I’ve been playing guitar since I was six years old. I’ve loved horror for at least as long since viewing the 1931 Frankenstein right around that tender age. I couldn’t have imagined that more than thirty years later, my love for both would be combined in that most unusual of subgenres: the horror musical. Over the past several years, I have played guitar and/or bass guitar for several shows. Many are the typical staples of Community Musical Theatre: The Music Man, Annie, Oklahoma, Bye-Bye Birdie, Godspell. A few have been more unique like Shrek: The Musical and Hairspray. All of these, and others, have been wonderful and often challenging experiences, but three stand out in my mind as the richest, most engaging, and the most musically bonding experiences I’ve had in theater. And they all happen to be horror or horror-adjacent musicals: Carrie, Heathers, and The Rocky Horror Show.
The Most Notorious Flop of All Time
If there is a Heaven’s Gate (1980), Ishtar (1987), or Howard the Duck (1986) of the stage, it is without a doubt, Carrie! The Musical — the most notorious flop in Broadway history. The definitive book on the subject is even titled Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops (1991). Reading author Ken Mandelbaum’s description of Carrie’s original production in this book is a strange experience. The version I played guitar for nearly thirty years later bears only a passing resemblance to this bizarre monstrosity.
The Broadway preview (and the Royal Shakespeare Production that preceded it) was apparently built upon a classical Greek tragedy style staging with minimalist sets, abstract costuming, and fevered modern dance culminating in a final scene on a white “stairway to heaven.” The show was at turns laughable and brilliant. The tonal whiplash contributed to its legendary status. The apparent lack of understanding of the material by the producers and director made it a campy fiasco that only survived its preview run to play five regular performances before becoming a mere memory for those who saw it. There was not a cast recording made. No revivals, community, or high school productions. For years, it was considered lost to time and happily left on the ash heap of musical theater history.
Songwriters Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford along with Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the show’s book based on Stephen King’s novel and his own screenplay for the Brian DePalma film, were heartbroken. The grounded, reality-bound, intimate show with fantastical elements that they created had gotten lost in the direction, design, and choreography to become a cautionary tale. The score and dialogue (which had largely been discarded in the Broadway version) were not perfect, but workable. Twenty years after its legendary demise, these original creators reassembled to see if they could salvage and resurrect Carrie. They went back to the basics that had been established in a workshop version of the first act, which had been mounted in 1984. The revival would be set in the real world — no more abstractions, no more surreal costuming, no more minimalist sets. Several of the songs were dropped and replaced with new ones, but the backbone of the score remained untouched. The songs were re-orchestrated for a small core ensemble: piano, bass, drums, guitar, and some melodic instruments, rather than a full pit orchestra. The show wouldn’t even appear on Broadway but take on a cult-like intimacy by being produced on an off-Broadway stage.
I first became aware of the revival when it came to a small but significant theater in the Seattle area. I was unable to see that production, but my curiosity was certainly piqued, being a long-time fan of the novel and the film. After all, wasn’t it the most notorious musical flop of all time? A few months after that, my friend Aimee, who is an active musical director for shows in the area, contacted me to ask if I’d like to play guitar for a college production of Carrie. Again, I was intrigued and, despite the drive that would be involved, I said yes for two main reasons: one, I’m a big Stephen King fan, and second, Aimee is without a doubt my favorite music director to work with.
The production was enthralling. The stagecraft — sets, visuals, costumes, etc. — were incredible, particularly for a non-professional show. The set had been built on a rotating platform with the high school gym on one side and the home of Carrie and Margaret White on the other. The pit band was placed in a section of the audience, a rare situation in which we could see what was going on during the show. Often, we would get caught up in the story. The ability of the young actors and singers was at a level I had not anticipated and the fact that they were only a few years out of high school themselves added a level of realism to the show. It was filled with sincerity, passion, humor, warmth, angst, and the supernatural elements were handled with great care, giving them a great deal of verisimilitude. The closing scene between Carrie and her mother followed by Sue Snell cradling and singing Carrie to her rest always moved me deeply. The drummer, whom I had known for many years, never failed to openly shed tears during this scene, even as a Jason Voorhees hockey mask hung from the front of his kit.
