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Film / Reefer Madness: The Musical

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Creeping like a communist
It's knocking at our doors
Turning all our children
Into hooligans and whores!

In 1998, writing partners Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy (no, not that one) took a road trip from Oakland to Los Angeles and came up with the idea for a musical adaptation of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children!). By the time they arrived in LA, they had written the first song.

As you might expect, the project eschewed that unintentional satire of the original for very intentional satire. It enjoyed several successful stints on stage, and Studney and Murphy adapted their book into a Made-for-TV Movie, directed by Andy Fickman. Premiering on Showtime on April 20, 2005, the ensemble features Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Steven Weber, Ana Gasteyer, Neve Campbell and John Kassir.

The stage production and film use the original's framework, opening with a group of concerned parents congregating for a film presentation, proffered by a man who just oozes ulterior motive. The movie he shows tells the story of Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, two upstanding, innocent teenagers, whose lives devolve into a twisted spiral of sex, violence and snack food, courtesy of the evils of marihuana. All the while, the original audience reacts with revulsion, shock and the occasional incredulity.

Reefer Madness: The Musical provides examples of:

  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: Mary and Jimmy are studying Romeo and Juliet, starting with the "proo-low-gwee".
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the stage show, Mae's summoning of FDR is laughed off under Rule of Funny as "It's a funny story," and dropped. In the film, FDR is established as being in town earlier, and even contains a sequence of her fighting through his guards to talk to him.
  • Adaptation Induced Plothole:
    • Both stage and screen end with FDR saving Jimmy's life by giving him a presidential pardon. However, in the movie, the Lecturer calls him a reckless lunatic, so his heroic role in the propaganda film makes much less sense.
    • The play took place loosely over a few months, but the film adaptation added a plot point about FDR arriving in town for a dance competition two weeks after the beginning of the film-within-a-film, meaning that it took less than two weeks for Jimmy to be convicted of murder and sent to the electric chair.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the 1936 film, the character Sally is based on is named Blanche.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: A film version of a stage musical adaptation of a cult classic 1930s exploitation film.
  • An Aesop: The original film was clearly an overblown attempt at anti-marijuana propaganda. The musical goes out of its way to demonize..... propaganda.
  • Angelic Beauty: In the song "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy!", Jesus is joined by a dozen backup singers/showgirls dressed in sexy angel outfits.
  • Angry Mob Song: The very end of the film, complete with book-burning bonfire. Considering the motives of the Narrator, it must mean his lecture was a rousing success.
  • Anthropomorphic Food: The pot-brownie-as-prostitute that Jimmy has sex with in "The Brownie Song" animated segment.
  • Arc Number: 420note  appears throughout the film, including a time on a clock, the street address of the hash house, and the hymn board in the church.
  • Arc Words: Onstage, anytime one of the downfalls of weed is shown, the actors will briefly freeze in a tableau as the phrase "reefer madness" is sung over the scene.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "My innocence ravaged! / My virtue devoured! / I can't count the strangers with whom I have showered!"
  • Artistic License – History: Near the end, FDR declares that they can fight the scourge of marijuana through the papers of William Randolph Hearst. The real FDR would never say that, given that Hearst was outspoken about his absolute hatred of the second Roosevelt administration.
  • Ax-Crazy: Ralph goes completely off the deep end in the second act... it's no help, however, that (at least in the movie musical) he's plagued by visions of Jimmy and Mary being terrorized and sodomized by Satan.
  • Bad Girl Song: "Little Mary Sunshine" combines the Face–Heel Turn of the innocent Mary, whose single run-in with marijuana leaves her fit to be tied.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The Narrator asks Principal Short "What is the human condition so powerful it can stave off all that is black and evil in these confusing times?" and taps a bulletin board filled with a collage illustrating The Power of Love. When Principal Short tentatively answers "Love?" The Narrator launches into an "In a time..." tirade berating the principal and the idea "that love will carry the day".
    The Narrator: The correct answer is, of course, vigilance.
