Playing Reefer Madness The Musical – Electric Guitar
Music/Book: Dan Studney
Lyrics/Book: Kevin Murphy
Year: 1998 (original LA production), 2001 (Off Broadway), 2005 (TV film)
Reefer Madness sits firmly in the “zany dark comedy” sub-genre of musicals, which includes shows such as “Little Shop of Horrors”, “The Toxic Avenger” and of course the one that started it all, against which all others are measured, “The Rocky Horror Show”. All of these musicals are fun to play, but I particularly enjoy Reefer Madness which, although it lacks the surreal otherworldliness which made Rocky Horror so original, has I think a better, more interesting score, tightly integrated into the action of the show, and is riotously funny.
In this article, I take a brief look at the development of the show and how that has affected the score, reflect on my experience playing for two different productions and provide a detailed description of the equipment and sounds I used. In a separate article (Reefer Madness The Musical – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book), I provide a detailed commentary on the guitar book and my approach to playing it.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE SHOW
It is worth reviewing the development of Reefer Madness The Musical, because the current (and probably final) version of the score has been changed at each stage along the way. The following is a brief summary; for a more complete history, I suggest reading the Reefer Madness (Musical) Wikipedia page.
The show is based on a 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda movie called “Tell Your Children”, originally financed by a religious group. It was quickly acquired by an “exploitation” film producer who added some “salacious” scenes and distributed it. In the 1970s, the film emerged from obscurity and acquired cult status as an unintentionally hilarious “midnight movie”. Both original black and white and 2004 restored, artificially colored versions can be found on YouTube.
Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical dispenses with the “unintentional” aspect of Reefer Madness’s comedy and from beginning to end sets out to lampoon the original as raucously and manically as possible. It delivers 100 minutes of gleefully over-the-top, edgy humor, set to an energetic rock ’n’ roll score of well-written, catchy original songs.
The show opened in a small Los Angeles theatre in 1998, and ran successfully for over a year. Towards the end of the run several changes were made to the show’s musical numbers and plot. The Original Cast Recording includes all of the original songs, including those cut during the run.
Further changes were made after the LA production closed, in preparation for an Off-Broadway run. This 2001 run lasted for only a month, and no cast recording is available (there are some video clips on YouTube). The show was then adapted for a 2005 TV movie, starring Kristen Bell, with further plot and music changes being made. A cast recording of the movie version is also available (the currently available version combines both recordings into a single package).
One final round of changes was made to incorporate many of the elements written for the movie into the stage version, most notably the song “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” which had never appeared in the stage show before. This final version is the one now licensed through Concord for performance. The incremental development of the show and the absence of a major stage production after the movie version means that there is no cast recording of the complete show in its final form.
All versions of the show (except for the TV movie) are orchestrated for a small rock band, comprising electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and woodwind (alto sax, flute & clarinet). The Original Los Angeles Cast Recording with its bright, gritty distorted guitar tones, is most representative of this orchestration, although the recording features several songs which are no longer in the show, and omits some which are.
The orchestration of the TV movie is of course much fuller and features a small orchestra to give a richer, more cinematic take on the material. The guitar tones are a little cleaner and less prominent in the larger ensemble. A YouTube video clip of “Little Mary Sunshine” from the movie provides a good example of the contrast with the Off-Broadway orchestration.
The musical changes made to the stage score after the movie version were mostly minor tweaks and rearrangements. The most significant change was the incorporation of “Mary Jane / Mary Lane”, a song written specifically for the movie, into the stage version for the first time. While all other songs in the show started with small band orchestrations and were expanded for the movie, “Mary Jane / Mary Lane” started with a full orchestration and had to be simplified back to a small band version. The result is not particularly successful, and sits a little uncomfortably with the other material in the show. The orchestrator has tried to distribute the original string, brass and reed parts between the electric guitar and woodwind books, and the result feels odd. I think it might have been better to have given the guitar a well-defined rhythm part and leave the soloing to the saxophone. I discuss this orchestration in more detail in my companion article, Reefer Madness The Musical – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book.
PLAYING THE SHOW
I have played two productions of Reefer Madness: one for Seattle Musical Theatre in 2015, and more recently for Second Story Repertory Theatre in 2019. While both productions had excellent bands (I would say this, right?) the 2015 production suffered from an under-rehearsed cast and changes in the production staff during rehearsal. The 2019 production was a tighter, well-executed show which I thoroughly enjoyed. Reefer Madness uses a play-within-a-play structure – it is meant to be a high school drama production in a 1930s high school auditorium. In this context, it clearly suits and works better in a smaller theatre like Second Story Repertory.
While I wouldn’t describe the music as particularly moving, it’s a well written rock score, highly entertaining and always exhilarating to play. It has plenty of variety and when it rocks, it rocks hard. The show has a fairly short run time, and the music is tightly integrated into the action, so there’s plenty to keep you interested over the course of a run of shows.
