Now this is how you do intentional camp. The 2000s and 2010s were an era when fascinating off-Broadway weirdness was crossing over into the mainstream like never before, but there’s a certain kind of off-Broadway musical that even in that era was mostly confined to its own little cultural corner…the tiny, campy spoofs that had been going on in some form since Little Mary Sunshine in the Sixties. In spite of the cult film versions of Reefer Madness: The Musical and Repo: The Genetic Opera, true off-Broadway camp had never really had much mainstream success in the actual theater until this show came along. Even in the modern era it could never possibly have transferred to Broadway, but it became possibly the most unlikely smash hit of all time by being just that funny.
It’s true camp, not straight satire like its closest existing cousin, Reefer Madness: The Musical, but unlike, say, the stage version of Xanadu, it plays its camp with stiff upper lips instead of mugging winks. In many ways, it’s actually an extremely faithful adaptation of the original Silence of the Lambs…not only is almost every event of the plot intact, but everyone is still speaking and behaving in character. It just alters the tone of the piece so that you can see how over-the-top and ridiculous the classic horror film always secretly was. I mean, it doesn’t come across that way, thanks to the film’s direction and music, but we are talking about a movie where a guy escapes from prison by wearing another man’s face, so the potential for this kind of treatment was definitely already there.
Jenn Harris performs with an over-the-top parody of Jodie Foster’s accent, but apart from that she plays her role completely deadpan, and it just adds to the comic insanity to see her take everything so seriously. Brent Barrett is an unconventional choice as Hannibal Lector, but his air of class and soaring baritone are very well suited to the role, and a better choice than trying to do a comedic exaggeration of Anthony Hopkins’ performance—after all, how exactly do you make Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Silence of the Lambs any more over-the-top than it already is?
As for the score, it’s surprising how well it works as a musicalization of the movie’s content, despite the obvious change in tone. Indeed, many of the songs’ lyrics…such as the sleazy expository number “The Right Guide”…are taken almost verbatim from the film’s script. The opening, a chilling chorale with hilariously deadpan lyrics, is a perfect tonesetter for both the horror and comedic elements of the show. And the authors were committed to their concept: not only did they write a gorgeous romantic ballad and then title it “If I Could Smell Her Cunt”, but they actually made it a legitimate character song for Hannibal Lector.
Buffalo Bill is actually developed much more fully as a character here than in the original film, with batshit-crazy character numbers like “I’d Fuck Me” and “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket” fleshing out his motivations, which were mostly just talked about by the other characters in the film. And there is plenty of other brilliant material such as “It’s Me” (a plot number based on the aforementioned face-stealing incident), the crocodile-tears ballad “My Daughter Is Catherine”, and the urgent eleven-o’clock showstopper “Catherine Dies Today”.
Throughout, the songs and performances manage to take themselves completely seriously while simultaneously drawing attention to their utter ridiculousness. This show was something of a trendsetter, giving small-scale off-Broadway spoofs a legitimacy and potential for success they simply didn’t have before. And while this influence has not always been positive (we can pretty much blame it for that awful 50 Shades of Grey parody musical from a couple years back), I still have to give the show itself credit…the reason it was the most successful of those spoofs is because it really was the best of them.