Browning's Cult Film Inspires New Musical, The Unknown, in NYMF, With Moriber and Narayan

News   Browning's Cult Film Inspires New Musical, The Unknown, in NYMF, With Moriber and Narayan
The Unknown, a new musical about sideshow freaks, based on the 1927 cult film by Tod Browning ("Freaks"), begins a run Sept. 23 as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

NYMF and P73 Productions, Inc. present the show at the Barrow Group Theatre to Oct. 1. Among its players are Manu Narayan of Bombay Dreams and Brooke Sunny Moriber of The Dead.

The dark new musical is directed by Jean Randich with book and lyrics by Janet Allard and Jean Randich, and music and musical direction by Shane Rettig.

Recipient of the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award and workshopped as part of The Public Theater's New Work Now Festival, it will feature Brooke Sunny Moriber (The Wild Party, James Joyce's The Dead), Manu Narayan (Bombay Dreams), Joel Garland, Steven Rattazzi (Obie winner, Painted Snake in a Painted Chair), Dale Soules (original cast of Hair), Thom Sesma and Piter Marek.

The design team includes Ken Travis (sound), Sue Rees (set & video) and Joel E. Silver (lighting).

"At the center of the sleazy sideshow world of The Unknown stands Alonzo The Armless Wonder, a carnival knife thrower who is madly in love with Joan, his luscious and mysterious target," according to production notes. "Alonzo's love gives birth to an obsession so powerful that it tests the limits of sanity and drives him to the brink of madness and murder. Twists and turns come flying at full speed in this freak show of dreams, where nothing is what it seems and where love can be twisted by hatred in an instant. The Unknown is fast-paced and suspenseful from its opening chords to its gruesome conclusion. It is a thrilling carnival ride about the madness that can ensue when love comes your way." Tod Browning's 1927 silent film (lost and re-discovered in 1968) starred Lon Chaney and a very young Joan Crawford. This new musical "breathes new life into the cult film by melding Browning's stark expressionism with edgy rock, honky tonk, Latin, blues and jazz music."

Janet Allard's works include Vrooommm! A NASComedy, Salmonboy, Loyal, Untold Crimes of Insomniacs and The Swim. Her work has been seen at The Guthrie Lab, The Kennedy Center, Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, The Women's Project, Theaterworks and Perseverance Theatre. She is a Macdowell Colony Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow, and recipient of two Jerome Fellowships.

Shane Rettig is a musician, composer and sound designer whose credits include crooked at SPF, Joanna P. Adler's Request Concert at Mabou Mines/Suite, Everything Will Be Different at Soho Rep, Learning Curve (directed by Michael Sexton), Elmina's Kitchen (directed by Marion McClinton) and The Civilians' Nobody's Lunch at P.S 122.

How did The Unknown come to be written?

Co-lyricist and co-librettist Randich told, "I was visiting a friend, and we kicked back to watch horror films on TV — a Joan Crawford retrospective. Suddenly Tod Browning's 1927 classic, 'The Unknown,' starring Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in love with his target, Joan Crawford, flickered on the screen. We had never seen or heard of this strange film, but were riveted by its grotesque, erotic appeal. About 15 minutes into the film a scene took my breath away. What had previously seemed real was revealed to be illusion. It made my skin crawl. I later discovered that Tod Browning had worked as a carnival barker before he came to Hollywood. He knew how to seduce an audience into believing one thing and then startling them with another. I was hooked. How had they made what was perfectly natural so horrifying? What is it about bodies changing shape that is so frightening and fascinating? What was it about this twisted sideshow that rang true? We had collaborated previously on Alice Down the Hole, a music theatre retelling of Lewis Carroll's fantasia set in an underground NYC lounge. We decided to use this haunting film as a jumping off point and create it anew as a gritty, live carny road show."

What is the flavor of the piece?

"We are putting a highly ironic spin on the latter day descendants of the sideshow hucksters," Randich explained. "With equal parts Woyzeck and WWE wrestling, or silent film horror and heavy metal parody, we shift radically in tone from a hot-blooded send-up to erotic grotesque. With the support of Page 73 Productions, we have been able to stage a series of developmental readings that have helped us learn how to control the tone. For example, without Chaney's genius, we had difficulty fashioning a twisted deviant who remains so human the audience identifies with him no matter what. We want to put the human being, the human body, and all we conceal and reveal, even from ourselves, back in the center of the show."

Performances play Sept. 23 at 8 PM, Sept. 29 at 4:30 PM, Sept. 30 at 8 PM, Oct. 1 at 1 PM and 4:30 PM.

The Barrow Group Theatre is located at 312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Tickets are $15, and are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting or


Founded in 1997 by Nicole Fix, Liz Jones, Asher Richelli, and Daniel Shiffman, P73 Productions, Inc. "is committed to developing and producing the work of emerging playwrights."

Since its inception, P73 has helped develop works by numerous artists including Peter Ackerman, Peter Morris, Julia Jordan, Karen Hartman, and Michael Friedman. Works developed by P73 have moved on to productions at Primary Stages, New York's Women's Project and Productions, Baltimore's Center Stage and San Francisco's Magic Theater. In 2003, the company launched the P73 Playwriting Fellowship, which is awarded to one emerging writer annually. Its production of Monica! The Musical is also being presented in the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival. For more information visit

From Left: Joel Garland, Brooke Sunny Moriber and Manu Narayan in <i>The Unknown</i>.
From Left: Joel Garland, Brooke Sunny Moriber and Manu Narayan in The Unknown. Photo by Daniel Shiffman
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