Interview – “Cannibal! The Musical” Director Christopher Bond talks bringing Trey Parker’s movie to the stage.
After adapting Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead to the stage, with blood and guts galore, Christopher Bond now sets his sights on Trey Parker’s student film Cannibal! The Musical, inspired by the true story of Alferd Packer. Accused of eating his fellow men in the Colorado Rockies, this takes a comedic spin on the material, complete with musical numbers. Bond took time to talk about the process taken in turning this cult movie into a big musical production.
What’s the process in gaining permission to mount a stage show based on a movie? Was it different from putting Evil Dead: The Musical together?
On Evil Dead: The Musical, we were creating a whole brand new show, so we had to go to the guys who owned the rights to the films. We didn’t know who that was at the start, so we e-mailed Bruce Campbell and said “We want to do an Evil Dead musical. Is that cool?” He was very helpful and said we probably had to talk to the rights holders, which were the movie studios and Sam Raimi. With Cannibal! The Musical, it was already a property that was available to be licensed, so we went to the licensees. We basically said “We’d love to do the show, but we want to change it, make it something different and add new music.” They were a little apprehensive about that at first, but they checked out Evil Dead and saw that my team and I had the pedigree at making these genre pieces into big full-scale musicals. So, Jason McHugh, who played Miller in the original film, with permission by Trey Parker and his gang, gave us the license to turn this into a whole new experience. It was a little bit different, but it’s the same in that you have to convince somebody to borrow their baby and maybe put a new hat on him and make him tap-dance. We’re very thankful for their participation in allowing us to put on the biggest and coolest presentation of Cannibal!
How involved was Trey Parker in the production and did he give you a certain amount of freedom?
Trey Parker has been really cool in that we would submit our stuff and get “yeses” and “no’s.” As far as the material goes, the whole group wanted to maintain the integrity of the original film and that all of the moments that were important to them were still in the musical. He basically would give us the greenlight on some of our new themes and ideas. There was obviously some participation and Trey Parker is a super huge star and we’re not quite as famous as him, but he did take an active interest and the time to say yes or no. We’ve been working very closely with Jason McHugh, whose been paramount in getting this thing going and guiding us along the way.
Obviously, Cannibal! The Musical is the main source, but did you take any inspiration from (Parker’s other musicals) the South Park movie, Team America and The Book of Mormon as well?
Well, you just named three of my favourite things. When we wrote Evil Dead: The Musical, the South Park movie music was a huge inspiration and I thought Trey Parker was so cutting edge in writing these songs that sounded like they were from musicals, but were comedy-driven lyrics that were crass and cutting and new. That really inspired the music we made in Evil Dead: The Musical. To circle back and go to the first source and make Cannibal! The Musical and become a part of it was amazing. I think Trey is wildly talented and his stuff is so influential on the material that I create and with Cannibal, we tried to make music that really gelled and matched the tone of the comedy Trey had done on the other songs.
This is a very dirty musical and Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been known for pushing the envelope. Were there any limitations you set on yourself or did you take an “anything goes” approach to the material?
I think we just throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks. We definitely kept a lot of the themes and anything that was offensive and edgy from the film, we have on the stage. We’ve also created our own edgy, I’m not sure “dirty” is the word I would use, and crass humour. The beauty of the show is that it’s not just all crass humour and there’s a little bit of something for everybody. It’s a send-up of old-timey musicals, almost a parody ofÂ Oklahoma! You’re getting this beautiful orchestral music and big loud choruses, but the subject matter involves hanging a guy. It’s all done in good fun and it’s hilarious, so if you’re a fan of musicals and having a good time, you don’t need to be a Trey Parker fan or a genre fan to know, love and appreciate Cannibal! The Musical.
When directing the show, how much do you let the performances in the movie influence the acting on stage?
What we were able to do was we looked at the characters and we built off of them. Some of the characters capture the spirit of the film, while we’ve taken new creative spins on some of them. We don’t want to just do the same movie, we wanted to do something different and all its own. With all of the new material, new music and even new characters with some portrayed a different way than in the film, we like the finished product with new jokes and new zany fun. The movie was obviously a reference point and a lot of the characters have maintained their spirit on stage. Especially when you look at Alferd Packer and how his portrayal by Trey Parker was so warm and innocent with this guy trying to be a hero. All of those themes applied to the way Liam Tobin plays Alferd Packer and he does it tremendously.
What were things you wanted to include from the movie, but couldn’t because of time or stage limitations?
I think we did okay and got everything in there. We have a Cyclops and a snow storm and we chop off some heads. We did the best we can and this is obviously a campy show, so you can suspend a lot of disbelief, have fun and let go and we put a lot of silly stuff on the stage. I don’t think we were ever thinking “well, we can’t do that, because we’ll never find a way.” We figured out a way. Even with all of the bloody stuff, we found fun ways to do it the audience will like, but again, the show isn’t just a genre piece. It’s tough when it’s called Cannibal! The Musical, which makes it seem like just blood and gore. It’s really a musical-comedy about a group of friends and their wacky adventure through the Rocky Mountains.
Considering this is based on real people, was there research done on Alferd Packer and his expedition or did you just let the dark comedy of the situation write the show?
I think it’s a little of both. We definitely dramatized the piece and dug a little deeper into the true facts about what allegedly happened, Alfred Packer’s accusations and what he did in the mountains. At the same time, we wanted to be true to the pieces of the film that were exaggerations of the original story that were comedic and fun. With that said, we circled back and made some historical additions and changes to things that underline the real story of what happened. So we had a couple of those things, but for all intents and purposes, we wanted to make sure we were on point and accurate with the details and still make it funny.
Do you feel there’s a right way and a wrong way to adapt a movie into a stage musical?
I feel the right way is to work as closely as you can with the right owners and make sure they’re comfortable. This is the third time I’ve turned other people’s properties into a stage show. Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were quite thrilled with what we did with Evil Dead. On Night of the Living Dead…Live!, we got the chance to work with George Romero. His input was critical on what we were putting out there and making sure we were maintaining a lot of the fun, intrigue and smarts that was Night of the Living Dead…Live! Whereas with Cannibal! The Musical, we did the same thing, barking up the same tree and asking Trey “Is this cool? Do you like this?” I think that’s the way to go. If you’re just working with an open book and the original authors, they’re quite receptive and if you’re able to take what they have done and turn it into something new, that draws more interest and rejuvenates a brand, they’re pretty happy about that. We’re two-for-two so far and hopefully, it winds up being three-for-three. We’re pretty confident, we have a great cast, the show is hilarious, the crew is fantastic and we couldn’t be more thankful to Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Jason McHugh for giving us their blessing and letting us make it the way we envisioned it.
Cannibal! The Musical is now playing at the Panasonic Theatre from now until March 8.
Interview by: Stefan Ellison