It's been a long road for Silence! the Musical to go from gag website to off-Broadway musical. An unauthorized parody of the iconic film The Silence of the Lambs, Jon and Al Kaplan's twisted musical started its life as a collection of songs that were quickly shared among theater fans and movie buffs alike. The project became the hit of the 2005 Fringe Festival and, six years later, is finally settling down for a proper run through August 13 at Theater 80 in the East Village.
Musical director Brian Nash has been involved with the project since its Fringe incarnation, when he was one of the show's producers. "I heard the songs and lost my mind," he laughs, remembering his first exposure to the material. "I'd never seen the movie-which is weird-but I knew the iconic moments, and I thought the songs were funny, so I emailed Jon and Al and asked if anything was happening with it as a real musical."
With the Kaplan's blessing, Nash began working with a team to make a collection of songs into a musical. [title of show] co-creator and star Hunter Bell adapted the screenplay into a book, and Christopher Gattelli signed up as director and choreographer. The Kaplans, meanwhile, began reworking their songs into showtunes and adding new material to Bell's book. "They had never written a musical and knew very little about theater as an entity," Nash recalls. The gamble worked: Silence! sold out every performance at the Fringe, even before it played its first performance.
At the Fringe, Nash served as orchestrator, musical director and producer. "My head was coming off!" he laughs. On any given day, he might have to drive down to Maryland to pick up pieces of the set, stay up all night orchestrating a song, and then oversee the music at the next rehearsal. "Every Fringe show is insanity, but this was absolutely ridiculous-and the most fun ever," he says.
As the show developed at the Fringe, adlibbed moments in the rehearsal studio made their way into the final script. With a cast trained in improvisation and comedy-and writers willing to let actors contribute bits to the finished product-little moments started coming together to create a whole. "Hunter would take those things and craft them, and they're still in the show."
Improvisation is not generally a major part of new-musical development, Nash acknowledges. "We are so lucky that the writers are so open to that," he says. "They know what show they're writing. They know it's not Crime & Punishment-or a serious musical version of it! They know there'll be play, and Chris Gattelli is so good at shaping what happens in the room and making it part of the show." The cast and creative team have plenty of license to play around and discover what the show is and can be, Nash continues. "It's a question of what's funny, what works, what's true to the characters and the story."
But after the Fringe production closed, the show languished in development hell for years. Finally, after a two-week run at London's Barons Court Theatre under a different director. Gatteli's production of Silence! opened in London in the Above the Stag Theatre in early 2010-"Above a pub!" Nash hoots-to get it back on its feet and see how it worked. "That gave it momentum," Nash says. "We had to find a way to do it that wouldn't cost $1 million."
Luckily, he says, he was able to hand over producing duties to a team that includes Rich Affannato, the Executive Artistic Director for Nederlander Worldwide Events. "People wanted in on it!" he says, still sounding amazed. "They're handling the producing duties, and I get to handle shaping the score."
Even off-Broadway, however, a show is difficult to finance, especially with lower ticket prices and a large cast. "Everybody is working for a dollar," Nash quips. "No one is getting rich. But they're doing it because they love it."
Nash doesn't know what will happen to the show when the curtain comes down in mid-August. "I would love to do The Fantasticks and Silence! in rep with the same cast!" he quips. "I would love to see it have a long life off-Broadway." There has been some talk of touring, he adds, and while he laughingly acknowledges that high schools will (probably) never touch the show, it's gold for college theater troupes.