Silence! The Musical bills itself as the “unauthorized parody of Silence of the Lambs” by which it means not only the Thomas Harris novel, but the film as scripted by Ted Talley. I recall reading a review by—or perhaps it was an interview with—author David Cornwall (better known to the world by his pen-name, John Le Carré), who described Silence of the Lambs, quite thoughtfully, as a very tasteful book in which very distasteful things happen—a tastefulness which the film rather miraculously manages to maintain, while losing nothing in the way of suspense or explicitness-via-suggestion. So of course it has become the mandate of Silence! The Musical—and its creative team, librettist Hunter Bell adapting an unproduced parody screenplay by brothers Jon & Al Kaplan who also wrote the music and lyrics; and director-choreographer Christopher Gatelli—to bring the tastelessness so long missing to the party.
However, it isn’t the tastelessness of gore or graphic violence that Silence trucks in, but rather, the brazen exaggeration of every point the movie takes for granted, presents subtly, or approaches soberly. In short, imagine what Mad Magazine might do with the space to parody the film scene for scene and beat for beat. Oh, what you could make of Jodie Foster’s southern accent, of the warden leaving his pen behind in Lecter’s cell…or…
Well, since the power of such parody lies in its ability to surprise you, I shall describe only one bit, based arguably on the story’s most famous scene. In pursuit of information on a suspect, Clarise Starling, rookie FBI agent (Jenn Harris) (and yes, the characters all keep their “real” names) goes to a prison to visit the suspect’s prior cellmate: the notoriously dangerous psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Brent Barrett)—who happens also to be a world-class psychologist and profiler. She walks down the maximum security ward to Lecter’s glass-enclosed cell, passing those of other male prisoners who whisper vile things to her. Lecter asks about what one prisoner in particular in particular said to her. To establish her rapport with Lecter, she must tell him. And she does. “He said, ‘I can smell your cunt from here.’” Lecter sniffs the filtered air of his confinement and calmly states: “I myself cannot.” So far this exchange (believe it or not, if you’re new to it) follows the source precisely.
But then the music builds and a fantasy sequence begins and we’re in Lecter’s head as he sings a soaring ballad called, “If I could Smell Her Cunt.” Dancing Clarice and Dancing Lecter bound out for the instrumental section and she does the most amazing split under his nose. Several times. The ballad continues and the title gets a similar workout, and of course it ends with Lecter at the top of his range in gentle, soft falsetto: “If I…could…smell…her…”
…you get the idea. Then the fantasy ends and the scene continues.
Sight gags, scenery jokes, costume and hairstyle jokes, low-budget spins, you name it, Silence goes for it without shame or restraint. And a cast of inspired lunatics helps it along. Aside from the always-brilliant Ms. Harris taking no prisoners who may be named Foster, and Mr. Barrett in the tradition of the Airplane! films, playing the comedy with deadpan leading man sincerity, there are Callan Bergmann, Stephen Bienskie, Harry Bouvy, Ashlee Dupré, Diedre Goodwin, Jeff Hiller, Howard Kaye and Lucia Spina.
The audience laughs its collective ass off, and from the response, clearly and unequivocally, Silence: The Musical is, alongside The Book of Mormon, the other funniest musical in town.
I want to make that very clear. Audiences of discerning people are loving this thing, including my companion of the evening, who didn’t even know the film.
I say that because…me, I kind of liked it. But found it disappointing. Why?
Because the rhetoric of the music rarely matches the rhetoric of the satire. In the South Park movie, for example, as well as the aforementioned The Book of Mormon, the use of a songwriting trope is very specific to what’s being satirized—the satirical point evokes the song form. Whereas in Silence! Song types are most often applied arbitrarily, often for the brazen sake of incongruity (why are Starling and Lecter singing and dancing a Tango duet, for goodness’ sake? What in the story suggests that tango is in their characters’ vocabulary?) and thus for me the show keeps breaking its own, dare I say it, verisimilitude, the creative team revealing their hand rather than playing the card without winking at us. Well, without winking as much.
But that may be just me. For comedy is the most democratic entertainment there is. If the audience laughs, it’s funny. At an unabashed parody, even more so.
And at Silence! the gags are met with anything but…
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