The classic 1938 pot-scare movie Reefer Madness is back as a musical starring Neve Campbell and Alan Cumming.

by Joanne Morgan
photos by Jacques Brautbar

A raven-haired, bronzed Adonis steps forward clad in a silver lamé loincloth, gold metallic boots and a 24-karat crown of thorns. He extends his hand with a beatific gaze and inquires, “Are you ready to accept God as your savior?”

It’s Jesus in Heaven . . .though not quite as I’d imagined it. This “Heaven” looks more like a Vegas club act choreographed by Busby Berkeley, on a set designed by Bernini, with costumes by Liberace, music by Tom Jones, props by Tommy Chong, and a script by Hunter S. Thompson after a few hits of BC Bud. But this is the Heaven envisioned by the high-wire writers/producers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney for the set of Club Celestial in Showtime’s new marijuana musical, Reefer Madness, scheduled to air in April.

Filmed on location in Vancouver, Club Celestial’s gleaming white Naugahyde nightclub set is ringed with tables populated by saints, angels and martyrs who sway in unison, harmonizing on a catchy show tune:

Listen to Jesus, Jimmy
I’m the face on the Shroud of Turin
Listen to Jesus, Jimmy
Do I need to test your urine?

Played with lascivious abandon by Robert Torti of TV’s The Young and the Restless, Jesus leaps back onto the stage, thrusts a microphone into the face of the story’s hero, Jimmy Harper—portrayed by Christian Campbell—and demands, “Take a hit of God instead. Do you think you can handle the high?”

The camera moves in for a close-up. “I’ve got a new God now,” counters Jimmy, as the angelic chorus gasps and recoils in horror at the sight of a thick plume of marijuana smoke engulfing him.

“Cut!” yells director Andy Fickman, wringing his hands in gleeful delight.

“The original Reefer Madness began its cinematic life as a 1938 cautionary film entitled Tell Your Children,” Murphy explains. “It was financed by a small church group as anti-marijuana propaganda aimed at scaring the living daylights out of parents. Instead, it became a campy horror film of unimaginable silliness and grist for a lot of unintended parody.”

“Reefer Madness is the Rosetta Stone of midnight movies,” Studney adds. “It’s a morality tale of how reefer addiction ruins the life of its young protagonist, Jimmy Harper, and gets a lot of other people killed, sexually compromised or committed to lunatic asylums. In the black-and-white world of Reefer Madness, one puff of the demon weed instantly transforms the smoker into a horny, violent, cackling freak. Sure, it’s a bad movie, but a gloriously bad movie—which explains its cult appeal.”

Ironically, says Studney, Reefer Madness is credited with leading more people to toke up than any other anti-marijuana campaign. During the 1970s, college audiences turned out and turned on to watch this flick for an uproarious giggle. Today, Gen-Xers and -Yers have rediscovered its outrageous charms, thanks in large part to Murphy and Studney’s musical stage play and the recent re-release of the original film on DVD.

The idea for turning Reefer Madness into a musical germinated in 1997, when the production duo—who met as theater majors at Drew University— were driving back from Oakland to LA listening to Frank Zappa on the car stereo and talking about musicals. On the song “Catholic Girls,” Zappa makes a reference to “Catholic schoolgirls smoking reefer behind the rectory.”

Studney looked up and asked, “What about doing Reefer Madness as a musical?” By the time they reached LA, their first song was finished. After a week’s vacation in Key West, they’d polished off the whole book.

“My first impression was that anything called Reefer Madness would have to be a wild ride,” says Fickman, their choice to direct the musical (he has since written and directed the 2003 movie Who’s Your Daddy?). “Then I read the script and fell in love with it. The story was great and the songs were wonderful. I couldn’t wait to leap into the project.”

On April 30, 1999, the stage version of Reefer Madness opened in LA. It took jaded Angelenos by storm, attracting a devoted cult audience and copping numerous awards, including HIGH TIMES’ Stony Award for Best Theatrical Production.

During its LA run, Robert Greenblatt, Showtime’s vice president of production, fell under the musical’s spell. He approached Studney and Murphy about turning the play into a TV movie.

Sadly, when Reefer Madness opened in New York just four days after 9/11, even though the critics raved, audiences just weren’t in the mood. It closed in November after a brief run.

