With the recent introduction of legalized marijuana into the country's consciousness, it's difficult to imagine a time when its perceived threat equaled that of heroin. Yet it's as plain as day in the 1936 cult classic propaganda film Reefer Madness. Now, with the sponsorships of local medical-marijuana dispensary Strawberry Fields and restaurant Rasta Pasta, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is bringing the much-celebrated stage version Reefer Madness: The Musical to the Springs.
Scott RC Levy, executive director of performing arts and producing artistic director, chose the musical early last year while designing the FAC's upcoming season.
"At the time we had just voted on recreational marijuana, and I thought to myself, 'What better time to put on Reefer Madness than now?'" he remembers, adding that the selection "is definitely a comment on the state of marijuana in Colorado.
"Yet the show is not about marijuana. Yes, it's called Reefer Madness, but if anything it's a satire of American relationships from the mid-1930s to the late 20th century. It's about how culture and politics are intertwined, and it's definitely a precursor to great American musicals."
If you've never had the pleasure, Reefer Madness, like the 1936 film, follows impressionable teens Bill and Jimmy as they're seduced by pot-smoker-turned-psychopath Ralph and loose-living Blanche into the nefarious web of marijuana use. Jimmy and Bill discover it to be a cradle of fast driving, orgies, affairs, masturbation, jazz and then murder.
Yet, unlike the film — which has been called one of the worst of all time — the musical is actually meant to be funny. Written by Kevin Murphy and originally opening in Los Angeles in 1998, it later moved to New York City in September 2001, where it had a short stint on the off-Broadway scene.
"I first saw it in New York in the days leading up to September 11th," Levy recalls. "But because [of the attacks] it didn't receive much fanfare and it closed down after that."
It's since been revived and revamped, and performed nationally and internationally. Its Washington, D.C., production won two Helen Hayes awards for directing and outstanding resident production, and it was even picked up by Showtime for a small-screen rendition in 2005. Now, after a year of prep, the FAC takes a rip at the musical with Nathan Halvorson directing.
"The show is big," explains Halvorson. "We have a five-piece band and a 12-person cast. From changing lights to the costumes ... I think we have more wigs in this show than [we did] in Mary Poppins." (The prop simulating a joint is a carefully detailed mixture of dried mint leaves and other herbs, confirms Levy.)
Halvorson admits Reefer Madness has long been on his bucket list. "I've been wanting to do this show for 14 years," he says. "I'm a dedicated musical theater lover. ... I love musicals that have a little bite; I love farce and the ridiculous. That's this show."