Re-Animator The Musical: Behind the screams

IT’S a gore-fest of a show… fake heads, intestines, blood, headless corpses and a dead cat. Kate Copstick catches up with George Wendt and company at rehearsals for Re-Animator The Musical, and finds it’s all a bit of a nightmare

GEORGE SQUARE THEATRE, MONDAY

9:00am

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The cast and crew of Re-Animator The Musical are milling around in the auditorium. Things are not going well. The technical rehearsal should be starting now. But the lorry bringing set, costumes, props and, most importantly for this gore-fest of a show, fake heads, intestines, blood, headless corpse and dead cat, is somewhere on the M8 on the wrong side of a five-car pile-up. As the news of the accident is announced, one voice is heard to plead “please tell me it’s not our stuff involved in the accident”. It is not. Praise be, as somewhere in the stuff there is undoubtedly a large glass cabinet holding the plethora of prestigious awards the show, its cast and creative team have already won on its way to Edinburgh, and trophies for Best Blood Effects are not easy to replace.

10:00am

Still no sign of the truck. Still milling. Mike Blaha – producer, top Hollywood entertainment lawyer and the man who gave life to The Pajama Men – introduces me to Dean Schramm, one of the original producers, and Stuart Gordon, the director and co-writer. And yes, aficionados of the horror genre, that is the Stuart Gordon who directed the original Hollywood movie in 1985. It was Gordon who came up with the idea of redoing the film as a musical – he recruited the special effects team from the movie to do the stage show, so almost everything you saw on screen you will see on stage at the George Square Theatre. There is also a certain amount of body fluid involved, for everyone in squirting range. “So it is better than a 3D movie,” points out Gordon.

“Have they told you about the Splash Zone?” enquires a sweet blond actor, who emerges, blinking from a jet-lag-nap in the stalls. “Down front here is the Splash Zone,” says Dean Schramm. “In LA and New York people would queue for hours to get a place. Especially here…” he gestures stage left. I am about to ask why, but an excited chap in black jogs in and…

10:30am

“The truck will be here momentarily!” he announces. Cast and crew rush to help. George Wendt looks unimpressed. “Momentarily? That could be any time…” Mike Blaha and I discuss the fact that “momentarily” actually suggests the truck will be outside but for a moment, and then leave. Wendt turns out to be a cool guy. This is his third time in Edinburgh. His first was with his wife’s improv group. Improv is not George’s thing. “I stood in a few times in the run. But I don’t know if I was any good. I’ve always felt I was a bit of a dullard, ” he says, with endearing modesty. “Improv is a bit like sky diving… I really am not the type who wants to jump out of an aeroplane. But the feeling when you have done it!” he bounces bushy brows and grins.

Wendt was here last year with Celebrity Autobiography. “Boy, was that the easiest gig ever!” he enthuses. “Five pages of Hasselhoff’s autobiography to read and that was it!” He has been with this year’s show “since the very first reading”. Wendt and Gordon have, I hear, “previous”. Wendt worked both in theatre in Chicago and on film in Hollywood with Gordon. But stage musical? Of course Wendt has not long escaped the lipsticked embrace of Edna Turnblatt, whom he played in Hairspray. “It is peculiar that musical theatre has become my life,” he says “because I don’t sing and I don’t dance. I will however do what I am told. And I love this show. It is so much fun to do!” Talking of fun…

10:45am

Cast members, composer and lyricist Mark Nutter, even Dean Schramm, are appearing, staggering under crates of props, slabs of scenery and the constituent parts of a hospital gurney.

Wendt, Blaha and I head downstairs to help. Entire walls are emerging from large wooden crates, a staircase appears. I grab a crate which seems to be full of an old-fashioned microscope and an awful lot of blood. Wendt flexes his muscles.

“Here you go, George” calls someone young and limber-looking. Wendt is handed two four-inch metal bolts. He looks down at them, shrugs, affixes them to the sides of his neck and does a Frankenstein walk off up the stairs.

11:00am

“I remember when I could jump out of a crate like that,” murmurs Wendt, admiringly, as stage management vault the sides of the final crate and the last lengths of intestine and the dead cat are carried up the stairs.

Noon

Members of Assembly’s stage crew are focusing lights and sticking radio mikes on actors. The first signs of communication difficulties are emerging. “Your name is… what ?”. Brows crease, ears strain to translate glottal stops. “I’m sorry, what did you say ?”… “I beg your pardon?” The cast are charming in the face of the Edinburgh vernacular. Luckily there is an Aussie in the mix so all is not lost in translation.

