What do a re-animated deviant surgeon, cannibalistic serial killer, and a Max Von Sydow-inspired Catholic priest all have in common? They are all characters in musical plays inspired by horror films, and they are all played by the same classically trained opera singer, Jesse Merlin.
I became a fan of Merlin when I saw him play Dr. Hill in Stuart Gordon’s inventive transformation of his 1985 film Re-Animator into the stage musical Re-Animator: The Musical. Not only was he impressive from a vocal and comedic perspective but the role required crazy physical contortions to play Dr. Hill once his head is cut off and the doctor needs to carry it around with him.
As director Gordon explained, “He has to wear this rig where he has to hunch over to make it look like he’s carrying around his own head. He has to be a contortionist and I found out when we were in rehearsal that he actually is double jointed.”
You could say Merlin looks like a caricature of a young and untanned George Hamilton. In addition, he’s been singing since the age of 22 and boasts a bass-baritone voice perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan. But since that is not exactly what Hollywood is looking for Merlin has instead found a niche on stage as Mr. Horror Musical.
I had a chance to interview him as well as the director Amanda Conlon (who also plays Clarice) about the return of the musical Silence! that opens Oct. 11 at The Let Live Theatre at The Actors Company and runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm through Nov. 3.
Beth Accomando: You have become known as Mr. Horror Musical. Did you seek this out or did these roles just find you?
Jesse Merlin: All roads lead to Stuart Gordon. He opened the world of horror to me and gave me the role of a lifetime as Dr. Hill in Re-Animator: The Musical. The role opened up scant weeks before the staging began for the first full production. I determined not to let my chance to work with a legendary director like Stuart on the adaptation of a favorite film slip. My youthful appearance at the time was a problem, even though I’d spent my years in opera playing grandfathers, devils, old cuckolds and aged buffoons. Knowing well the famous story about Peter Sellers’ first big break in movies, I came to the audition in my best toupee, age makeup and suit, determined to prove to them that I could convincingly play older in a tiny venue like the Steve Allen Theater. My first success in LA was starring there as the middle-aged President in The Beastly Bombing years before. Fortunately, Stuart didn’t think I was insane, and the gamble paid off. I’ve been getting my head chopped off ever since.
BA: Talk about returning to Hannibal Lecter.
JM: Having another, full crack at Dr. Lecter in Silence! The Musical is something I’ve wanted for years. During our L.A. run in 2012, I auditioned a few hours before my nightly Re-Animator decapitation for the Silence! production that was moving into the same theater a few months later, the old Hayworth. I was lucky to get cast as the male “swing” for the new, professional L.A. production of Silence!, specifically to cover two performances of Hannibal Lecter that the star couldn’t. They landed on the second weekend of the run, and I was freshly returned from our RTM tour: I had barely two weeks of watching rehearsals before I had to go on as the good doctor. Terrifying but tremendous fun.
The 2012 production of Silence! was an unforgettable experience; I’d seen the original Off-Broadway production, and the brilliant director Christopher Gattelli, who had just won a choreography Tony for Newsies, brought his full staging to the L.A. version, and a couple of the original stars too. Silence! has since become a successful franchise across the world; when I spotted an October run casting in Hollywood, I knew this might be my chance to get a full crack at the good Doctor at long last.
BA: I have interviewed you in the past and you have talked about the difficulty of finding good roles if you are not a traditional leading man. Why do you think you have found such a welcomed place in horror?
JM: When I think about those past comments of mine, they strike me as sour grapes. Given the choice, who’d want to play a leading man and get saddled dragging a dull love story forward? Character roles in horror are the natural home for off-beat, weird, sui generis performers. As Stuart so eloquently puts it: “Villains must be the happiest people on earth. Just look how much they laugh!” And a villain like Dr. Hill or Hannibal certainly considers himself a hero, fully justified in his actions, when played from his own point of view. In my case, it was about finding the right fluid in which to suspend my monstrous ego. As a small child, I never wanted to be Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be Emperor Palpatine! Dr. Hill and Dr. Lecter just made sense.
BA: You played Dr. Hill in Re-Animator: The Musical, that role was physically very demanding. What are the challenges of playing Hannibal Lecter?
JM: Dr. Hill was insanely onerous, especially after 200 performances. As Stuart puts it: 200 decapitations, no waiting! Carrying my severed head around while singing required my body to contort itself in dangerous and uncomfortable ways to say the very least. Lecter isn’t nearly so physically challenging, but it’s a much bigger sing. His opening song is truly operatic and stretches to the higher end of my vocal range more than anything I’ve ever sung. I’m a bass-baritone, and the role was originally written for tenors or high lyric baritones. Also, even more than Dr. Hill, when you approach Lecter you’re approaching one of the most iconic screen performances of all time. It’s important to pay homage to the original, definitive interpretation, while still making it your own and incorporating it into the bizarre world of the musical.
BA: What can audiences expect from Silence? Is this a send-up of the movie? Is there gore?
JM: Silence! is an unauthorized parody (bless the USA and our parody laws), whereas Re-Animator: The Musical was an official adaptation by the original production team. Silence! is a bawdy, raunchy send-up dripping with camp and knowing winks. But thanks to the fantastic book by Hunter Bell and the genius of composer/lyricists Jon and Al Kaplan, what we have is both witty parody and worthy tribute. The tunes from Howard Shore’s masterful original film score are parodied as much as the iconic dialogue and scenes are, so fans of the film will spot countless clever, richly layered jokes. It’s not like Re-Animator in the sense that there’s no splash zone and no gore, but I promise you, horror junkies will not feel shortchanged. If you like the film you will laugh yourself silly.
