In 1970, public-interest attorney Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (better known as NORML), a non-profit lobbying organization working to legalize marijuana. In 1971, while perusing Library of Congress archives, he came across the 1936 American propaganda exploitation film “Reefer Madness.”
Stroup bought a print for $297 and distributed it to college campuses countrywide. “Women Cry For It — Men Die For It!,” the tagline of the silver-screen darling of pot smokers everywhere, is full of poor production values and excessive over-acting. Its original intention was as a public-service announcement demonizing marijuana, but the film has become a cult classic comedy instead.
“We’ve got weed, sexy dancing, zombies and blood — it can’t get much better than that,” says Jacksonville native Samuel “Sam” Fisher, a local director who’s leading the cast of “Reefer Madness The Musical,” Players by the Sea’s summer musical opening on July 20 at the Jacksonville Beach theater. The play is presented by Mystic Surfboards and The Koegler Family Foundation.
In 1998, the film inspired a musical satire of the same name, which premiered in Los Angeles and then off-Broadway in 2001, and was later morphed into a made-for-television film in 2005 featuring Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell and Ana Gasteyer.
The plot revolves around over-the-top events that ensue after “pushers” lure high school students to try marijuana: The teenagers turn into zombies — literally, zombie teenagers who resort to cannibalism. Think today’s bath salts.
During the play, character Mae, who is in an abusive relationship with boyfriend Jack, who supplies her with weed, sings “The Stuff”:
I ought to leave him, but something
makes me stay
I’d try to kill him, but my guy gives me lov
And the stuff!
Sometimes he’s rough
He throws me down the stairs, but
deep inside he c
He buys me lingerie, and the stuff!
I was a student, good grades and so naïv
A handsome stranger, some empty p
But I don’t get hooked
I’m not addicted,
I just enjoy the glow
I like to have my
No harm to any
Though the fun sometimes escapes
when Jack gets stoned and rapes me …
Nothing numbs me better than the stuff!
Players by the Sea’s version includes lyrics by Kevin Murphy, music by Dan Studney, musical direction by Bryant Miano and choreography by Alejandro Rodriguez. Most of the cast members are either high school or college students, including Nick Sacks who plays Jimmy, Chris Robertson (lecturer), Jet Thomas (Mary Lane), Erik DeCicco (Jack Stone), Aaron Marshall (Mae), Jerald Wheat (Ralph Wiley) and Olivia Chernyshev (Sally).
“The musical parody of the film gets far crazier with the realism really falling apart toward the end,” Fisher says.
Although the musical’s subject matter is taboo, it’s an all-ages show. “There’s one ‘bitch’ in there somewhere,” Fisher reports. “But that’s pretty much it for profanity.”
Fisher, who has directed performances all over the country from Los Angeles to Charlotte, N.C., wasn’t sure how the cast would simulate smoking a joint in a play that revolves around just that.
“We can’t use tobacco and we obviously can’t use marijuana,” he says. “So we use this herb called damiana, along with haze and fog machines.”
Damiana is a shrub native to Southwestern Texas, as well as areas of Central America, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. According to WebMD.com, damiana has been used for centuries to treat headaches, bedwetting, depression, nervous stomach and constipation and as an aphrodisiac, to increase sexual desire.
Fisher says that while they preserved most of the script from “Reefer Madness The Musical,” which has been produced by several local theater groups in cities including Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Charleston, Sacramento and London, Players by the Sea’s version has more of a cartoony feel.
“Our costume designers are amazing,” Sam Fisher explains. “The aesthetic of the play has that old-comic-book look, like ‘Dick Tracy.’ There are old-timey jokes, prop comedy and really high-quality dancing. Honestly, the biggest obstacle we’ve had with the play is just trying to get everyone’s schedule to match up.”