STAGE TO SCREENS: The Musical "Reefer Madness" and The Magical "Warm Springs"

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: The Musical "Reefer Madness" and The Magical "Warm Springs" This month we focus on two distinctly disparate films: Showtime's "Reefer Madness" (April 16, 8 PM ET), an outrageous musical romp inspired by the 1936 camp-classic film that warned the world about the potential evils of marijuana, and HBO's "Warm Springs" (April 30, 8 PM ET), the classy, true drama of a pre-White House Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking a cure for polio in the backwoods of Georgia.
Ana Gasteyer and Steven Weber in
Ana Gasteyer and Steven Weber in "Reefer Madness" Photo by Paul Michaud/Showtime

One could suggest (without inhaling, mind you) that FDR provides a link between both features. In the first, the 32nd American President (serving the longest term, 1933-45) is one of many characters played by Alan Cumming, a native of Scotland; in the second, a more conventional Roosevelt is winningly portrayed by Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh.

We speak to four of the "Reefer Madness" stars: Christian Campbell, Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming and Steven Weber; and to Jane Alexander, the distinguished actress who was twice Emmy-nominated for playing Eleanor Roosevelt, and now portrays the other Mrs. R, Franklin's taciturn mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt.

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Showtime's first movie musical, "Reefer Madness," is directed by Andy Fickman, and written by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, based on their stage success. Christian Campbell, who plays all-American teenager Jimmy Harper, has been with the project since it started onstage in Los Angeles. "We ran for a year-and-a-half," says Campbell. Its Off-Broadway run, at the Variety Arts, was not as long, "because of 9/11." The movie, he states, "is something we've been working on for a long time."

Had Campbell seen the 1936 cult film? "Not before I got cast. The writers invited [the cast] over, and we wasted 50 minutes of our lives. It is the worst movie ever! I think you can only watch it stoned. For us, it was torture." It depicts how a puff of marijuana turns innocent young people into homicidal maniacs, and as the musical notes, "hooligans and whores." Did he have to do any research on the role? "If you're talking about smoking pot, I did inhale, yes. [Laughs.] But the kind of drug-addled marijuana addiction that we portray is completely unrealistic. We had to act over-the-top, but still believe everything we were doing."

I mention that not everyone will react favorably to some of the scenes, such as the explicit orgy number. "And the Jesus number," adds Campbell. (His character hallucinates under the influence and sees Jesus, played by Robert Torti, as a lounge singer, wearing a white silk loincloth, a golden crown of thorns and gold cowboy boots. Part of his song declares, "All the cherubim say you gotta/Trust a man with a stigmata...") "As soon as you're afraid of offending anyone," says Campbell, "you need to get out of comedy."

His favorite part of the movie "is [Jimmy's] murder musical number. It's very rock 'n roll, and then operatic in the end." This marks his first time working with sister Neve Campbell "since we were kids [in Toronto]. We did Scottish pantos that our father used to direct. We were in a movie that we co-produced, "Too Smooth" (1998; a.k.a. "Hairshirt"), but we didn't have any scenes together."

The Campbells went into the family business. "Back in Holland, our grandparents were actors. Our mom ran a dinner theatre for years, and our father's a theatre teacher for over 30 years. I was doing high-school shows by third grade." In the fall, Campbell plans to produce an Off-Broadway play, Loose Ends, starring his sister. "Austin Pendleton is set to direct."

Next month, he finds out if a pilot he made will be picked up by NBC. "It's called 'Book of Daniel,' with Aidan Quinn and Ellen Burstyn. It's about an Episcopalian priest [Quinn] and his family. He's addicted to Vicodin and talks to Jesus [not the lounge singer]. I play his gay, log-cabin Republican son, who comes out to his father." Meanwhile, Christian Campbell invites everyone to watch "Reefer Madness" — "and participate in the craziness."

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Kristen Bell began playing Mary Lane, Jimmy's love interest, when the show played Off-Broadway. She enjoyed making the movie and has praise "for every cast member across the board — even the crew. Andy [Fickman] is a phenomenal director. I was very, very lucky."

One scene calls for Bell to "dress up in black leather," and she insists, "there couldn't be anything more opposite from my personality. The moment I put the outfit on, I was all giggles. I was blushing. Andy said, 'We're all supportive. Just do it.' By the end, I was having a ball. I thought: 'How many girls in my category — late teens, early twenties — are going to get the opportunity to do something this amazing?' I was thrilled!" Does she now, I ask, have a new leather wardrobe? Bell just laughs.

Bell plays the title role in "Veronica Mars," a UPN series in which she's a high-school student who uncovers the secrets of her affluent town, where her father's a private investigator. "I enjoy the experience, but it's a huge workload. Each show is a mini-movie." She also recently appeared in the HBO series "Deadwood." Recalls Bell, "That was awesome!"

Born in Detroit, Bell "grew up doing musical theatre. I loved being part of community theatres. I never really made a decision to be an actress; it seemed the most logical way to go, because my heart was already in theatre." She's twice been on Broadway (in the revival of The Crucible, starring Liam Neeson, and as Becky Thatcher in the musical Tom Sawyer), and has an upcoming movie, "Pulse," which she terms "a new Japanese horror remake. It's very scary." But not as scary as Mary Lane dressed in leather.

