From Screen to Stage: The Rise of the Parody Musical

At a small midtown studio, the producers and cast of UNAUTHORIZED! met to rehearse That 80’s Time Travel Movie, a musical based on the 1985 Robert Zemeckis classic Back to the Future. I arrived around hour four as the group workshopped a number called “Forgetting You.” It’s a realization duet that follows the second act’s opener and hits like an upbeat male version of “For Good” from Wicked, heartfelt but comedic. Chris Barnes, who wrote the book and lyrics, directed actors Matt Rogers and Pat Swearingen, Marty McFly and Doc Brown respectively. The show’s composer, Ryan Mercy, provided an accompaniment as Barnes fine tuned movement and performance.

“This would be a good time for you to move to the ladder,” Barnes said, referring to a chair at the end of the room that represents the watchtower and Marty’s way back to the future. The UNAUTHORIZED! crew were in good spirits and for good reason: unlike their opening, they’ve had more than five weeks to concoct, write, rehearse, and stage this musical. Their previous two September performances played to raucous at-capacity crowds. After that, they repeated the process and result with Steel Petunias, based on the 1989 hair-salon centered film Steel Magnolias, and once more in December with Ghostcatchers, based on a movie about a group of men who bust ghosts. For their February revival, now backed by the Peoples Improv Theater, the company is focused on making the show as tight and professional as possible. “It sounds cliché,” Mercy notes, “but we take our comedy very seriously.”

The success of the UNAUTHORIZED! series speaks to the elevation of parody musicals from black box affairs to mainstream productions in their own right. The previous “cult status” of the genre can be traced to reasons practical, economic, and legal. Established theater producers, creatures of calculated risk, would not back larger ventures without obtaining proper licenses. Faced with the unwillingness of licensors to offer their work up to satire, the possibility of potential litigation, and the general difficulties of finding an audience to sustain an expensive production, the big fish opted out, leaving the task to those with little to lose and much to gain by ignoring a cease and desist letter.

The turn of the tide arguably began with Evil Dead: The Musical, based on the eponymous 1983 horror film. Created in 2003 by a Queens College theatre class, the show was performed at a Kingston, Ontario comedy club. The production became a hit as news of its existence spread among college campuses and internet message boards. It eventually came to the attention of Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, who blessed the production. With Raimi’s endorsement, EDTM found producers willing, and took to workshops at Toronto and the Just For Laughs Festival in 2004 before premiering Off-Broadway in New York in October 2006. A revival in Toronto became one of Canada’s longest running shows, and the production is now on tour in various parts throughout the world, serving as a model for other successful parody musicals.

Ashley Ward, a writer and ensemble performer for 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, a parody of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey currently running off-Broadway, met me for tea on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. Ward was fresh off the production’s sold-out Sunday matinee. 50 Shades! is put on at the Elektra Theater, previously home to the similarly punctuated Silence! The Musical, based on a Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins thriller.

Ward recounted her own experience in the show’s inception in late 2012, when she attended the Edinburgh Fringe as part of famed musical improv troupe Baby Wants Candy. “(50 Shades! producer) Marshall Cordell saw a local story about hardware stores running out of certain kinds of rope are used for bondage,” Ward said, “and we knew there was something there.” A BWC member tasked Ward and her co-writers with creating and staging a Fifty Shades of Grey musical to present at the Edinburgh Fringe, and they did so in about a week. “We were held together by spit and dreams,” Ward smiles. The first incarnation of 50 Shades! premiered at the Edinburgh in August 2012, and was brought back to Chicago for workshopping before eventually arriving in New York last year. 50 Shades! is currently set to run to April, though the producers have extended it twice already. The musical tours in the United States, and numerous international productions are also in the works.

The difficulties of staging an adaptation are not lost on parodists, who must capture the essence of the original work, develop it humorous components, and set the whole thing to music. The first prong can be especially tricky in light of fan expectations, as Ward relates. “The book sold something like 90,000,000 copies,” she says, “so that’s 90,000,000 different visions of what the characters look like and who they are.” One need only look to the casting changes, reshoots, and negative buzz surrounding the Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation, or the more unkind reactions to the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, as evidence. Granted, the stakes are not as high with parody, but UNAUTHORIZED’s Mercy knows they are dealing with someone’s sacred cow. “What we’re doing is essentially a love letter to the original,” he says.

But love is not a deterrent to litigation, and legal obstacles loom just as large as the creative. In the United States, commercial parody is protected by the Copyright Act and well-developed case law, the Supreme Court’s holding in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music being one of the most cited cases. Under the fair-use doctrine outlined in Campbell, a court examines parody under a four part test to determine whether a it falls within the statute’s safe harbor, evaluating the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the portion and substance of the original copyrighted work used, and the effect of the parody on the market or value of the copyrighted material. The spirit of parody jurisprudence is best surmised by Justice David Souter, quoting English jurist Lord Ellenborough: “while I shall think myself bound to secure every man in the enjoyment of his copyright, one must not put manacles on science.”

Not everyone is moved by Justice Souter’s guidance, particularly intellectual property attorneys with clients to mind. In many cases, a cease-and-desist letter spells the end for an unlicensed adaptation, as paying an attorney to research and draft a response may often exceed the entire budget of a off-off Broadway production. Ward recalls a C&D from E.L. James’s attorney demanding a stop to 50 Shades! performances in the United Kingdom, which could have easily doomed the nascent production. Fortunately, the producers happened to have a personal connection to an attorney at the same law firm who managed to sort out the dispute before it proceeded to litigation. By coincidence, the United Kingdom subsequently amended its intellectual property laws to bolster protection for parodies of copyrighted works.

And, of course, there’s competition. By its nature, parody provides a means for anyone to take a crack at the popular or iconic. While 50 Shades! is the most well-known and successful of the Grey spoofs, several others have emerged, notably Cuff Me! And Spank! The Musical, as well as countless smaller productions that have flown under the radar. Less common, but certainly just as much of a concern, are authorized musicals, which enjoy legal protections and tend to have larger budgets. Such is the case with the Back to the Future musical set to premiere at London’s West End later this year. As to that, the UNAUTHORIZED! producers are focusing on their own future, and hope the BttF producers check out their February opening.

“There’s something really special here,” says Mercy, “and we think they’d love it.”

Photos by Carol Rosegg and UNAUTHORIZED! Productions.

Alex Estrada is a sketch comedy writer at UCB and the PIT. You can read his passive-aggressive tweets@thealexestrada. He’s also licensed to practice law in three states, but he doesn’t like to talk about that.

From Screen to Stage: The Rise of the Parody Musical