  • Beat Still, My Heart: Mae, after beating Jack to death, rips out his heart at the end of "The Stuff" reprise.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Subverted. The nice ones are the nice ones. But once they start smoking, they cause more trouble than the bad guys.
  • Between My Legs: Jesus crawls through a tunnel of legs in "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" in the film.
  • Big Red Devil: The Devil shows up as a red guy with horns to tempt Jimmy into a life of marihuana in the "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" song.
  • Black Comedy: A lot of humor is gotten out of drug addiction, infidelity, rape, murder and cannibalism.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Unlike the 1936 film it was based on.
  • Blatant Lies:
    I'm not addicted, no / I just enjoy the glow
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: During the Dark Reprise of "Romeo and Juliet":
    We're happy, young and— [coughs hoarsely]
    Hemorrhaging blood!
  • Bondage Is Bad: Played for Laughs. After Mary takes one hit of that evil reefer, she fantasizes about being a dominatrix to show her descent into debauchery!
  • Chekhov's Gun: Jack using more than one bullet to kill Ralph may seem like a joke at first, but he's out of bullets when Mae tries to kill him.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Essentially the joke behind "Romeo and Juliet".
    I bet Romeo
    Marries his Juliet
    They have a baby, and make lots of friends!
    That's probably the way the play ends!
  • Composite Character:
    • Jimmy Harper is Jimmy Lane and Bill Harper from the original combined into one character.
    • The Goat Man from "The Orgy" and the Big Red Devil are separate characters in the film and many productions, but some shows combine the two since the former's Baphomet-like appearance makes him something of a Satanic Archetype anyway.
  • Counting Bullets: Jack fails to keep track of how many shots it took to take down Ralph, so when he threatens Mae with his revolver, it's empty.
  • Dark Reprise:
    • The reprise of "Romeo and Juliet", sung as Mary is dying, replaces the line "bubbling with love" with "haemorrhaging blood".
    • Onstage, "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" receives one at Jimmy's execution, where he pleads to Jesus to save his soul from Hell, only for Jesus to say he's just there to gloat and watch the show, and it's too late for any sort of penitence.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • After Ralph goes insane, he's shot instead of being institutionalized.
    • Sally dies earlier than her 1936 counterpart.
  • Delicious Distraction: The entire joke behind "The Brownie Song".
  • Deus ex Machina: Parodied, of course, when FDR appears and pardons Jimmy.
  • Died Happily Ever After: In the final song, Mary is released from Purgatory and Jimmy tells her to wait for him. "One day I'll get cancer, or hit by a train!" Some stage productions like to make up new ways for him to die, such as "eaten by wild bears."
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Sally and Jack. In the original, he was killed by an insane Ralph, and she committed suicide after testifying against the dope ring. In the musical, Sally is given Jack's death and he manages to triumph over Ralph, but ends up dying in a similar matter anyway after Mae betrays him.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: "The Brownie Song" in the film.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Mary seems to be singing about something else during "Lonely Pew".
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Downplayed. While it's played as Black Comedy, Mary forcing herself on Ralph is shown to be clearly not "okay". Still, if it was reversed, it would be a huge case of Dude, Not Funny!.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the original stage version, Mae throws herself off a building after she's unable to prevent Jimmy from being executed. Averted in the movie and current stage show.
  • Dumb Blonde: Both Mary and Sally in the film. Mary is the sweet but hopelessly naive kind, while Sally is promiscuous and constantly bumping into things.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: The original version of the show ended with Mary getting shot and ending up in Hell, Sally being eaten by Ralph, Ralph being taken out by Jack, Jack being beaten to death by Mae, Jimmy being forsaken by God and executed, and Mae committing suicide. Even the Placard Girl gets killed after Mae lands on her. The movie and later productions avert this by sparing some characters.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Jimmy and Mary... after one puff of marijuana.
  • Fanservice Extra: Onstage, a bikini-clad girl will occasionally cross the stage with a sign with a message on it.
  • Fetishized Abuser: Mary, under the influence of reefer.
  • Fiery Redhead: When Mae isn't being controlled by her addiction, she is strong-willed and easily a match for Jack.
  • Foot Popping: Jimmy and Mary both do this at one point during "Romeo and Juliet".
