Director Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult film “Re-Animator” gave the horror world Jeffrey Combs’ outrageously demented Herbert West, a bespectacled mad scientist determined to perfect a serum designed bring dead things back to life. The movie also launched Gordon’s career as a genre filmmaker with credits including “Dolls,” “Castle Freak” and “From Beyond,” the latter of which, like his debut, was based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Now, Gordon has adapted his movies’ Grand Guignol aesthetic for the stage of the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood with “Re-Animator, the Musical,” the production that opened in March and just extended its run through the end of May. The musical stars Graham Skipper as West, and plays, according to Gordon, like something close to an opera – a very campy, very, very bloody opera. Theater vet Gordon recently spoke to Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre about his inspiration for the adaptation, translating movie carnage to a live arena and preparing to (possibly) take his show on the road.
G.M.: When did this idea come up? The notion of turning the film into a musical?
S.G.: First it seemed impossible because we’ve got a character who runs around without his head for like half an hour in the story. I was thinking, How do you do that on stage? Then it just dawned on me that the effects we used in the movie were all practical effects. They were stage effects, essentially, so we could use those same techniques really onstage to do it live.
G.M.: Was “Evil Dead the Musical” a source of inspiration? Was it already playing at that point three years ago when you had this idea?
S.G.: I think it might have been. “Little Shop of Horrors” was also an inspiration for this, and the one that I think was the biggest inspiration was “Sweeney Todd,” which was way older. The idea of a horror musical, it’s been done before, but the idea of doing “Re-Animator” at first seemed impossible, but suddenly there was a plan. Right around that time was when I went to see a friend’s musical. Mark Nutter did a musical called “The Bicycle Men” here in L.A. and I realized he was the perfect guy to write the music for it.
G.M.: How did you two go forward?
S.G.: We sat down and worked out an outline of how this would work and where the songs would go and what the songs would be like and so forth. But then Mark really went off and did the music itself and the lyrics. He would bring things in and sing them for me in my office sometimes and I would make suggestions and he’d go back and fiddle with it. What developed though was something that neither one of us expected – it turned into more of almost like an opera than a musical. The music is almost nonstop. I think there’s about 10 minutes of spoken dialogue in the whole show.
G.M: How daunting was it to find an actor to play Herbert West, a role that’s so identified with Jeffrey Combs?
S.G.: It was tricky. I have to credit George Wendt for discovering Graham Skipper. George is an old friend of Mark Nutter’s and mine, and he was involved very early on when we started talking about doing this musical. He had met Graham. He had been in New York performing in “Hairspray” on Broadway and, I’m not sure exactly how, but he’d been invited to see this comedy group Fuct and Graham was a member of that company. When we started going into rehearsals … he said, “I know his kid that I think would be perfect.” I had Graham come to L.A. for me to meet him and ended up signing him up. The way George described him, he said he looks like a young Peter Lorre. But he also has a great singing voice and is very, very funny. I think he’s sort of a cross between a young Peter Lorre and a young Nathan Lane.
G.M.: Genre fans might not be as familiar with your theater background – was it fun to get back in touch with your theater roots with this production?
S.G.: Absolutely. I really love theater. I do it from time to time but this was really great fun because it was melding the two things together. I felt déjà vu all over again. The songs are just so wonderful and the performers, I think, are great. It was really just finding the right group. Jesse Merlin came to the party kind of late. He joined us when we started rehearsals for the actual play, but his background is in opera. He plays Dr. Hill. He really lifted it to a whole new level.
G.M.: There’s a splash zone for the show. How important was it to keep the show bloody and are the special effects tricky to pull off in a live venue?
S.G.: Some of them are pretty tricky. There’s one scene were a guy, a bone saw goes through his back and comes out through his chest with tons of blood spewing out of him. To figure out how to do that took us a little while. The movie is incredibly bloody. I thought it had the all-time record for blood spilled, which was about 30 gallons of blood, I think. But in the play we go through about three gallons every performance.
G.M.: How difficult is that to clean up after the performance is over?
S.G.: (Laughs) It’s pretty bad. We actually had to replace the seats with plastic chairs.
G.M.: Have you been surprised by how warmly the fan community and critics have responded to the production?
S.G.: I really was because it’s pretty extreme kind of stuff, but it’s fun. The audiences, I knew that they were enjoying themselves, whether the critics would is really always a question. But I had that same thing with the movie. I was surprised that was as well received as it was, critically. I had just assumed the critics would hate it and stopped worrying about it.
G.M.: The movie actually debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, which is something people might not realize.
S.G.: It did, it won a critic’s prize there, which was incredible. I couldn’t figure out how that happened because it was not really an official entry in the festival. What I learned later was that the critics give an award to their favorite film that’s shown there whether it’s shown in competition or not.
G.M.: What is it about “Re-Animator” that’s helped it remain in the genre consciousness for so many years?
S.G.: I think it’s the combination of horror and humor, the fact that it’s funny and scary. I also think that it’s still shocking today. It just had its 25th anniversary and there were some screenings of it and the audiences were going crazy. The movie still works.
G.M. What’s next for you? “From Beyond: The Musical”?
S.G.: (Laughs) Now that would be an interesting trick. I don’t know how you would do that one. The idea of maybe taking “Re-Animator” other places is something we’re thinking about. We’ve got some interest from producers in New York and San Francisco and even London. It’s exciting.
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