MTI recently caught up with Brad Younts and Marc Lewallen, the founders of Chicago’s newly-created Cowardly Scarecrow Theater Company. Brad and Marc are the bookwriters and directors of their debut show about singing zombies and things that go bump in the night, appropriately titled, “Musical of the Living Dead”. Billed as a “Musical Zom-com” (zombie comedy), “Musical of the Living Dead” (MOTLD) is an original musical parody of classic zombie films and musical theatre. Featuring music inspired by everything from Gershwin to Green Day, MOTLD follows the lives of ten very different people trapped in a farmhouse during the breakout of a zombie apocalypse. They are all brought together seeking refuge from the brain-eating zombies outside and, following classic zombie genre rules, we see who gets eaten, who comes back to eat someone else and who lives to fight another day.
The show premieres on Friday, October 7th and plays through Halloween night at The Charnel House in Chicago (click here for ticket information).
Q: How did the idea come about to write MOTLD?
A: The idea came from a small spark that wouldn’t it be a funny sketch to have the folks in the mall in the original Romero film Dawn of the Dead break out into a song about being trapped in a mall. That was the seed that started it all – 2 very unlikely ideas – people being terrorized by zombies and singing about it – it led to the thought that rarely have two of our favorite forms of entertainment crossed paths – horror and musicals…
Q: What’s the show roughly about?
A: We like to call it a musical zombie movie mash-up – a parody of all things “zombie.” It contains the archetypes of your typical horror genre film pasted together in a pastiche send up of classic musical theatre songs – It begins with the idea of a handful of people stuck in an abandoned farmhouse at the beginning of a zombie outbreak – it honors and parodies some of the classic moments from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as well as from other zombie films’ memorable stereotypes and characters – your hero, your damsel in distress, your cocky jerk who knows it all, your not so bright tramp and her not so bright boyfriend, the pregnant lady, and the oversexed jock. These folks are all brought together seeking refuge from the brain eating zombies outside and following classic zombie genre rules – we see who gets eaten, who comes back to eat someone else and who lives to fight another day and hopefully carry on for humanity.
Q: Is there a particular genre or musical style for the score?
A: The score is a terrific mix of musical theatre styles, primarily honoring the catchy showtune and a little bit of pop/rock – musically it references everything from Gershwin to Green Day. We have classic comedy duets and power ballads and even a tap dance number to close act one. As much as the script is a parody of classic zombie films, the score is a parody of Tony winning musicals.
Q: Is this a first-time collaboration or have you worked on other projects together?
A: We did community theatre together many years back and often joked about writing a show together. When we reconnected after Brad moved to Chicago our friendship picked up where it had left off and very quickly we began to talk about the possibility of trying to do another show together again.
Q: What’s the process like between the bookwriters/lyricists and the composers?
A: Our process has been very simple for us – Marc worked with Mary our composer on another sketch show that he helps produce, and her husband Matt is a brilliant musician as well. We never expected to be able to write a musical – but working with them and getting to know how well they respond to vague ideas and concepts for a song when presented with lyrics and being able to sit down and write lyrics and take these lyrics to them and say ‘I was thinking of it sounding like a Jerry Herman song’ to them and one week later having them play us the song they wrote – and it being a process of saying – oh that’s perfect, or oh that needs to sound a little more bouncy or a little less happy or – even better – oh, that’s not what I was thinking but its 10 times better than I ever expected. We said very early on – there are no bad ideas because an idea that might not work for a particular moment might instead be perfect for an entirely different moment in the show. We had that happen several times when coming up with ideas for songs – We would come up with a great concept or a line and find that it didn’t maybe work perfectly for the moment only to realize it plugged in better somewhere else – two of our favorite songs were actually songs that we couldn’t figure out for two very separate and very different characters and we toyed with the idea of swapping out the basic theme of the songs between the two roles and they suddenly fell into place much more quickly.
Q: Has work begun on sets and costumes?
A: We started work on the set design right away – there are a lot of special effects happening in this show – a character gives birth to a zombie baby, heads are cut off, limbs are severed, intestines removed and brains eaten – we needed to make sure that the set design was going to be able to give us the chance to mask some of the special effects rigging and so on. Costumes are very entrenched in the archetypes of the characters – we are not reinventing the wheel – we are playing to the audiences expectations of those archetypes. The helicopter pilot will wear a bomber jacket, the demure lady will wear a pink dress, the frustrated housewife will wear matching coordinates – also – we are shopping for clothes and fabrics that will wash easily – these costumes will need to be laundered after every single performance.
