Who would have thought that horror movies would become the next big thing for musical theater, with the likes of Little Shop of Horrors, Carrie, The Fearless Vampire Killers and The Evil Dead, shows offering all-singing, all-dancing carnivorous plants, blood-drenched prom queens, flamboyant bloodsuckers and Lovecraftian ghouls? Add a chianti-loving cannibal, a saucy transvestite killer and a very determined, mutton-tormented FBI trainee to this bizarre mix, and you have one of the most hilariously tuneful entries in this unlikely genre with Silence! Sure, Sondeim's “Comedy Tonight” was catchy on its way to the Forum. But just try getting numbers like “If I Could Smell Her C***,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “I'd F*** Me” and “Put the F***ing Lotion in the Basket” out of your head.
Gilbert and Sullivan this is not. However, the lyrics and melodies of Jon and Al Kaplan are just as rollickingly fun for their movie geek generation, a fan-brother love that now simultaneously celebrates and eviscerates the 1991 Best Picture Oscar winner they've obviously watched a few hundred times. Staten Island-born soundtrack fans who studied film music at USC, the Kaplans first showed their satiric wit while unleashing hilarious take downs of their idols as writers for Film Score Monthly Magazine.
But it would be Silence! that first showed their own, even funnier musical talents. First appearing as an underground tape among their circle of friends, the brothers created hilarious goofs of Ted Levine's warbling Buffalo Bill, Jodie Foster's slurred southern accent and Anthony Hopkins' own evil spin on Truman Capote's voice. Better yet, it was great music, a fact that caught the ear of musical theater people who could actually realize, and expand the Kaplans' unauthorized spoof beyond their wildest dreams.
The result has been running for years now off The Great White Way, with near-universal acclaim that placed the show in Time Magazine's top ten of Broadway list for 2011. Now Silence! goes west coast at LA's Hayworth Theater, a cozy spot that has been an ideal spawning ground for such other outré show tune spins on Linda Lovelace and Re-Animator. With hellzapoppin staging just about as clever as Kaplans' songs (which they're still reworking), this brisk, sight and song gag 90-minute show is just as akin to watching Airplane! on stage as a Mad Magazine version of Silence of the Lambs. Yet comedy wouldn't be anything without serious commitment, which is impressively provided by former Phantom of the Opera alum Davis Gaines as Lecter, Christine Lakin (Reefer Madness) as Clarice and Stephen Bienskie (Cats) as Buffalo Bill - complete with the notorious ball leg squeeze.
Having virtually created their own cottage industry of movie tune satires (a Sinatra-style Thing musical and Ah-nold renditions of Predator, Terminator 2 and Conan included), the Kaplans have also plied the real comic song deal for the Oscars and Andy Samberg, while scoring a bunch of Syfy pictures that are spoofs to begin with. Now humbly basking in the LA acclaim that Silence! has brought them, the Kaplans talk about being the Sherman Brothers of spoofs, and a show that's turned very serious Academy gold cannibalism into a knock-down, toe-tapping comedy.
Daniel Schweiger: What inspired your gift for satire?
Jon & Al Kaplan: We grew up on Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Trading Places and Howard Stern's New Year's Rotten Eve Pageant.
DS: Do you both have different senses of humor, or one mind when it comes to comedy?
JK & AK: We have pretty similar sensibilities when it comes to comedy, which is a good thing because there's nothing worse than trying to convince someone that something is funny.
DS: Did Silence of the Lambs immediately strike you as ripe material for a comedy musical?
JK & AK: We'd always loved Ted Levine's deep "Buffalo Bill" voice and thought it would be fun to hear him sing show tunes. That was the inspiration for the project.
DS: What's your collaborative process like? Is it an incredible creative symbiosis, or something a lot more difficult than that?
JK & AK: On songs, we share music and lyric duties, but the process is different every time out. Sometimes one of us will come up with a hook and the other will run with it and fill in the rest; sometimes we reverse roles. We will occasionally argue over harmony, orchestration, tempo, things like that, but over all it's a smooth process.
DS: Were you ever worried that some of your songs, or titles went too far, especially the highlight “If I Could Smell Her C***?”
JK & AK: No, not at first. We never thought that anyone outside of our friends would hear the songs, so we had no inhibitions when it came to the profanity. Most of the bad words come straight from the movie anyway. When the show was staged in 2005 a lot of critics were upset by the profanity, but once Book of Mormon came out, critics were more accepting of our vulgarity.
DS: There's the unusual credit of Hunter Bell's book as being adapted from your screenplay. How did that work out?
JK & AK: You're right, it is an unusual and confusing credit, but that's what happens when you don't know what you're doing and don't have an agent. A few years after we wrote the first batch of songs, a producer came to us and told us that if we wrote a screenplay to go with the music he'd take us on a bunch of meetings around LA. We complied and wrote a parody script that incorporated the songs, and the producer didn't take us on a single meeting. But a few months later a group of theater producers asked us about staging Silence! at the 2005 Fringe Festival in NYC, so we were able to present them with something resembling an actual show. Hunter Bell came on board to adapt our script and it was a wonderful collaboration. His comedic sensibilities work well with ours and we watch all of the same terrible reality shows.
