The New York City premiere of The Exorcist took place 40 years ago this very night, and Orgasmico Theatre Company has marked the occasion by creating a hilarious, hard-rocking and fourth-wall-breaking musical comedy entitled Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment, which runs throughout this month as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Fans of Stuart Gordon's stage hit Re-Animator: The Musical are celebrating the return of actor Jesse Merlin, who played the diabolical Dr. Hill in that production and has a long history of horror-related stage roles, including Hannibal Lecter in Silence! The Musical.
Along with all of the company members, Merlin plays multiple parts in Exorcistic, which not only lampoons The Exorcist and its iconic scenes and dialogue, but manages to poke fun at the whole concept of musical horror parodies themselves, layering one meta-joke on top of another, all the while toying with the idea of the original film's production being “cursed,” and even halting the action multiple times to riff on film-geek “Anatomy of a Scene” interactive features. Of course, we're also treated to infectious '70s-style rock numbers loaded with gloriously filthy lyrics, deliberately low-tech recreations of special effects scenes, and actors storming up the risers to sing, dance and grind various body parts against audience members. What's not to love?
I got a chance to chat with Jesse about the origins of Exorcistic, the enduring legacy of The Exorcist, the play's intense dedication to William Friedkin's classic, and of course, his favorite horror movies.
[Note: some NSFW language below]
FEARnet: Exorcistic has been packing the house, and the audience is really into it. I hear a lot of Re-Animator fans came to see the show on Sunday too.
JESSE MERLIN: That performance was definitely a little Re-Animator: The Musical fan reunion. We had at least seven die-hard RTM junkies there, true repeat offenders. Phillis Kemp saw RTM over forty times, and my buddy Mike B. Anderson (who happens to be supervising director of The Simpsons) saw it at least twenty times. Very gratifying to gather the tribe around yet another horror musical. Phillis had already seen Exorcistic once or twice, and the rest left beaming, promising to return.
Re-Animator was a huge success as well... any word if will it be revived for another run?
It was an amazing experience, and we have high hopes for its future. I was decapitated more than 170 times and never missed a show. It enjoyed a long run at the Steve Allen Theater in 2011, won a bunch of awards, and in 2012 we brought it back for a brief run at LA's Hayworth Theatre en route to the New York Musical Theatre & Edinburgh Fringe. The NYMF run sold out weeks before we arrived, and the crowds there were among the most responsive and appreciative. It feels like New York is the place it will inexorably end up, and it's a show that appeals to musical theatre people and grue lovers alike. Stuart Gordon and our producers are working in earnest to raise the dough for a full Off-Broadway run... but to those of us who were part of the bloody crew, we can't get wet again soon enough.
Were your big horror roles in RTM and Silence! a key factor in your being cast in Exorcistic?
Classic horror films adapted to the musical stage seem to be my racket nowadays. My work as Dr. Hill in RTM was key in getting me considered for an audition when Silence! The Musical, which incidentally just closed a successful run of over 500 performances Off-Broadway, spawned a new LA production. Dr. Hill and Hannibal Lecter definitely have a fair amount in common. The narcissistic sociopath professor-type is tremendous fun to play. I learned about Exorcistic because my friend Pat Towne was slated to direct. Pat had just directed me in a wild comedy show called "Sketches from the National Lampoon," which was the first new NL stage show since 1986. I went and auditioned for Exorcistic on a lark, and it gave me a chance to audition using Hannibal Lecter's operatic powerballad (which even includes a dream ballet) "If I could smell her cunt" as my audition song. Ever since I'd gotten to sing that unbelievably funny and vulgar song as Lecter, I was determined to use it as an audition piece. I'd planned to use it defiantly as kind of a "screw you" to drop in front of a casting director or a show I felt sure would never consider me, but it ended up being a fairly appropriate audition song. You can imagine what kind of impression it made. Frankly, I'm surprised I got cast.
Tell us a little about the creative process behind Exorcistic.