  • Framing Device: An unnamed Lecturer (implied to be a government official) is showing a small town PTA a "presentation" on the dangers of marijuana. In the film, the framing device is shot in black and white while the presentation is in colour. That is, until the very end, when the framing device suddenly turns to colour and the PTA are interacting with characters within the presentation (including those who died).
  • Freudian Threat: Jesus warns Jimmy that if he goes to hell for smoking marijuana, he might be forced to endure "separation from your family jewels".
  • Funny Background Event: There are dozens scattered throughout, but the most clear example is Shakespeare himself officiating the wedding between Romeo!Jimmy and Juliet!Mary in their fantasy. While they go off on a tangent about the happy ending Romeo and Juliet probably have, Shakespeare looks increasingly worried and even shakes his head a few times before just giving up.
  • Gender Flip: The owner of the Five and Dime is changed from male in the original film and play to female in the 2005 film version. This was done to create a role for Neve Campbell.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Jack's mustache falls squarely in the evil "pencil mustache" category.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • In-Universe: "A madam runs a different kind of house."
    • "Don't get queer on me!"
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Sally. If she can’t turn you on, you ain't got switches.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Jimmy during the final song.
  • Hope Spot:
    • The original play does this twice in a row. First, when Jimmy is about to be executed for Mary's death Jesus interrupts in a literal Deus ex Machina, but he quickly reveals that he’s just there to gloat for not taking his advice. Just when Jimmy thinks he’s truly done for, Mae interrupts with a presidential pardon, but after everyone celebrates, Jimmy , still in the electric chair, is accidentally electrocuted.
    • The film cuts both of these, removing the first scene entirely and softening the second into a straight happy ending. Meanwhile, the revised play reinserts the first Hope Spot, but keeps the happier ending.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The original was already considered an exploitation film, but due to being on cable seventy years later it's taken up several notches.
  • Humble Goal:
    I've taken a life,
    Been stripped to my essence,
    And to think all I wanted was swing dancing lessons!
  • I'm a Humanitarian:
    • Ralph when he gets the 'munchies'.
    • The Chinese in the movie are also suggested to be this.
      Chinese restaurant owner [to Sally's baby]: Care to stay for... dinah?
  • The Ingenue: Mary Lane. She's a sixteen year-old girl who loves babies, considers 9pm the middle of the night, and apologizes to God for the mortal sin of lying about a seat being taken. She even provides the page quote.
  • In-Universe Factoid Failure: With Romeo and Juliet. It's one of the most well-known tragic endings in history, but the two teenage leads seem to think it's an idyllic love story. The musical itself makes a point to give us the true aesop. After a brief kerfuffle that ends with Mary getting shot, Jimmy looks to Jack & Mae, who shake their heads at Mary's inquiry of "did they love until they grow old?" So he proceeds to lie about the original play's ending as he comforts a dying Mary in his arms, letting Mary at least pass on peacefully.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Even though he supports the anti-marijuana stance that the musical parodies, Jesus makes up for it with an awesome song, a Walking Shirtless Scene, and a troupe of sexy, angelic backup singers. He also offers The Moral Substitute of getting high off God.
  • Karmic Rape: This happens during "Little Mary Sunshine", in which Ralph's marijuana-facilitated attempted seduction of Mary works a little TOO well.
    Ralph: Help! This crazy tomato's RAPIN' me!
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Jimmy is about to be executed after being framed for murder, but he's saved in the nick of time by Mae and FDR.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the stage show, everyone from the Lecturer to Jesus will directly address the audience.
    Mary Lane, Oh, Mary Lane
    Will help you sing a new refrain.
  • Let Them Die Happy: In the Dark Reprise of "Romeo and Juliet", Jimmy lies about the ending of the original play in order to let Mary pass on peacefully after he accidentally (and fatally) shoots her.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Ralph only ever wears a tattered fraternity sweater from his old college.
  • A Love to Dismember: Ralph decapitates Sally when he becomes Ax-Crazy and tries to eat her, then later kisses her severed head.
  • Marijuana Is LSD: Just like in the original, but this time it's played for laughs. Actors appearing in the stage show are instructed to act like they're on crack, rather than pot.
  • Metaphorgotten: "Mary Jane/Mary Lane", Lampshaded by Mary.
    Mary Lane: I don't know what you're talking about, but I like the sound of it!
