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Jenn Harris as Clarice and David Garrison as Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence! The Musical’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
“Homicidal freaks! Lunatics behind steel bars! Women missing skin! Decapitated heads in jars!” That’s what Silence! The Musical, Jon and Al Kaplan’s unauthorized theatrical parody of The Silence of the Lambs, promises in its opening number, sung (naturally) by an earnest chorus of lambs. The fantastically silly, obscene musical hews closely to the 1991 horror classic, telling the story of rookie FBI agent Clarice, who enlists the help of institutionalized cannibal Hannibal Lecter to catch the at-large serial killer Buffalo Bill. Of course, in the film, Buffalo Bill doesn’t approach his victims with a hoedown (“Are You About a Size 14?”), Hannibal and Clarice don’t tango around a protective glass barrier (“Quid Pro Quo”), and Hannibal doesn’t announce his clever escape from the institution via song (“This cop is already dead, you’ll see! I’m wearing his face on my head — it’s me!”). Silence! The Musical originated as a viral meme, then became an off-Broadway smash in New York, and now plays in theaters around the country. With the 25th anniversary of The Silence of the Lambs approaching, Yahoo Movies talked to songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan about their killer musical comedy.
Watch a TV ad for ‘Silence! The Musical,’ featuring the original off-Broadway cast.
Jon and Al Kaplan, ages 39 and 37, respectively, were both in their 20s and struggling to find work in Los Angeles as screenwriters and musicians, when they began composing the songs for Silence, in 2002. “I think it stemmed from a desire to hear Buffalo Bill sing show tunes,” Al tells Yahoo Movies. “We always liked [Lambs costar] Ted Levine’s deep, silly voice.” Just for laughs, Al and Jon (who recall getting in trouble as kids for impersonating Buffalo Bill in school) wrote nine songs for a nonexistent Silence of the Lambs musical. Their intention was just to share the songs with friends — but in order to do so, the brothers created their first website, which consisted of one page with links to all nine songs. To their surprise, the page went viral. “This was before YouTube and Facebook,” Al points out. “Nowadays, something goes viral and there’s an explosion, and then it’s forgotten about a few days later. But back in the day, something would get posted here, and then a couple of months later it would go somewhere else, and it would travel around.”
“We didn’t even know about it right away,” adds Jon. “But then it kept re-exploding, and then apparently it developed a following in the New York City theater scene.” Encouraged by the response, the brothers wrote a script and began thinking up additional songs, specifically for heroine Clarice. “Clarice Starling got the short end of the stick in the original songs that we did because I was performing Clarice, and we didn’t want to hear too much of that,” admits Jon. “Obviously, we had to restore her as the rightful star of the production.” Their hope was to turn their songs into a filmed production and post it on the internet. However, they were approached by some New York City theatrical producers with a different idea.
The Kaplan brothers produced this Lego animated video to accompany “Put the F–ing Lotion in the Basket,” one of Buffalo Bill’s songs from ‘Silence! The Musical.’ (Warning: Strong language.)
Three years after they set Buffalo Bill’s “It rubs the lotion on its skin” scene to music (see video above), the Kaplan brothers saw their Silence of the Lambs musical premiere onstage at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. Musical theater veteran Hunter Bell wrote the book, adapting the Kaplans’ screenplay for the stage. Christopher Gattelli directed the prodocution, taking the brothers’ grandiose vision (“We were envisioning Broadway, tons of cops, and a chorus of singing lambs dancing across the stage,” says Jon) and transforming it into a streamlined 10-person show. Watch some highlights below.
Scenes from ‘Silence! The Musical,’ set the music of the opening number.
Silence not only won the Fringe Festival’s Outstanding Musical Award, but according to BroadwayWorld.com, it also “shattered every box office record” at the festival. Four years later, the show played in London, then returned to sold-out audiences in New York in 2011. In total, Silence played 529 performances in New York between 2011 and 2013, running for two years at two consecutive theaters and receiving the Off-Broadway Alliance’s Best Musical Award. In 2012, the show opened in Los Angeles, where it picked up three LA Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. An original cast album was released in 2011 through Sh-K-Boom Records.
The climactic night vision manhunt from ‘Silence! The Musical,’ featuring Stephen Bienskie as Buffalo Bill, Jenn Harris as Clarice, and an ensemble member as one of the lambs in Clarice’s head. (Photo: Clara Rosegg)
Despite being a completely unauthorized parody (“We’re still waiting to be sued,” says Jon), Silence! The Musical was received with enthusiasm by the cast and creators of the film. In 2011, Jonathan Demme brought a group of Silence of the Lambs crew members to a 20th anniversary reunion party at the show, and the Kaplan brothers flew from L.A. to New York to nervously gauge his reaction. “We sat right behind him,” says Jon, “and he was laughing above the whole audience, like the show was designed specifically for him. So our fears were for naught.” Jodie Foster stealthily attended a performance, and wrote a complimentary letter to actress Jenn Harris (whose Clarice was rooted in a side-splitting Foster impression). Anthony Heald, who played Lecter’s jailer Dr. Chilton in the film, liked the show so much that he requested to play himself onstage, “Which I wish they’d have really considered,” says Jon. By the end of the bicoastal run in 2013, the only notable no-shows from the movie were Anthony Hopkins and, much to the Kaplan brothers’ disappointment, Ted Levine.
Stephen Bienskie as Buffalo Bill in ‘Silence! The Musical,’ with lamb back-up dancers. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
While Jon and Al have moved onto other things — including the script and songs for the horror comedy Zombeavers, a top-secret new stage musical “along the lines of Silence,” and an impressive collection of self-produced YouTube musical parodies —Silence! The Musical continues to play around the country in amateur, stock, and regional productions. Soon the show will premiere in the Kaplan brothers’ hometown on Staten Island, in New York.
While most Fringe Festival parody musicals come and go, Silence! has had impressive staying power. So what makes the pitch-black Silence of the Lambs such a perfect vehicle for a musical? It all comes back, says Al, to Buffalo Bill. “There was something about his voice, but also the fact that he was a serial killer and somehow there was something charming and silly about it,” he says. “And that extended I think to the rest of the movie, in some ways: It walks a fine line between being campy and deathly serious.”