Q: Will there be lots of blood and gore like a horror film?
A: Oh, yes! That was a huge part of the whole idea. We are both are huge fans of the horror genre – and love a ridiculous amount of gore. The idea of a zombie musical would not work without a whole lot of blood. And brains. One of our earliest conversations as we were writing the script was ‘how is this person going to die?’ how will we stage that? There are several sequences of carnage in the show and we want to try to make each one out do the one before it. The cast will be bloody. The first couple of rows of the audience will be bloody. People will be laughing and horrified all at the same time.
Q: Have all the roles for the show been cast?
A: Many of the roles were written with specific actors in mind. Marc has been lucky enough to work with some very talented folks these last few years in various comedy festivals and sketch groups and so on – We were able to write to people’s strengths in some regards that way – and we have held auditions for other roles and had some amazing talent land in our laps. It’s been such a huge outpouring of interest from folks. “A Zombie Musical? I want to be a part of that. I will audition, I will do running crew, I will do anything you need to be a part of that,” has been heard a blessedly generous number of times from people who are ridiculously talented.
Q: Is it a large cast with ensemble roles?
A: There are 12 characters. We found it an easy number of people to write for. Some roles are bigger than others, but it is an ensemble piece. We took several factors into consideration, budget, space we would be playing in, manageability of characterization. Your typical zombie film that we are parodying usually follows a small group of people. We stay fairly true to that for a pacing and character development standpoint.
Q: Networking (both social and professional) seem to play a big part in MOTLD’s development. Can you talk a little about your synergy with Zombiecon?
A: We are both firm believers that this is a word-of-mouth show – it’s the kind of thing that people will be excited to talk about. We decided to tap into that early and just start building the buzz. We started by just inviting our friends to join our facebook page and it started growing from there. There is a real passion out there (especially in Chicago) for zombie related projects and we’ve tried to be smart (with a limited budget) about when and where to market to tap into that passion – including online.
ZombieCon is an event that took place here in Chicago at a local comic book store. We were participating in a zombie march in Chicago and found ourselves walking next to the people who own the shop and were organizing the event and they took note of our special Musical of the living Dead tshirts we were wearing and that fell into place very easily. We have attended several zombie themed events locally. Zombie Pub Crawl, Zombie Prom. We are looking to do a few zombie themed events ourselves in the coming weeks, both as publicity drives and hopefully fundraisers. We want to have a brain-eating contest. We are hoping to do something along the lines of a blood drive for a local health organization. We want to do some guerilla marketing here and there dressed as zombies.
Q: Do you have any advice or suggestions for other theatre people looking to create and produce an original work?
A: All it takes is a seed of an idea. Find someone to collaborate with and be open to ideas from other people. We were very lucky to find ourselves in a position where we wanted to collaborate on this idea and had so many other talented folks around us with so much to give and offer in the way of talent and marketing and support. But it all started with us sitting down over a 2-page synopsis and margaritas and starting to hash it out. We very simply took a few characters and set down the themes and the beats for act one and act two. We wrote roles for people we knew. We were lucky enough to know Mary and Matt to compose the music for us, but there are tons of resources. You never know when your tiny idea could catch on. We have just started rehearsals for this show and have already begun to talk about future projects that we want to write. Part of it was luck, but most of it was just taking a chance and having faith in an idea and knowing that we could make it work. We have very talented actors many of whom have improv and sketch writing skills and we know that we are going to be collaborating and letting other people’s visions and ideas really develop this material and improve the material and make the material even greater. It has been a process of just taking a chance. For people who work together in community theatre or something like that, riff on each other’s ideas, play around with developing characters and goofing off with ideas. And play around with the ‘what if’ mentality – what if you took a supporting character from one show and a villain from another show and the leading lady from yet another show and built a whole new story around the supposed relationship you create between those people. Be inspired by unlikely things. And chances are pretty good that if you are excited about an idea – there will be other people to get on board with you and share that excitement and create it with you. Like a zombie bite…passion is contagious.