  • The Moral Substitute: In-universe example: in the film version, at the end of "Listen To Jesus, Jimmy," Jesus challenges Jimmy to "take a hit of God" and see if he can "handle the high". Jimmy refuses, saying, "I've got a new god now!"
  • Movie Bonus Song: "Mary Jane/Mary Lane" was written for the film as a replacement of both the more static Jimmy lamentation song "Dead Old Man" and the act break songs "Act One Finale" and "Jimmy on the Lam". This was done to make the story flow better in a movie format, but the song went over so well (and won an Emmy) that it was added to the stage show, replacing "Dead Old Man" there as well.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Easy to miss (as it's during the climax of "Murder") but Jack is of the opinion that 'the winner is the last one left alive.'
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: In the Triumphant Reprise that is The "Stuff" during Mae’s Heel–Face Turn, she delivers this to Jack with a garden hoe.
  • No Kill like Overkill: In the movie, this happens to both Ralph, who gets shot 6 times before finally dying after getting impaled and Jack, whom Mae beats to death with a garden hoe before ripping out his heart.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Jesus keeps doing this during the "Listen To Jesus, Jimmy" musical number. Seeing that he's Jesus, it's completely justified.
  • A Saint Named Mary: Mary Lane, who is not only kind and innocent, but is also stated to "love babies" and is sincerely religious.
  • Only Sane Man: Mr. Kochinski is the only person in the audience to question the Narrator's propaganda. Interestingly, the trope appears to be deconstructed since by the end, Mr Kochinski is enthusiastically taking part in the conservative rally/book-burning and is completely convinced by the story despite repeatedly questioning it earlier. In a twist, it turns out the real Only Sane Man is actually the Lecturer, who is the only one fully aware that what he's presenting is pure propaganda and it's heavily implied at the end that he doesn't fully believe it himself.
  • Pink Girl, Blue Boy: In the movie, Mary wears pink with the exception of a blue skirt and Jimmy always wears blue. This emphasizes their nature as a perfect couple to the conservative in-universe audience.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: A most triumphant example, as some changes made for the movie, like "Dead Old Man" being replaced by "Mary Jane/Mary Lane" and "The Truth" replacing the reprise of "Reefer Madness," were so popular that most stage productions now include those changes.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Silly Love Songs: "Mary Jane/Mary Lane", where Mary Lane and Jimmy wax eloquent about how The Power of Love will save him. Every other character in the film even joins them, some by breaking character or coming back from the dead.
  • Spit Take: Evidently Satan did not expect Jimmy to turn Jesus down on his sales pitch.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: While the original play ended with every major character dead, the 2005 movie and subsequent productions of the play keep Jimmy and Mae alive as per the 1936 original.
  • The Stinger: If the audience sticks around after the credits, they are rewarded with Satan laughing in their face.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: "Shut up, bitch!"
  • Triumphant Reprise:
    • Mae's reprise of "The Stuff."
    • In the stage version Jesus reprises "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" at Jimmy's execution to mock him for not listening to him.
  • Values Dissonance: Invoked In-Universe throughout the movie.
    • A parent at the assembly has trouble pronouncing "marijuana", and repeats "merry Jew?' several times.
    • The Narrator mistakes Mr. Kochinski's name as Russian rather than Polish, and implies that either way this makes him a Dirty Communist.
    • In a song cut early in the show's run, Jimmy's parents educate him on: oversexed, pot-smoking "darkies", the wily, opium-fuelled Chinese, and lazy, heroin-addicted Mexicans.
    • "Tell 'Em The Truth" puts Communists and queers on the mob's hitlist after Darwin, Freud, and smut.
    • Sally gets rid of her baby by giving it to a Chinese restaurant owner, with the heavy implication that he's going to put the infant to good use in his business...
      Chinese restaurant owner: Care to stay for... dinah?
      [Cue the assembly glancing at the sole Asian woman among them, who sinks in her seat]
    • In the movie, the Lecturer also explains the link between reefer and jazz... calling jazz musicians "weed-blowing" and "ginger-coloured" in the process.
  • Widowed at the Wedding: In the film version, Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane imagine themselves at their wedding when Mary was shot during the gun struggle between Jimmy and Jack the dope dealer, singing the reprise of "Romeo and Juliet" while Mary dies in Jimmy's arms.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Jimmy tries to speak Shakespearean English to Mary.

Alternative Title(s): Reefer Madness The Musical