BA: What are the songs like? Do you have a favorite?
JM: A few of the songs became viral legends back in 2002, and were so popular that the Kaplans wrote a whole show around them. They’ve got peppy titles like “Are you about a Size 14?,” “Put the f***ing lotion in the basket,” “I’d f*** me, I’d f*** me hard, I’d f*** myself so f***ing hard” and my own favorite, Lecter’s operatic ballad “If I could smell her c***,” which includes a dream ballet and is a musical tour-de-force. Lecter and Clarice also have a delicious tango duet called “Quid pro quo.”
BA: What is the relationship between Lecter and Clarice like in the play?
Amanda Conlon: Just like in the film, Lecter taunts and teases Clarice, however in Silence! he gets to push her buttons so much further in the most ridiculous of ways. We both get to send up the iconic Lecter and Clarice, parodying all of the classic one-liners, plus we get to go toe-to-toe through song and dance – what more could you want for these two?!
BA: You’re playing Clarice as well as directing, what’s that like?
AC: It’s both challenging and extremely rewarding to wear both hats. I’m the Artistic Director of Bucket List Theatre, which I founded in 2016 and have directed all of our productions to date. In a short amount of time, we’ve made a splash in the L.A. theatre scene and I think it’s partly due to my unique vision for the group along with the material we select. As a director, I like to work collaboratively with my actors and since I’m also an actor, I’m able to easily understand and translate my direction from the actor’s perspective. With Bucket List Theatre, we’ve created a playground for actors to come and stretch their creative legs and sink their teeth into roles they may not otherwise get chance to do all while creating awesome theatre. I’m also having a blast creating my Clarice.
BA: Do you think a female director brings something different to the dynamic of the story?
AC: Absolutely. Clarice is surrounded by nothing but men and yet this is her story, so who better to navigate the complexities of being female in a male-dominated world than a woman.
BA: What is the key to getting a horror musical right?
AC: In the case of Silence! we are extremely lucky that we are working with a brilliantly hilarious score by brothers Al and Jon Kaplan and an equally genius book by Hunter Bell, so they’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting. Aside from the material, I think the key to getting this particular parody horror musical right is to make sure that we lovingly send up these iconic characters enough that it’s funny to every audience member whether they’ve seen the movie or not so that the piece stands on its own in the most exciting, unexpected and hilarious way possible. If you’re a fan of the movie, however, our specific choices and nods to the film will be delicious icing on the cake.
JM: It helps immensely to choose a source film that brings its own loyal fan base because that brings in a whole range of folks who might not spend a lot of time seeing musicals. Horror fans are the most generous, supportive and loyal people on the planet.
BA: What do you like about playing Hannibal? Why does Hannibal capture our imaginations? What is it about cannibalism that we find so fascinating or repulsive?
JM: There’s almost no cannibalism in the books Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs; Lecter’s former crimes are referred to only passingly. The contrast of an erudite, charming, worldly sophisticate like Lecter indulging in the ultimate taboo is something people find paradoxically appealing and utterly fascinating. In some ways, he’s such a thinly sketched character in those first two books; I don’t even think we know his nationality or have any hint of how he became a monster until much later. He was originally written to have maroon eyes and six fingers on each hand with sharp, pointy teeth. But Sir Anthony Hopkins conclusively defined the character in the popular imagination with his alchemical combination of the voices of Kathryn Hepburn and HAL-9000, employing a total stillness and unblinking, predatory gaze that terrifies one to the utter core. Approaching the Mt. Everest of his performance even from a distance is pure joy.
BA: Is there another horror film you’d like to see adapted as a stage musical with the perfect role for you?
JM: I met with Tom Holland and his son Josh a few years ago about doing a rock musical of Fright Night, a perfect movie to adapt. It didn’t pan out, but I bet they successfully adapt it eventually. Peter Vincent is a dream role, but Tom warned me he expected Roddy McDowall to claw his way out of the grave to get the role back. Hellraiser would make a terrific musical, and I fully expect someone to get around to Friday the 13th. One dream would be to star as a musical Vincent Price in Theater of Blood. Can’t you just imagine Don Mancini penning a brilliant Child’s Play musical? The Thing, Halloween, Prince of Darkness… so many Carpenter films simply cry out for an adaptation. I’ve often pleaded the case with Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna for a musical version of From Beyond. If Re-Animator was the bloody musical, From Beyond could be the goopy musical.
BA: Oh my god! My imagination is spinning now. I want to see those especially the Theater of Blood idea! Is anything happening with Re-Animator? What else is new?
JM: It’s two years since we finished recording the original cast album of Mark Nutter’s superlative songs for Re-Animator: The Musical; I have a strong feeling 2019 will finally see its release. I’m shooting a cameo in a new Joe Begos movie next week, and hopefully another feature this fall. Just today I heard the exciting news that Rebekah and Dave McKendry’s Christmas horror anthology All The Creatures Were Stirring, in which I have a fun role, got distribution to release for Dec. 4.