“Being in New York during 9/11 had a profound impact on all of our lives,” Studney reflects. “We were already busy writing the screenplay, but the event so shook our individual and collective psyches that we realized we needed to rewrite it, to cut it closer to the political bone.”

Studney and Murphy decided to warn people of the hysterical misinformation being promulgated under the guise of authority. This inspired such lyrics in the film as:

When danger’s near, exploit their fear
The end will justify the means.

“That, to me, seems to sum up pretty well what’s going on today,” Studney shrugs, “but it was also very relevant for the time when they were criminalizing marijuana.”

In transforming the stage play into the Showtime film, Fickman says he wanted to create a lusher, more elaborate film version. “The MTV generation doesn’t have a long tradition of musicals,” he says, “so we’re hoping people will go into this with an open mind. It’s like a very trippy version of The Wizard of Oz.”

Showtime’s involvement came with a reality check: Marquee names had to be added to the cast. Neve Campbell, Alan Cumming, Steven Weber and Ana Gasteyer were all recruited, joining original Reefer Madness stage performers Christian Campbell, Kristen Bell, John Kassir, Amy Spanger and Robert Torti.

Campbell, whose older brother Christian plays Jimmy, was the first to sign on. Cast as Miss Poppy, the dancing proprietor of the five-and-dime teen hangout, Campbell (Wild Things, Scream, TV’s Party of Five) calls this Reefer Madness “an intelligent comedy. I think it’s hilarious, and though it’s not a political movie, it makes fun of some American politics.”

Scottish-born actor Alan Cumming (Anniversary Party, Circle of Friends, X-Men) adds a wickedly subversive element to the role of the Lecturer. He loved the script: “It was such a bright, witty and biting satire, with lots of clever character changes that made it so much fun to work with, so it really stood out.”

Cumming describes the Lecturer as a sort of “ringmaster-cum–messenger of fear” who guides the audience through the film, pumping them up with hysteria. “It’s about the powers that be wanting people to be hysterical to distract them from the really important issues at hand.”

Steven Weber (TV’s Wings) was offered the role of Jack when the producers spotted him singing and dancing on Broadway in The Producers. “There’s only one word to describe my character, Jack—he’s a prick,” says Weber. “Metaphorically, Jack’s the right-wing conservative ideological take on marijuana. He’s the embodiment of evil. He’s the bad seed of the bud from which everything else springs—he’s definitely the paraquat bud.”

Weber thinks Showtime is brave to make Reefer Madness. “There’s nothing careful or derivative about it,” he says. “Individual freedoms are under siege, more than they’ve ever been in the last 60 years. Not that I’m advocating drug use per se, but the way marijuana use has been dealt with in America is incredibly hypocritical and overcriminalized. Reefer Madness is not a polemic; it’s done with a sense of humor, which is something that’s currently sorely lacking—particularly in regards to stripping away people’s human and civil rights.”

Drawn to the film because of the complexity of her character, former Saturday Night Live cast member Ana Gasteyer describes her role as the “den mother of reefer sin. Mae’s a good girl who got caught up in drugs, a very broken, lost and tortured ’30s style of wounded soul.”

Sadly, says Gasteyer, “the state of comedy today is predominantly ‘mom this’ or ‘wife that,’ so it was refreshing to have a role with so many aspects and real depth to the character.”

As the clean-cut, boyish Jimmy, Christian Campbell pivots from preppy square to orgy-mad libertine—no mean feat, even after several years of perfecting the role onstage. After one puff of marijuana, Jimmy is dragged into the tawdry world of sex, drugs and depravity.

“There’s nothing subtle about my performance here,” Campbell concedes. “That’s why the pure physical intensity was so challenging. In the ‘stoned’ scenes, there’s nothing medically accurate about the portrayal of marijuana’s effects—it’s more like heroin, crack, speed and meth all rolled into one.

“We’re not a pro-pot movie, but we’re not anti-pot either. We’re making a satire of misinformation. We’re commenting on government propaganda and public misunderstandings. We’re talking about the fake so-called truths that exist today, because we live in an age of deception.”

Initially there was a lot grumbling on the set that making a musical like this was too high on ambition and too low on budget. “We come by our opulence through our imagination,” confesses Murphy. “The most fun about doing this film has been watching the cast and crew get seduced into this crazy Reefer Madness web. I think we inspired the Vancouver film community to discover their inner show-queen concurrently with their inner pothead. It’s great turning rational skeptics into reefer zealots.”