Since Exorcistic is a show at Hollywood Fringe, the rehearsal and production process was truncated to the point of insanity. It's pretty amazing we got it all together in time; we share the theatre with around 10-15 other shows and have 30 minutes to set up and 30 minutes to strike before and after each performance. The script is meta-theatrical and tells the story of a hardscrabble bunch of self-important actors trying to mount a production of a show called Your Mother Sucks Cocks in Hell as an Exorcist musical in time for the movie's 40th anniversary. The show's conceit encompasses a workshop, a fringe production, and a full staging at the Pantages. All the while, things go more and more wrong, and by the end of the show everybody is possessed. But every beloved moment from the film is recreated or parodied in various ingenious ways on stage. I play the snooty director of the project, who gets tasked to take on the role of the Father Merrin character for the big exorcism scene at the end.
Was your character drawn pretty much as we see him? How much input did you bring to the role?
Most of the character work I did on my own. There just wasn't time in rehearsal to dig into the "why." I spent a lot of time with the film, studying the details of Max Von Sydow's extraordinary performance, I read William Peter Blatty's astonishing and profound books, and watched the sequels... and I may be uniquely "qualified" for this sort of show, since I work as a soloist, choral section-leader and cantor in the music ministry of a large Catholic church.
I love how it's mentioned in the dialogue that there's not going to be a hip-hop number, so it's pretty much a given that it's going to happen at some point.
The actors promise to approach the project with dead earnestness, and one of them swears "We will have no hip-hopping priests!" Well, you can imagine what happens.
Was that a fun number to perform?
Honestly, it terrified me at first. My professional background is in opera, which might be as far from hip-hop as you can get. I really didn't want to do it and even considered backing out over it. Somehow I managed to embrace it and now it's one of my favorite moments in the show, a real selling point to friends: "Come see me as the hip-hopping exorcist." I like hip-hop, but never thought I'd have to do it myself.
As a fan of the movie, I was impressed by the dead-on parodies of all the key scenes and dialogue, especially your recreation of Max Von Sydow's famous entrance. Did you and the cast watch the film for research?
We all watched the film individually. I especially wanted that moment to look exactly the way it does in the movie, as much as possible. We have a purple light focused and a smoke machine for that one tableau. The Pazuzu statue even appears during the exorcism scene, in a very clever way.
How familiar were you with the film before getting involved with the play?
Shamefully, I hadn't actually seen it until I booked the audition. I love horror and have thrown myself into a horror film bootcamp in the last few years since I became the musical Dr. Hill. I've been working my way through the canon of major horror films from the mainstream to the most cult and obscure. But inexplicably, The Exorcist had escaped my attention until now. Watching it for the first time as an adult, it provoked an intensely visceral response. Though it's not excessively gory by modern standards, it is still scary as hell and an engrossing, flawless work. What struck me most were the technical aspects, the erudite music selections and cinematography, and the perfectly rendered detail work by the actors. Few movies or books have successfully combined a thrilling yarn and deeply felt Christian apologia so well.
As you've immersed yourself in horror movies so much lately, what are some of your favorites?
One that always comes to mind first is Theater of Blood, because the hunting-down and summary execution of critics is every actor's not-so-secret fantasy. I also worship Vincent Price, his many wonderful Corman & Poe films, and his later work with American International like The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Madhouse. I love the films of Argento & Fulci, and one cult classic which has most shocked and fascinated me lately is XTRO. Re-Animator was one of my first horror movie fixations - I remember the paralysis and disbelief which hit me when I saw it as a teenager - and still my favorite. I'm a John Carpenter nerd too, totally obsessed with The Thing. Other favorites include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Stuff, The Devils, Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes (original and remake), and I'm a huge devotee of the Japanese face-melter Hausu.
Will there be anything new introduced into tonight's program to mark the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist premiere?
Michael Shaw Fisher, the author/composer of Exorcistic, who also acts in the show, has promised cake and wine for the occasion. We should also have green t-shirts from the show for sale. It's a 10PM show, so it should be a fairly high and crazy audience.
In addition to tonight's 10pm show, Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment will be playing on June 21st, 27th and 29th, all at the Open Fist Theater in Hollywood. If you're in the L.A. area, this one's a must-see, especially if you're a serious Exorcist fan. Visit the Hollywood Fringe Fest site for tickets and showtimes.