I simply could not believe that this show had been such a flop. Well, as it turns out it was not this show that had failed but a very different version of it. It goes to show what happens when people have notions of what they think horror or the musical is supposed to be, but don’t really care for or understand them. With the initial production, it was assumed that a serious horror story simply was not good subject matter for a musical. This was of course ridiculous as had been proven by Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd several years earlier and proven again by future shows. Carrie finally seems to be rising above its reputation in its present, more intimate form. I for one hope it continues its ascent.
Gently…With a Chainsaw
The following year, Aimee asked me to play guitar again for another angsty teenage high school musical: Heathers. For some reason, I had not seen the movie all the way through up to that point and didn’t really have much idea what I was in for, but I thought, well of course I’ll do it! Carrie had been such a positive experience I was excited for another production with Aimee and this college’s theater company. A few weeks later she asked if I would mind switching to bass as a local guitarist was dying to play this show. After I saw the score, I was so glad for the switch. Heathers is without a doubt the most difficult music I have ever played, and I barely made it through the bass part — the guitar part is about ten times harder, created by one of the best studio guitarists in the business. The songs are difficult in every way, filled with complicated, and constant, shifts in meter, key changes, and virtuoso techniques for everyone involved, including the actors who were required to stretch their vocal ranges beyond what is usually required of mere mortals.
All that said, Heathers is also by far the most rewarding experience I have ever had playing for a musical. My abilities were stretched further than they ever had been, though I still had to make some concessions to my limitations. The camaraderie that developed within the ensemble was very strong as well. I learned a great deal from the guitar player and his enthusiasm for the challenge was infectious. The drummer may be the best I’ve ever worked with, and I had the great pleasure of working with him again — along with enjoying his humor — a little over a year later on The Rocky Horror Show. I sat in awe of the reed player as she deftly moved from baritone sax to oboe, to alto sax, to clarinet with precision and speed, never missing a beat. And, of course, Aimee at the piano, conducting with her head and shoulders as she skillfully and passionately played one of the most complicated pop/rock piano scores any of us had ever seen. I felt like a fraud playing with such talent, but they never made me feel that way. It all culminated with bonding over a bottle of Jameson one evening and admitting to our fears and limitations in playing this complicated score, along with sharing many laughs and personal stories. We named our band Gently with a Chainsaw after one of the lines in the show — and as any horror fan knows, the saw is family.
Heathers itself never made it to Broadway but has become one of the most popular shows for college theater. A less, um…shall we say intense, version was also created for high school productions. As we were closing our show, dozens more were being produced across the country along with a professional version on the West End in London. Our production, however, had the distinction of being the last to perform the bawdy and very un-PC song “Blue,” which has been replaced by “You’re Welcome,” originally written for the high school version of the show. Like the movie, it is a show of pitch-black humor dealing with school violence, bullying, class structures, racism, homophobia, and teen suicide wrapped up in a highly entertaining package. It may not strictly be “horror” but it’s awfully close to it, and frighteningly closer to reality than may first meet the eye. Heightened, yes, but a reality nonetheless. It is a truly remarkable show that feels very much like a cult film for the stage. Like any great cult movie, if you know, you know. And those in the know on Heathers recognize how special it is.
A Wild and an Untamed Thing
I had wanted to play for a production of The Rocky Horror Show for years. I was a fan of the movie and had seen a professional stage production at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. So, when Aimee asked me to play guitar for it, I immediately cleared my schedule and joined up. I knew it would be a wild ride to play the show, but none of us could have foreseen just how wild, and ultimately heartbreaking that ride would get.
The show itself is legendary and likely needs little introduction, but just to catch everybody up. The brainchild of avowed “monster kid” Richard O’Brien, Rocky is an exploration of sexual liberation through the lens of classic horror and science fiction situations. In many ways, it is a love letter to thirties monster movies and fifties alien invasion schlock that O’Brien grew up with on television and at the movies. The original production was a huge underground hit in London, drawing the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Marianne Faithful, John Lennon, and other countercultural dignitaries to its audience. The 1975 film version is the very definition of a cult movie, drawing throngs of fans, often in costume and equipped with various innuendoes to call back at the screen, to midnight showings for over forty years.