DS: What makes the difference between song parody and just basically retelling the story with lyrics?
JK & AK: Um, a song parody is played for laughs and retelling the story with lyrics isn't? Silence of the Lambs is such a good story that it probably would work as a serious retelling through music like “Sweeney Todd,” but we went the parody route. In the film, Buffalo Bill is meant to be terrifying, but in the show, his genuine excitement and enthusiasm along with the upbeat nature of his songs make him lovable, at least to us. And Hannibal Lecter's relationship with Clarice is the heart of the piece, so of course, if you're spoofing the story, you're going to do a love song. Hopefully the choice we made to frame that element of the story is not something that people would be expecting.
Our Legolambs YouTube videos are mostly "musicals" but they cover a wide range of approaches. Some are much more parodic (The Thing: The Musical) whereas others are more along the lines of what we'd actually do for a straight non-comedic stage version of a show (Schindler's List: The Musical). Sometimes we'll pick a specific angle (eating shit in The Help: The Musical), and other times we will try to find the most effective way to distill the entire plot of a movie into a single three-minute song (Rocky IV: The Musical), and we found that this is the preferred method when it comes to our subscribers, though it's also the most difficult to pull off.
DS: At what point did you realize that your Silence! songs were taking on a far bigger life? And what was it like to become part of a large creative team that was really spending money and energy on your work?
JK & AK: We realized the songs were taking on a bigger life probably when we got our first surprise $400 bill for using too much bandwidth on our website that month. Al subscribed to the print version of Entertainment Weekly back then, so getting on the "Must List" back in 2004 felt like a big deal. We never expected the songs to take off on the internet the way they did, but when show was eventually staged at the NYC Fringe Festival and we saw the audience responses, we knew that there was potential for much more. We're continually blown away at the caliber of performers and collaborators who work on the live show. With all the money and time going into the show we feel a responsibility to make it as good as possible, so we're always looking for ways to tweak it and improve it. We've changed a lot as writers in 10 years, so there are lots of things we'd do differently now; we make whatever adjustments we can without messing with the integrity of the piece.
DS: Could you talk about the casting process, and how close you wanted the actors to get to the iconic performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins?
JK & AK: We've found that if the Clarice role is played closer to Jodie Foster, then more liberties can be taken with Lecter. The most important thing for him is that he has a great singing voice, because that's what gives him his authority on stage. It's actually hard to pick a favorite Clarice. Jenn Harris originated the Clarice role in New York and she's a comedic genius; it's like watching Jodie Foster possessed by a Looney Tunes character. We owe her a lot because early on at the Fringe when certain other things weren't working, she'd carry the show for long stretches. We're very excited about the LA cast. Christine Lakin plays it straighter but she's no less funny. She also looks exactly like Foster did in the movie-sometimes it's frightening. We think she's just tremendous in the show. And LA Hannibal, Davis Gaines, is a theater legend. It's hard for us to believe that we've got the Phantom of the Opera singing our “C***” song. We've had a lot of really great Lecters like Brent Barrett, David Garrison, Miles Western and Shuler Hensley.
DS: The Silence! staging is often as clever as the songs. How involved were you with that part of the process?
JK & AK: Credit for the staging goes to our director Christopher Gatelli. He just won the Tony for choreographing “Newsies” and he's brilliant. We may pop in with suggestions but the staging is his vision and it's an indispensable part of the show. He's always coming up with new ideas, and there are lots of new gags in the LA production.
DS: Do you think the Silence! songs are more Broadway, or film score related? On that note, did you want to adapt any of Howard Shore's underscore into your songs?
JK & AK: The songs are probably more "Movie Musical"-influenced than Broadway-influenced. We grew up on the Ashman/Menken Disney classics and Leslie Bricusse's Scrooge. Our first loves are film and concert music, so that informed the songs somewhat. There are definitely a few nods in Silence! to Howard Shore that fans of his have noticed. The opening number is a tender variation on Shore's main theme that recurs throughout the show, and we also have a major-mode version of the score's opening quintuplet floating around in various guises. They act as structural signposts throughout the show.
DS: How did you want to "open up" the show as being more than just a parody of Silence of the Lambs?
JK & AK: What does "open up" mean? In the beginning, we never intended the show to be anything more than a loving musical parody of Silence of the Lambs. However, over the past decade, every movie imaginable has been turned into a musical, so we guess that Silence! can sort of be seen as a retroactive commentary on that trend.
DS: There's a real Airplane-like feel to Silence!, particularly in a cast member who's essentially playing multiple versions of Stephen Stucker's part as the flamboyant air controller “Johnny.” Could you talk about that standout role?
