The earliest version of Reefer Madness was released in 1936. It was financed by a church group who intended it to be a morality tale warning parents of supposed dangers of cannabis use and helped prime the public for prohibitionist Harry Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act introduced a year later. In spring of 72, the founder of NORML, Keith Stroup, rediscovered the film and organized college campus screenings throughout California to raise funds for the California Marijuana Initiative which would potentially legalize cannabis in the 1972 fall elections. Though the initiative failed to pass, Reefer Madness was soon after elevated to the status of cult classic and became notorious for midnight movie screenings with spirited audience participation including mass pot smoking during key scenes.
Reefer Madness was “re-imagined” as a musical comedy by Kevin Murphy and premiered in Los Angeles in 1998. I missed the Seattle premiere of the production in 2008 but was recently able to see it thanks to a revival from Seattle Musical Theatre. As might be expected, there’s significant differences between the film and stage versions (other than the addition of music/dance numbers) such as changes in character names and reshuffling of plot points, but surprisingly much has also been left untouched or made just a bit more over-the-top for added comedic effect.
Similar to the film, the story in Reefer Madness: The Musical is book-ended by a lecturer, performed in the version I saw by Ryan Glascock who imbued the role with just the right amount of authority and histrionics. Speaking from a PTA meeting podium to the audience, he sternly warns of the imminent danger that marihuana poses to the American way of life. Unlike the film, his lectures reverently reference Harry Anslinger and makes explicit what is (barely) a subtext in the film such as racial fear-mongering for example; adding hilariously offensive commentary on links between marijuana, jazz music, and the corruption of the youth of America (white women in particular).
Also differing from the film version is a subplot involving a doomed romance between two cloyingly clean-cut teens, Jimmy and Mary (played by Jaron Boggs and Allyson Jacobs-Lake), whose relationship is tragically ended by marijuana-induced hedonism and murder. Other notable additions to the story in the stage version include Jimmy undergoing a spiritual struggle depicted in song and dance numbers featuring Jesus, angels, a hedonistic marijuana cult and Satan himself. Similar to the film, the effects of pot-smoking depicted in the film are as far from reality as imaginable (more like the effects of high dosage crack, crystal meth, pcp, heroin, salvia, demonic possession and zombification combined). This of course leads the corrupted villains and protagonists to commit acts of unspeakable depravity, blasphemy, betrayal, domestic violence, rape, incest, murder, and even cannibalism!
Somewhat fittingly, Reefer Madness: The Musical evokes the dark humor and camp of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another cult midnight movie of the 70s (though it started as the stage musical Rocky Horror Show before being made into a film). I’d recommend it to all but the most fundamentalist or easily offended comedy fans since it deserves a following at least as large. Much credit must be given to writer Kevin Murphy who, with musical collaborator Dan Studney created the farce that Reefer Madness was always meant to be with standout song and dance numbers including the title song, “Down at the Ol’ Five and Dime”, “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” and “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy”. Kudos also to the Seattle Musical Theatre production’s direction and set design by Steven Fogell, choreography by Candace Larson, and the entire cast and crew for putting on such a memorable show. Reefer Madness: The Musical will continue its current run in Seattle through Oct. 30 at Magnuson Park Theater.