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Lecturer may be Alan Cumming's main role in "Reefer Madness," but like his Tony-winning Emcee in Cabaret, he appears in several guises. "First of all, I thought the script was so good, and then the character changing into so many different characters was good, too. We shot it in Vancouver, last year at the end of March. It was fun!"

Which "Reefer" role was his favorite? "The Goat Man was very special, and the jazz-bar player was a lot of fun. I had just come off 'Son of the Mask,' [a 2005 sequel]. It was kind of boring playing just one person." Cumming's in the enviable position of knowing what his next Broadway role will be (Macheath in The Threepenny Opera). "I'm looking forward to that tremendously. I've never done any Brecht professionally. I did some in drama school. I saw [the show] years and years ago, and we did a workshop just before Christmas [2004] for two weeks. It's a new adaptation that Wallace Shawn has done. I think we start in early January [2006]. The songs are quite a challenge."

He has several films awaiting release, and is a producer of one called "SHOW business," which tracks four Broadway musicals from their inceptions through to the Tony ceremonies: Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo and Caroline, or Change.

Alan Cumming agrees that the Jesus number in "Reefer Madness" will "cause some comment. I'm sure some people will be offended, but I don't think it's offensive. Actually, Jesus says, 'Don't do drugs.'"

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On the telephone from London, where he's appearing in National Anthem at the Old Vic, Steven Weber says that he thoroughly enjoyed making the darkly comic, satirical "Reefer Madness," in which he plays Jack, a dope pusher. Claims the actor, "As anyone who has experimented with drugs knows, it leads to orgies and cannibalism."

Does he have a favorite scene? "I'm going to sound like a typical idiot actor, but I had so much fun in every scene. The whole experience was nonstop hilarity. Even the crew was having fun."

Weber's making his West End debut. "Kevin Spacey [the Old Vic's artistic director] did this play at Long Wharf in 1989. He acquired the rights and decided to do it here. I auditioned for it, and got it." Also currently in London (in The Producers) is Brad Oscar, with whom Weber played on Broadway in the Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan musical. "Brad and I took over for Nathan [Lane] and Matthew [Broderick]. We've seen each other here. In about 15 years, Brad will finally be old enough to play Max." In the movie, Weber's relationship with Mae (Ana Gasteyer), whom he constantly supplies with pot, culminates in a musical number that has her wielding a garden hoe and singing, "There's blood upon the necktie/Your corpus is delicti." (Perhaps the point is that it's safer to give roses.)

Like his co-stars, Steven Weber defends the Jesus number, pointing out, "Few people know that Jesus had a wonderful voice." Next Saturday, viewers can decide for themselves, as they tune in and turn on for the crazy quilt "Reefer Madness."

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"Warm Springs," directed by Joseph Sargent, a four-time Emmy winner, stars Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon (as Eleanor), with Jane Alexander, Kathy Bates, Tim Blake Nelson, and David Paymer — all of whom give praiseworthy performances. Stricken by polio at 39, FDR learns about a possible "miracle cure" in the waters of rural Georgia. His time there changes his life, and years later it would be at his Warm Springs cottage ("the little White House") that he died while in his fourth term as President.

When Jane Alexander read "Warm Springs," Margaret Nagle's (first) screenplay, she thought, "it was very good indeed. I jumped at the chance to play it, because I loved being part of the Roosevelts earlier in my career [starring opposite Edward Herrmann in the 1976 TV movie "Eleanor and Franklin," and its '77 sequel "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years"], and I knew I wouldn't have to do any research. [Laughs]"

Alexander points out that in the two TV movies, "Rosemary Murphy played the mother." Herein, Sara Delano Roosevelt is pictured as a no-nonsense matriarch. Told by Franklin and Eleanor, somewhat early in their marriage, that they have agreed to divorce because he's fallen in love with another woman, Sara scoffs: "Falling in love is out of the question. Why do you think men have mistresses?" A short time later, she asks Franklin, "How do you intend to support yourself?" He replies, "My trust fund." Replies mater, "Divorce Eleanor and there is no trust fund."

Currently, Alexander is appearing in the Off-Broadway one-woman play What of the Night, in which she portrays novelist Djuna Barnes. The actress is credited with the work being "created for the stage," along with Noreen Tomassi and Birgitta Trommler (who also directed and choreographed). "I didn't know anything about Djuna until Birgitta Trommler introduced her to me. It's been a fascinating journey. We've been working on this, off and on, for a couple of years. We did a workshop in Germany, where [Barnes] is well known. I'm very grateful to have been introduced to Djuna, and all of her writings, particularly 'Nightwood,' which I think is a stunning book. It's been an interesting, fun time."

I ask the actress, who was born Jane Quigley in Boston, which role has given her the most satisfaction? "Certainly playing Eleanor Roosevelt gave me enormous satisfaction in the film world. Onstage, The Great White Hope [in which she made her Broadway and film debuts] and the two plays I did with Hank Fonda were immensely rewarding — First Monday in October [on Broadway] and Time of Your Life."

Jane Alexander has yet to see the finished film of "Warm Springs," but I think that, like many, she'll enjoy it very much. It's a solid, heart-warming picture that disproves the claim, "They don't make movies like that anymore."

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published later this year.

From Top: Cynthia Nixon and Jane Alexander in "Warm Springs"
From Top: Cynthia Nixon and Jane Alexander in "Warm Springs" Photo by Bob Greene/HBO
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