JK & AK: That role is played by Jeff Hiller here in LA, and he's one of our favorite things in the show. He originated the part back in 2005 when the stage version was getting off the ground, and he would come into rehearsals and improvises and his material was so funny that a lot of it was written into the book. There are also moments of improv built into the show and you never know what he's going to do each time out. He is absolutely the Stephen Stucker part in Airplane! except he's making half of it up as he goes along.
DS: What were the changes you made for the LA version of Silence!?
JK & AK: The rehearsal process here has thankfully been longer than we're used to, and we live in LA, so we've been able to be around more and try new things. Certain numbers have gotten bigger, others have gotten smaller and we're trying out new material. It's been fun.
DS: How many people involved with Silence of the Lambs that you know of have seen the show, and what were their reactions? Were you afraid that they'd watch it, or eager for them to?
JK & AK: Last year, Jonathan Demme came to see the show in NY with a bunch of people who worked on the movie as a 20-year anniversary reunion for the crew. We were certainly nervous beforehand but we sat right behind Demme and he laughed through the whole show. Jodie Foster came to see the show but we weren't there for that one. We heard she sent a nice e-mail. Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton) also came to see the show and loved it. His e-mail we actually got to see. He said he'd like to play Chilton in the show in a future production.
DS: When you were writers at Film Score Monthly, did you worry that your often-barbed reviews would offend the composers you idolized?
JK & AK: Most of the composers we idolized didn't receive too many barbed reviews. We were trying to be informed and honest, but at the same time we were taking into account the fact that we were critiquing the works of established composers and that FSM reviews weren't going to be destroying any careers. We also didn't want to be unpaid PR reps for composers, because if we pretended to like everything then our opinions would be worthless. That said, we hope that any composers who read negative reviews by us agree that critics are the scum of the earth and that they dismissed our reviews accordingly.
DS: A lot of the Syfy and Skinimax movies your music has graced is definitely Mystery Science Theater . What do you think is the key to having your straight-up efforts in that arena being taken more "seriously" as it were? And what are the biggest things you've learned from moving to critic to composers?
JK & AK: In response to the first question, ask Jerry Goldsmith. Second question: Going from critiquing to working on these films, you gain a first-hand understanding of why so much film music sounds the way it does-not that we weren't aware of the process before. On the one hand, you may have a director who is supportive and passionate about his love for classic film music, but then at the same time you may have a producer who hates melody, hates brass, hates John Williams and wants it all to be taiko drums and drones. Both parties have to be pleased.
Then you factor in that there's often 7-10 days to come up with 90 minutes of fully produced material, and usually little to no budget. To paraphrase Joshua from War Games, perhaps "The only way to win is not to play." But we've always wanted to score monster movies and we're happy for the opportunities, even in the cases where it's just a main theme that gets tracked around the film a few times. Also, we would not be scoring any of these films if not for the original recommendation we received from Lukas D. Kendall, so he is entirely to blame if people hate the work we're doing on these SyFy films.
DS: Could you talk about the post-Silence! buzz you both have gotten, especially when you found yourself working with Andy Samberg and doing work for the Oscars?
JK & AK: We started writing scripts with comedian Jordan Rubin, who liked Silence! when it was online. When he was head writer on the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, he hired us to write banter for the presenters. Having Leighton Meester recite our specially designed boring words was a career high point. We also got to work with Andy Samberg and arrange his raps into a big Broadway medley. We did a few days of work on The 2011 Oscars, mostly spit-balling jokes for the opening segment where the hosts are inserted into various movies from that year. We also got to score a cartoon series on G4 called Code Monkeys. The show was animated to look like an old video game and the music had to be in that style. We had the freedom to do whatever we wanted and it was great.
DS: Where do you see Silence! heading next? And do you have a dream film that you'd like to see undergo the full-on Silence! treatment? Or have any of your other spoofs already gotten offers to get turned into a stage musical?
JK & AK: Silence! is reportedly heading to South Africa next, so perhaps we should get to work on Lethal Weapon 2: The Musical. We are considering turning our Arnold Schwarzenegger songs into a full-blown stage show, but there are some obstacles. We also think Tom Selleck's masterpiece An Innocent Man would make a great prison musical, but no one else remembers or cares about that movie. Maybe we'll do that one for ourselves some day, like all our other shit on YouTube.
DS: Do you hope to be known as the movie parody song guys, or would you like to move beyond that to doing something completely original?
JK & AK: We would like to be known as the co-creators of Diarrhea Detective. We still think our greatest achievement is our unproduced killer penis script from the '90s called PENI5, but that ship has probably sailed. So at this point, we'll have to settle for being the song parody guys. We have other things in the works, but we've learned to stop cursing them by talking about them before they are real. We just finished scoring Gila! for Jim Wynorksi.
DS: There remains a strong similarity between your poster art and The Silence of the Hams. Was this intentional, or do you think there's only one place to put a death's head moth on a person's face?
JK & AK: Dan, you are too much!
Catch Silence! Thursday through Sunday nights in Los Angeles at the Hayworth Theater, from September 8 to October 12, 2012.