Lighten Up the Joint

Paula Abdul, the Little Engine That Could, Rolls Into Manhattan With a Hollywood Musical

Even in her elevator sneakers, Paula Abdul is the shortest person present. But she's clearly in charge, rehearsing her dances for Reefer Madness at a midtown studio. Opening in previews September 15, the new musical by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy takes off from the 1936 marijuana scare flick of the same name and careens in directions heretofore unimagined.

Marijuana creates strange bedfellows, as many can attest, but the union of an A-list film and video dance director with this raffish production deserves some kind of prize. Abdul joined the creative team, which includes director Andy Fickman, at the end of the Hollywood run. She's teaching the New York cast, few of whom have dance backgrounds, her new choreography. Her job is to make the movement funny, a skill she learned working with James L. Brooks on the Emmy-winning Tracey Ullman Show, another project where none of the actors were trained dancers.

"I've earned a reputation as the queen of taking people with two left feet and making them look good," says the petite pop star. "I can do that. The cast was horrified when I came in, because of this perception of who I am—'We're comedians. We're singers. You know we can't dance.' I promised them I'd be very patient. 'I'll repeat and repeat, until it gets into your body and you make it your character. You'll go on autopilot.' They needed to know I wasn't just going to give them steps. It's a painstaking process, but it's the most rewarding part of being a choreographer. I see pictures all the time in my head." Abdul aspires to direct. She's been having trouble sleeping since she arrived in New York, so excited is she about the project.

"I can't believe I'm here doing this," she says, as the performers warm up in the next room. "It's a labor of love; it obviously wasn't for money. I helped design the lights, choreographed the lighting design, helped Andy map out dance beats."

The Reefer Madness story, which purports to document the slide of squeaky-clean teenager Jimmy Harper into dissolution, promiscuity, and legal quicksand after a few tokes of the demon weed, has been streamlined and pumped full of infectious tunes. Murphy and Studney's script conflates Communism, labor unions, and pot as scourges of America's youth. The original 65-minute black-and-white film, a deadly faux-noir propaganda piece roundly mocked in countercultural settings, will be screened every Thursday after the show; the Hollywood team plans to make theirproduction into a movie as well.

Reefer Madness the musical began life in a 99-seat black box in West Hollywood two years ago and swept Los Angeles's theater prizes, winning five Ovation awards, seven L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards, seven Garland awards, the L.A. Weekly Award for Outstanding Production, and the High Times Stony Award. It caught the attention of Broadway producer James L. Nederlander and film producer Verna Harrah, who were determined to bring it east.

"By the time Nederlander bought the show, Paula had already revamped it," says Fickman. Abdul, a valley girl who played Manhattan, the Meadowlands, and Jones Beach as a performer and wrangled cheerleaders for the Oscar-winning American

Beauty among scores of other projects, has never choreographed Off-Broadway. Her mother, a professional pianist who worked as director Billy Wilder's personal assistant, did not encourage her to go into show business, but she went anyway, starting dance classes when she was seven. A chance remark by her ballet teacher, a compliment she misinterpreted as a criticism of her short legs and compact body, led her to "fight like hell" to establish herself as a dancer. In 1985, while still a college student, she won a berth with the Laker Girls—one of seven chosen out of a field of 1500—and stayed through 1988, meanwhile choreographing for the Jacksons and George Michael, and using her earnings to fund the demo tapes that led to her phenomenal recording career. The rest of her story can be found, along with her music videos, among the 40,200 entries under her name at the Google search engine on the Web.

Abdul had heard that stars like Warren Beatty, Bette Midler, and Steve Martin thought the Hollywood version of Reefer Madness was "a little gem." Her agent, who knew the director, sent her to see it. She got to the theater early, and the stage manager sat her in the front row, inches from the performers and the cardboard scenery.

"I couldn't get up and leave even if I wanted to. But I very much appreciate handmade, homemade shows. In the first five minutes, I was sucked in."

Fickman and the writers, veterans of film and television, picked her brain for three hours and pleaded with her to choreograph the piece; up to then there'd just been "musical staging," and the second act was in turnaround. Abdul told them she'd love to be a part of it, but that her plate was full.

"They offered to do anything—to write me a one-woman show! I thought they had a home run, on no budget. They've packed everything in—just when you think it can't get more bizarre and hysterical, it does."

By "everything" she means, in addition to the sluts, pushers, lounge lizards, and officious adults who populate the film, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus, both of whom turn up in the final scene. The team researched the provenance of the movie and discovered complex motives behind its production—as much to protect the interests of the paper industry against hemp producers and maintain adult authority in a rebellious teen culture as to fulminate against pot. They've punched the politics up, driving them totally over the top with predictably raucous results. The show is cavalier about staying in period; Abdul has made a Soul Train line dance to be performed in a '30s soda fountain.

There are six production numbers in the show, which, Abdul says, "wasn't supposed to be a real musical." Many of the actors—the cast features Christian Campbell, Gregg Edelman, Michele Pawk, and nine other performers—have Broadway credentials, but were nervous about the movement. "I said, 'Trust the process. Somehow it will work.' I'm not the celebrity here; I'm working 13, 14 hours a day, rehearsing and meeting with the writers."

Fickman says Reefer Madness is the first show Nederlander has planted in an Off-Broadway house (the 498-seat Variety Arts Theatre, chosen because it was available for an open-ended run). It's been transformed since Los Angeles from an Equity waiver project (vulnerable to desertion when performers got more lucrative gigs) to a full Equity contract, requiring standard hours and regular breaks. "In L.A.," beefs Abdul, "we didn't have these Equity rules; I could work until we were comfortable. I want to hug the actors and tell them, 'It is what it is. We'll get through it.' " She may yet surprise the cast by turning them into dancers; a month before the first preview, they were already looking good.

Fickman kept his end of his bargain with Abdul; while preparing Reefer Madnessfor Manhattan, he's finishing, for MTV, the pilot of a new program called Skirts. Abdul will choreograph it in addition to playing the lead, "like the White Shadow"—a former prom queen and Dallas Cowgirl who returns to her old high school to be the dance squad coach. This will be no stretch for Abdul, who already runs dance and cheerleading camps.

At rehearsal, the abundant "reefer" is actually lengths of wrapped soda straw twisted to look like the real thing. Stoned dancers couldn't manage the intricate footwork Abdul is plotting, and stoned actors would lose the comic timing. The team hopes for Rocky Horror-style cult audiences. Could work.

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