After some initial scene-setting, the show moves along at a breathless pace. Audiences often react with bemusement at first, but the show piles on the laughs and by the end of Act 1 they usually get very engaged. In Act 2, things become increasingly bonkers with each scene, culminating in a double murder set to a driving hard rock underscore and featuring reefer-crazed zombies, which produces gales of audience laughter and applause.
Every time you think the show can’t get any more absurd, it goes there. Highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view of such things) include a vain Jesus, snubbed earlier in the show, arriving to gloat as Jimmy Harper sits in the electric chair, and pothead Sally selling her baby to buy drugs, followed by the baby (usually played by a bearded man singing falsetto) appearing to sing a song lamenting his fate, while smoking a joint.
GENERAL NOTES ON THE GUITAR BOOK
The Guitar book for Reefer Madness is well written and has plenty of detail. It makes extensive use of slash rhythm notation, so that rhythms are spelt out in detail while chord voicings are not. This works well for the simple rock orchestration, providing you with enough information to keep the band sounding tight, while giving you some freedom to interpret the music. Once you understand the rhythms and the music, you do have some freedom to depart from what’s written while keeping within the framework spelt out by the score. This combination of an adequately detailed road map, and the flexibility to interpret, makes the score a lot of fun to play. The book (like most guitar scores) is also light on detail in terms of specifying which sounds you use, which requires you to do some homework to prepare your sounds, but again gives you the freedom to make the score your own.
The score is typeset, but in a font which makes it look like it’s hand-written. Nevertheless it’s easy to read. Measure numbers are provided only at the fist measure of each staff, which is unhelpful but not a major problem. The score has many bad page turns. Seven of the thirty page turns in the book cannot be made without stopping playing, which amounts to a quarter of all the page turns. By reformatting the book I was able to eliminate all of the bad page turns except pages 11-12, in the middle of #9: “Down At The Ol’ Five And Dime”. Bad page turns are an annoying result of bad music preparation, and are also usually avoidable. If I was able to eliminate all but one of them, then the music preparer should have been able to do the same.
Errors in the Guitar book
There are several errors in the Guitar book. Most are inconsistencies with the Piano-Conductor score rehearsal marks. To the best of my knowledge, all of the band parts are consistent with each other, and the Piano-Conductor score is usually the odd one out. So, maybe the Guitar book is correct and these are really all errors in the PC score. Who knows? Either way, it is useful to know about such inconsistencies. I provide a complete list of the errors and inconsistencies that I am aware of here. There may be others.
I provide a more detailed commentary on the Guitar book in my companion article, Reefer Madness The Musical – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book.
EQUIPMENT & GUITAR SOUNDS
Reefer Madness requires only one instrument: an electric guitar (it was a treat not having to worry about quick instrument changes for once). I opted for a “fat Strat”-style instrument, which has single coil pickups at the bridge and middle positions, and a humbucker at the bridge. The bridge humbucker can usually be coil tapped in such guitars, giving you the option of single coil at the bridge as well. These are very versatile instruments, with a wide range of tonal possibilities, making them ideal for musical theatre work. I used my go-to guitar, a custom-built 2013 Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic, which is without question the finest electric guitar I have ever played. Before 2013 I used an Ibanez SA 260FM for several years. This is a far more affordable fat Strat and was also a great guitar for the job, although I did actually replace the stock Ibanez pickups with a set of Seymour Duncan Alnico 5 models at some point.
A Gibson-style guitar (or even a Jazzmaster) would also work for this score, although I think the versatility of a fat Strat (or a regular Strat) gives it the edge. I don’t recommend a Telecaster for this show; it’s a bit too bright and twangy, and there are moments where you need to get “a bit metal”.
For the 2019 production of Reefer, I used a Mesa Boogie Express 5:25+ combo (a model which is no longer in production). I usually use a Fender amplifier for musical theatre work, as it has a warm and clear clean tone which isn’t overly distinctive, lacking either the thickness of a Marshall or the bright chime of a Vox. In a musical theatre production, having too distinctive a guitar tone isn’t generally a good thing – you aren’t there to upstage the singers. However, for Reefer Madness, where the score is more clearly tilted towards hard rock, I felt the Boogie would work well with the various effects I was using (see below). The Boogie has a lot of tonal adjustment options, and the sound compresses a bit more than a Fender when you push the input level.
I used the amplifier very simply: I started with a punchy, slightly bright tone on the clean channel, then experimented with all the different combinations of pedals I was going to use, to arrive at a single setting for the whole show. All of the overdrives and distortions came from various stomp boxes. This setup made adjusting the tones and relative volumes during rehearsals very straightforward; by the time the show opened I had everything dialed in.
