God.” Mocking religion was one thing, but dragging the esteemed medium of musical theater into the mix? That’s when audiences realized that no one was safe.

In the New York production of 50 Shades! The Musical, the inner goddess got sacrificed in favor of a big, Les Miserables-esque ensemble number. “We just had to find another place for the inner goddess, ‘cause we all were like, ‘Ah, we want this moment where everyone’s having doubt and not sure what to do,’” Dorezas said. “There’s a nod to Phantom of the Opera in the show, as well. We definitely put little things in there that even if you’re not a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey, if you’re a fan of musicals you’ll appreciate the moments as well. If some of the moments are too insidery—you don’t know who Jose is when he walks in, you don’t know Christian is against type—there’s still something for you.”

The Kaplan brothers’ nods to musical theater occur more in the fabric of the musical’s choreography: “It’s just integrating little homages here and there. There’s A Chorus Line in ‘In the Dark with a Maniac,’ [with] the dance move that Clarice does before she shoots Buffalo Bill. There’s also [elements from] The King and I.”

Now, a lot of the musical theater greats are dead and can’t defend themselves against this mockery. But how about the creators of the books and movies parodied? Despite the hard-R nature of Silence! The Musical, the Kaplans said that several of the people involved with the movie found it uproariously funny.

For one, director Jonathan Demme decided to celebrate his twenty-year crew reunion by going to the show. “We sat behind them, and they were laughing their heads off,” the Kaplans said. “It was a real kick… We thought he was gonna be a really serious guy, just sitting there scowling, but he’s got a real sense of humor.” They can’t vouch for Jodie Foster’s reaction, since she attended a different show. However, “Anthony Heald, who played Dr. Chilton, was very enthusiastic, said he would love to play his character in a future reincarnation of the show. Anthony Hopkins, as far as we know, hasn’t gone.”

”We did look toward Silence! The Musical a little bit in terms of what they were able to get away with,” Dorezas said. Because the original production of 50 Shades! The Musical debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they’ve been caught up with UK copyright laws, combined with the reaction from James’ people. “For the UK opportunities that we are currently discussing, we could change some things around with the show that would make it fall under safe parameters,” Dorezas said. “If the parody laws change in our favor, then we would not have to do that. We have an idea of what we can do, but we’re kind of waiting to see how it changes.”

Musical parody reinvigorates seemingly played-out stories because it’s such an unexpected medium. It’s likely that the first time you saw Clarice Starling or read about Christian Grey, you never dreamed that either would break into song. These pop culture parody musicals crack these seemingly solemn characters and give them the added dimensions to ensure their endurance in the zeitgeist, whether they’re twenty or two years old. As the Kaplans confessed, “We never thought we’d be talking about this eleven years after the fact.”

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