Many critics agree that the first “worst movie ever made” was Reefer Madness, the infamous 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that tried to convince America that smoking pot would instantly render you a rapist, a murderer, or the kind of person who sells a newborn for heroin money. The producers would be appalled to find that incalculable tons of marijuana have been smoked over the decades by the midnight movie and cable TV viewers who made Reefer Madness a cult hit.
They’d be even more appalled that Reefer Madness is back in San Francisco as a live musical, opening Sept. 15 at the Victoria Theatre, via Ray of Light. This production is not a clone of the movie, but an extract that riffs and spliffs with a fast-paced slapstick mashup of film noir, horror flicks, and Broadway musicals.
“The show does something pretty extraordinary,” Reefer Madness director Jenn BeVard tells SF Weekly. “We’ve got Jesus as Tom Jones doing a Vegas-style number, we’ve got psychedelic dream-orgy sequences, we’ve got horror-movie gore.”
As preposterous as it sounds, this musical has been an award-winning hit with critics since opening off-Broadway in 2001. Former Desperate Housewives and Battlestar Galactica head writer Kevin Murphy wrote the book and lyrics, and a 2005 TV movie adaptation of Reefer Madness on Showtime won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.
But the plot and characters of this musical stay true to the original film’s fear-mongering, racist origins.
“It’s this absurd horror film trying to make us all afraid of the dangers of marijuana, of people of color, of jazz music, of immigrants,” BeVard says. “Kevin saw the true meat of that as fear propaganda, and decided to use that to create a sometimes absurd, sometimes horrific, sometimes hysterical musical.”
Despite contemporary stereotypes about “liberal Hollywood,” the movie industry was not terribly progressive back in the 1930s when Reefer Madness was released.
“There was really an influx of film propaganda coming out of Hollywood,” BeVard says. “There were a lot of right-wingers in Hollywood at the time.”
The original film was a critical and financial flop upon its release. But it didn’t matter, because church groups and U.S. taxpayer dollars financed it. A government agency called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics sponsored the film, and its commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, had a blank check to fund anti-drug media intended to terrify white American communities. Years after its unsuccessful release, high-school kids would be forced to watch Reefer Madness in health class.
BeVard sees her musical as very topical — and not in the THC-balm or ointment sense. Reefer Madness reflected the same Middle American resentment of multiculturalism that’s rearing its head again today.
“The 1930s were really the beginning of the type of partisanship, fearmongering, and truly anti-immigrant sentiment that has been fomenting in this country for a long time,“ she says.
But the hatred and bigotry baked into the 1936 Reefer Madness has been neutered by decades of relentless mockery of that hilariously awful film. Add in the inspired, zany choreography of Alex Rodriguez — Carrie: The Musical, Heathers: The Musical, SILENCE! The Musical — and this musical parody promises to land some great pot shots at the original film.
Reefer Madness figures to be a raucous, one-of-a-“kind” sendup with a blunt message that still resonates today. If the producers of the original Reefer Madness knew what was being done to their beloved propaganda, they’d be rolling (spliffs) in their graves.
Reefer Madness, Friday, Sept. 15 – Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., rayoflighttheatre.com