Every once in a small while we see an actor create a role so pitch-perfect, so damn real, that we just sit back and file that performance under the category of "F#$%ing Genius." We know in our hearts that no one else could ever or should ever play that role. Such is the case with The Silence of the Lambs. I remember watching that film as a young actor and thinking "OK, Ted Levine is Buffalo Bill. They just let the cameras role in his house with Jodi Foster there, and every size-14 girl within a 20-mile radius should live in fear for her life." He was that brilliant. Just let it live in history.
This sentiment changed, however, when a strange phenomenon in musical theater started happening. A huge, gaping hole in creativity and producing, a hole of historic proportions (maybe I should have written this anonymously?), started to unravel, and all anyone wanted to do was turn random movies into cheesy pop musicals, stuff them with C-list film actors, and come up with a product that had housewives across the country turning off QVC and dragging their husbands and kids to flood the box offices.
This formula, though, becomes a bit more interesting when you add to it two Internet-savvy, musical-genius brothers from L.A. with a wicked sense of humor. They took a brilliant film, one so historic, so iconic, so unsuspecting, so unlikely to be even glanced at for potential "musicalization" (an actual word now in musical theater), and turned it into a musical. That film was The Silence of the Lambs, and the musical, of course, is Silence! The Musical. They took the scariest, filthiest moments of that film, turned them into epic, sweeping showtunes, and published them on a website. Within months these guys had a following that would trump the number of teenage girls (and boys) staying on YouTube until all hours of the night uploading videos of themselves singing "Defying Gravity."
And that is how this actor was given the opportunity of a lifetime when this bit of filthy heaven finally found its way onto a stage. When I first heard that they were turning this into an actual stage production for the NYC Fringe Festival back in 2005, I knew that the people they were approaching to write the book and direct were not only two of the funniest people, but two of the smartest people, as well. So, essentially, I threw myself at the feet of Hunter Bell and Christopher Gattelli and begged them to let me audition; I knew this was something that I had to be a part of. After having done the last year and a half of Cats (Now and Forever) on Broadway, I was feeling a little burnt out on being in musicals and had been shying away from any of those big Broadway "machines," but this had the word "amazing" written all over it.
I worked on that audition more than any other in my life, and when I got "the call," I was over the moon. And this was for a non-paying, six-performance, only-downtown Fringe Festival -- in the dead of summer! So we put up our little, scrappy show, and we sold out all six of our shows, with lines of fans clamoring to get in. We also won Best Musical at that year's festival, and there was immediate talk of a transfer to an off-Broadway house.
That was six years ago, and we just opened off-Broadway this past summer. (What happened in the interim could constitute a thesis on how theater in New York City can go wrong, but I digress.) The passion of the cast, the creators, and our fearless director Christopher Gattelli showed that none of us were willing to let this die. It was too good, too smart, too funny, and none of us had ever heard an audience response like the ones we heard at the Fringe. So we held on. For six years we held on. Finally, in 2010, Christopher was able to reconnect with one of the original Fringe producers, Victoria Lang, who had also spent years carrying the Silence! The Musical torch by mounting a small production of the show in London. I and Jenn Harris (the woman who plays our Clarice Starling and is hands down one of the drop-dead funniest performers on the entire New York scene right now, meaning, like, seriously, if you see her name on anything, don't ask questions, just go), who was as obsessed with the show as we were, took ourselves over to London to see it. And we knew, we just knew, it had to come back to life in New York. And thanks to the attention it grabbed in London, it was able to happen.
One of the things that I found so mesmerizing about Ted Levine's performance in Silence of the Lambs was the way he played against the stereotype of the effeminate gay man or transsexual. And what I find fascinating about this is the fact that there was a huge backlash in the gay community when this film was first released. At the time, at the height of the AIDS crisis, portraying a gay man as a poodle-toting, lipstick-wearing serial killer was viewed as intolerable and seemed to represent everything the community was fighting against. How far we've come in 20 years! (And how far we still have to come, but that's another thing.) What I feel makes Ted's performance stand the test of time is the fact that his character's mental illness takes precedence over his sexuality. Whether Buffalo Bill identifies as gay, transsexual, or heterosexual is completely irrelevant to how Ted played him. Even when I watch the film now, it feels as if Buffalo Bill doesn't even know or necessarily care where his sexuality lies. And, again, in writing Bill's big number, in which they recreate one of the most disturbing yet iconic moments in film history, the "tuck," the Kaplans were keenly aware of this ambiguity. The song is entitled "Would You F#ck Me," and in one lyric Bill sings, "This basement's a castle, and Billy's the King, or is it Queen? Either way, I'm in charge." In a line, the Kaplan brothers entirely capture what is so enthralling (and infuriating to the gay community of 1990) about Levine's performance.
What I've loved most about recreating Silence! The Musical this past summer at Theatre 80 (and now at the 9th Space Theatre at P.S. 122) is how acutely aware our creators are of the need to keep the original, low-budget, scrappy, downtown feel of our show. Even their choice of venue was painstaking. I've always thought that that is what makes the show so appealing. So often in New York theater, the instinct leans toward "more is more." Silence! has always been the polar opposite: the less we have, the better it serves us. Hands pointing like guns, as opposed to exact-replica prop guns, suit us just fine. We're constantly amazed by the high-profile people who have not only heard of the show but have come down to our little theater to see us: James Earl Jones, Joan Rivers, Kelly Ripa, Josh Groban, Fred Schneider of the B-52s, Jonathan Demme and the entire art staff of the original film, and of course Jodi Foster. They have all been incredibly gracious and supportive and seem to genuinely love what we've created.
In the life of an actor, a lot can happen in six years, and the fact that after all that time, so many of the original Fringe cast were still willing to leap at the chance to come back and do this show (even if they had gone on to star in other Broadway shows, films, TV, etc.) was a huge testament to what we had created. I walk onstage sometimes and look at the talent that surrounds me, and it's overwhelming. Again, Jenn Harris, the comic genius. David Garrison and his star power and unique take on Lecter. Broadway star Diedre Goodwin and her steaming, show-stopping 11 o'clock number. Harry Bouvy. Howard Kaye. They all choose to be there. It's incredible.
As a side note, I wish I had a picture of my face the moment the Kaplan brothers came in and played "Would You F#ck Me?" for us in rehearsals. It was like the best Christmas-morning surprise ever! I remember walking home with the greatest sense of pride, joy, and sheer terror at the thought of, "Wow, I get to sing that song! And recreate that moment in film history."
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