Since the show was in a small theatre, the amplifier alone was enough to provide much of the volume needed. However, I did route the signal through a Radial JDX Direct Drive to provide a DI feed to the house desk, so the sound board operator could mix a bit more of the guitar in to fill the sound out in the house.
Before describing the pedalboard I used for the show, it’s worth discussing the sounds I used, to provide context for the pedal choices. In my companion article (Reefer Madness – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book) I provide full details of which sounds I used for every number in the show.
- Clean sounds: I used a few different clean tones, to suit the styles of the songs. The most common clean tone, for songs such as “Down At The Ol’ Five and Dime”, used the middle and bridge pickups with the bridge coil tapped. This is a signature tone for Strat-style guitars. I used the middle pickup for “The Orgy” which has a lot of “disco-wah”, as it suited the wah pedal better.
- Distortion: a fairly bright and gritty tone, this was the most commonly used distortion in the show. This was mostly used with the bridge pickup in coil tap mode, although I occasionally used humbucker mode. For this tone I used a Boss DS-1, modified by AnalogMan to vastly improve its sound, and with an added mid-range tone control, which is useful for getting closer to the exact tone you’re chasing and/or cutting through the mix.
- Light Overdrive: I used an Ibanez TS-9 DX Tube Screamer (modified by AnalogMan) to get a light, warm-sounding overdrive, using the bridge pickup in single coil mode. I used this mainly on “The Stuff” where I wanted a bluesy feel to the sound.
- Heavy Overdrive: I used a Fulltone OCD and the bridge pickup in humbucker mode to get this tone. It was used mainly for “Murder” and was as distorted as the main Distortion tone, but with a thicker, more “roaring” tone.
The three overdrive and distortion pedals mentioned above are the key elements of my pedalboard for this show. I used the following additional pedals:
- Teese Real McCoy RMC3FL Wah: an incredibly versatile, tunable wah pedal. This is used mainly in “The Orgy”.
- Keeley 4-Knob Compressor: used for “Jimmy Takes A Hit” where it was useful for helping to get the sustain and feedback needed.
- Ernie Ball VP JR. Volume Pedal: I always have one of these on my board.
- TC Electronics Corona Chorus: I used this lightly in the middle section of “Romeo & Juliet”.
- MXR Carbon Copy Delay: set to about 500ms with 1-2 repeats, and used in some guitar solos, particularly in “Down At The Ol’ Five and Dime”, where I was going for a Santana-style lead tone.
- TC Electronics Hall Of Fame Reverb: used throughout the show to provide a very light reverb for the guitar. I used a different setting for “Lonely Pew” to get more of the ambience of being in a church.
- Empress Para EQ: I used this only once during the show. In “Jimmy Takes A Hit” it is necessary to generate long, sustained feedback, and this has to be achieved at a volume acceptable in a theatre setting. I used the compressor, combined with the Para EQ, with specific mid-range frequencies boosted to encourage exactly the feedback I was looking for. This worked very well.
The signal chain was as follows:
Guitar → RMC3FL Wah → Keeley Compressor → Boss DS-1 Distortion → Fulltone OCD Overdrive → Boss TS9 DX Overdrive → Empress Para EQ → Ernie Ball VP JR Volume Pedal → TC Electronics Corona Chorus → MXR Carbon Copy Delay → TC Electronics Hall Of Fame Reverb → Radial JDX Direct Drive DI → House mix/Amplifier input (output split).
I used the following additional equipment:
- Herdim red (0.87mm) picks for most of the show.
- Herdim yellow (0.63mm) picks for some of the less hard rock numbers.
- On-Stage GS7462B Single A-Frame Guitar Stand.
- My trusty Big Dog Drum Stool (now discontinued).
- Standard Manhasset Model 48 music stand, with Accessory Shelf 1100 and Model 1000 lamp.
- D’Addario Micro Headstock Tuner.
Reefer Madness is a great score – always interesting without being overly difficult to play, and with very straightforward equipment requirements for a guitarist. It’s about as much fun as you can possibly have playing a musical.
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
Reefer Madness – Detailed Notes on the Guitar Book
List of errors in the Reefer Madness Guitar Book
LINKS – EXTERNAL
Reefer Madness (Musical) Wikipedia page
Original movie – original black & white version and 2004 restored version with artificial color on YouTube
Reefer Madness The Musical – official website
Original 1999 LA Cast Recording & 2005 Movie Musical Cast Recording – YouTube Playlist and Ghostlight Records page
Reefer Madness 2005 TV Movie Musical Wikipedia page
YouTube video clips of Off-Broadway musical production
YouTube video clip from TV movie (“Little Mary Sunshine”)
Licensing Information (Concord)
Seattle Musical Theatre
Second Story Repertory Theatre