2:00pm

We are starting the sound checks. Opera singer Jesse Merlin belts out a Tom Lehrer-esque number about the human brain and mimes something unspeakable while various productorial voices around the auditorium yell: “Too loud!” A balding man in a white coat is asked what he does and replies: “Mainly chorus stuff and a lot of screaming and dying,” and the curvaceous German nurse with the mesmerising, swaying backside turns out to be George Wendt, who, it transpires, has been lying about his inability to sing. “Do you like my just-f***ed hair?” he asks, coquettishly, flicking a mussy auburn coiffure. I do.

3:00pm

The run-through is started. The stage is dark. There is silence. “Don’t forget the overture is cut,” sighs Stuart Gordon. There have been many cuts. “The show was 90 minutes long when we left New York,” whispers Schramm. “It needs to be 70. The quickest we’ve ever done it is 86.” “Is this where I scream?” enquires a voice in the darkness.

3:30pm

The pre-recorded music is too quiet and the keyboards too loud, there is smoke coming from the wings and the computerised desk won’t take cues in fast enough. Dean Schramm excuses himself from the mounting tension to take a call from his wife in LA. “Is she coming over to see the show here?” I ask. Apparently not. Mrs Schramm, it transpires, is the front-runner in the forthcoming City of Los Angeles Mayoral elections.

3:45pm

The hospital gurney keeps getting caught in the tabs, impeding the entrance of a young lady-corpse with undoubtedly the perkiest breasts in Edinburgh.

3:55pm

I discover the reason why the downstage left section of the Splash Zone is so popular. All I will say is that body fluids are involved. And that Dan Cain, our romantic lead, is a very attractive young man.

4:00pm

Graham Skipper plays crazed student-scientist Herbert West and is on stage bringing the dead cat back to life. I have been watching closely and he does not appear to have blinked since ten o’clock this morning. Not even when describing to me the portion of haggis couscous he had enjoyed the previous day.

4:30pm

It is taking a deal of improvised dialogue to work round the cuts in the show. “Do I know that yet? I don’t think that I can know that,” worries our sweet blonde ingénue at one point. “Couldn’t we just put the song back in… then I would know that.” One scene is halfway through before everyone realises that it no longer makes sense, but we are getting there. Wendt is now dead. As is Operatic Jesse, who has been decapitated by the still unblinking Graham Skipper but is still impressively loud, albeit his head is now in his hands.

5:00pm

Wendt has, in quick succession, been re-animated and lobotomised. After a problem with unexpected blood leakage from a dismembered torso, the order is given, in the darkness before the next scene. “Tell George not to use the head.” Seems sensible.

I ask Dean Schramm how long it has been since Gordon had to tech a big show like this in six hours with a new crew, the set for Educating Rita taking up space on stage and 15 minutes to cut from his running time. “Do you think it is giving him a buzz, remembering the excitement of how things used to be back in the day? Theatre on the edge? Or is it all just dreadful stress?” Schramm pauses for only a moment. “I would think probably the latter,” he says.

5:15pm

After battles with a door, problems with a staircase, a deal more improvising and a mimed sequence that leaves no question as to why people queue for hours, dressed head to toe in white, just to get a seat in the Splash Zone, there is a blackout. Then houselights.

The cast are poised onstage for one last scene. “Thank you, well done everyone!” booms Gordon.

The cast look bereft. “Is that it?” someone asks. I can definitely see a bottom lip tremble. Tears are possibly being blinked away (except, of course, by Graham Skipper, who doesn’t even blink when we get a call to say he has won an Outstanding Performance in a Musical Award for the New York run). But that apparently is that.

The final scene – “a coda”, explains Blaha – has been cut. For timing reasons. It was a lovely scene, apparently. The cast certainly seem devastated at its going.

It will, undoubtedly, be re-animated and re-attached when the show gets the London run it wants. And deserves. “To get West End and Broadway producers to see a musical in LA,” Schramm shakes his head. “So we thought we’d bring the mountain to Mohammed”.

5:30pm

The set is being struck, Assembly officials are making sure that the next rehearsal will start on time and Schramm and Blaha are co-ordinating meetings with flyering teams and poster people. I head off into the rain, humming My Way, for reasons that you will appreciate when you see the show. Remember. Splash Zone. Stage left.