Taking a Stab at Musical Theater

(Director Jerome Sable and co-music and lyricist Eli Batallion strike a typically serious pose)

           After seeing Stage Fright, the horror musical opening today in select theaters (and available on iTunes), one would expect the men behind it to be fun guys.  They don’t disappoint.  When I sit down with director and writer Jerome Sable and his music and lyrics collaborator Eli Batallion, the pair has the loose, humorous energy of guys who’ve known each other for years.  Right at the beginning, when I ask how their musical collaboration worked, Sable declares, “You did the bass, I did the treble,” and Batallion answers “Yeah” without missing a beat.  Then they break into laughter.

            The filmmakers put story and music first in the best musical tradition.  Stage Fright dramatizes the over-the-top goings on at a theater camp stalked by a riffing, metal happy slasher.  Sable explains the various musical styles: “We have the style of the fictional play, The Haunting of the Opera, our take on the British mega musical, a little of Phantom, a little Les Mis; there’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein type of stuff with the kids at the camp; and then of course the killer and that musical palate, sort of 70s rock.”  Vocalist Rick Miller, who appeared in the duo’s short musical The Legend of Beaver Dam and toured with his one man Simpsons homage MacHomer, provides the voice of the “metal killer.”  (He cameos as the victim in the opening scene.) 

            “[We were] sort of hand picking favorite stuff,” Sable comments.  “That was part of the fun of this project,” Batallion agrees. “We pulled these things that obsessed us for a very long time and we actually got to make this film.”

            They also scored two major casting coups: Minnie Driver, who plays Kylie Swanson, the theater diva brutally offed at the picture’s start, and Meatloaf, who stars as “balls to the wall Roger McCall,” Swanson’s husband and the cash strapped owner of a theater camp where stepdaughter Camilla (Allie MacDonald) is stepping into her mom’s old role.  Driver starred in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, while Meatloaf, of course, appeared in the original cult horror musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“It was a great thing to have people of that pedigree,” Sable enthuses. “These were veterans of not just movies, but specifically they get musical theater and musical theater movies.”  The director enjoyed working with both of his bold faced stars.  “Meatloaf approaches music more in [terms of] character and that’s his approach . . . which was unexpected but amazing to work with.  He has to believe everything that he does.”  Driver, meanwhile, not only provided a Janet Leigh factor for the movie’s first kill but also brought along some serious pipes-- and a sense of humor.  “Minnie gets it, the British sort of irony point of view,” Sable explains.   “I think Brits love irony, and there was that element of satire and wink.”

“Taking the piss,” Batallion says, to which Sable laughs.  “Yeah!  The piss is gone.  It’s been took.”

Besides the stars, Stage Fright has a good deal of gay content to appeal specifically to theater queens (not to mention the presence of gorgeous Big Love stalwart Douglas Smith as Camilla’s brother Buddy).  Newcomer Thomas Alderson stars as high strung stage manager David, who’s drawn to supposedly “gay, but not in that way” male diva Sam.  “We knew we wanted to make some jokes, but hopefully not in a mean spirited way,” Sable says.  “There’s a high energy to musical theater camp that is kind of beside the point in terms of sexuality or sexual orientation . . . It’s just like, ‘We’re at theeeaaattteeer camp!’” 

“You have to go there,” Batallion agrees.  “I think the love story between David and Sam Brownstein is kind of a charming little [thing].”

The creators also had fun putting a theatrical spin on horror movie conventions.  “It’s part of the tradition of the slasher to try to always be creative with how people get killed, going back to Agatha Christie and And Then There Were None, where everyone dies in this sort of unexpected, interesting, and almost playful way,” Sable states.  “And this was the fun task of, ok, what are the ways to kill people in the context of the theater?  Like the shower scene, everyone’s paid homage to Hitchcock’s shower scene but has anyone referenced the incredibly weird musical theater habit of steaming up a shower to assist your voice?”

            In one particularly memorable sequence, a skeazeball director is made to—spoiler alert!—choke on a light bulb.  This creative kill comes up when I ask the guys if any real casting couch knowledge inspired the movie’s storyline.

“I had to sleep with you for the role,” Batallion deadpans.

“That goes back to the [gay] question,” Sable jokes.  He elaborates on the motivation for this subplot: “Let’s do our riff on the casting couch with sort of horror consequences.  Like you have this casting couch and then you have these lights falling on him afterwards…”

I mention that the scene came off like “symbolic castration.  And then he’s made to fellate a light bulb.”

“And I do hope they end up teaching this film in a psychoanalysis film course, and a freshman ends up writing some paper on the light bulb fellatio,” Sable cracks.  “And when [they] do, [they’ll] send it to me.”

“That’s our next promotional video,” says Batallion, easily piggybacking on his friend and collaborator’s joke.  “Exclusive light bulb fellatio.”

Stage Fright opens May 9 in New York at the IFC Center and Cinema Village 12th Street.  The film is also available on iTunes.

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