In our first rehearsal as a band, which included Aimee on piano, a bassist, the drummer I had worked with on Heathers, and a sax player, as well as myself primarily on electric guitar (a green American Fender strat if you wanna know), we immediately realized how easy and fun the music is to play. There are not a lot of big surprises, but it leaves plenty of room for improvisation and creativity. In many ways, the score is the exact opposite of Heathers, which requires playing pretty much every note on the page and undivided attention. We could get lost in these songs and let them roll along in the classic 50’s and 60’s grooves they adhere to.
As the final weeks neared, however, I became more and more nervous about one thing in particular. The band was going to be on stage during the entire show — and we were to dress appropriately. I was terrified of being on stage in fishnets and a bustier. Luckily, the clothes I found for myself from my wife’s closet just didn’t work out. I was able to go instead with an ensemble more like Eddie’s from the show — jeans and various t-shirts with classic monster movie and science fiction posters printed on them. So, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, and King Kong it was rather than my wife’s red nightie, and believe me, I was fine with that.
Because Rocky is such an iconic show, the director wanted to bring something different if he could. The cast was extremely diverse racially, culturally, and in background. Some were very experienced actors and others new to theater. It was a very rewarding group of people to interact with. I rarely go to cast parties or gatherings but was eager to do so with this group. We would often meet in the director’s small basement apartment and laugh to all hours of the night. Once we watched and commented through the sequel (wait, no…not a sequel, not a prequel, an equal) Shock Treatment (1981), and on another discovered that the narrator in our show had a bit part in the science fiction cult classic Logan’s Run. These were joyous times and really at the heart of what Rocky is all about — encountering and interacting with people you may not run into outside of an experience like this.
During the show itself, we as a band were encouraged to add callbacks. Some were the classics that had been handed down from the early days of the movie’s growing cult audience. The director was an expert at callbacks and improvised several when attending performances. The drummer then began to create his own, sometimes simply saying “nice” in response to a line that could have even the slightest possible sexual connotation. One we hoped to do, but were afraid would throw him off was, upon the narrator’s first entrance to call out, “hey! Isn’t that the guy from Logan’s Run?” The actor later confessed that he would have broken character with laughter if we had done it.
Though the film follows the stage show very closely, there are a few notable differences between them. Absent from the movie is Brad’s solo number “Once in a While,” a heartbroken 50’s-style tune sung after he sees Janet with Rocky on a viewscreen. On stage, Eddie and Dr. Scott are played by the same actor giving a great deal more for that actor to do in terms of range and stage time. Finally, the quiet and reflective closing song “Superheroes” was removed from the original U.S. theatrical cut, though it is in the U.K. version now widely available on home video formats.
By the time we got to our first weekend of performances, we were raring to go and there was an energy to the production. We met Steve, a very exuberant Rocky Horror fan who attended every live performance in the area as well as regular showings of the film. He also handed out rubber chicken necklaces to everyone in the cast, crew, and ensemble (yes, I still have it). We called him Chicken Steve, naturally. The audiences were for the most part receptive, if not a little reluctant at first, as is often the case. Depending on your background, Rocky can be quite a shock to the system, which is very much the point.
What we did not really know at the time was that an unseen enemy was going to shut down our show, and indeed much of life in general, in a very short time. In the beginning, no one was really taking the COVID-19 crisis all that seriously. We knew it was there but expected it to be another blip on the radar in the United States just like West Nile, Avian Flu, Ebola, and H1N1 had been over the past twenty years. Things moved swiftly. We started with full houses, no restrictions. The next two weekends were open with social distancing and then masked. Before our final weekend, we shut down. It was heartbreaking to see it die but it was also in the best interest of everyone that we did.
A few weeks ago, I played for my first production since Rocky, a small, teen version of the show Working for a local community theater. It was a terrific production and I’m grateful for it and every show I’ve done, but there is something special and unique about these three. Even more than seeing a horror movie in a theater, there is something about seeing or taking part in a horror musical. Movies, at least ones like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), or more recently Cats (2019), are fun with audience involvement, but these situations are rare and inappropriate for most movies. Theater is different. The audience, the communal experience, the magic that happens in the space are all vital to live theater. Watching horror in a live theater is a rare and powerful experience. Whether it is the high, serious drama of Sweeney Todd, the satire of Heathers, the humor of Little Shop of Horrors, or the rivers of blood of Evil Dead, there is just something about horror on stage and set to music. Unfortunately, most of those stages are dark and silent right now. But theater has been here before. As it always does, it will rise again.