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For Hannibal & Co., A Horrifying New Stage

Jul 5, 2013
Originally published on July 24, 2013 2:26 pm

What do a reanimated deviant surgeon, a cannibalistic serial killer and a demon-plagued, vomit-spattered priest have in common? They're all characters in camp stage musicals inspired by horror films — and they're all played by the same classically trained opera singer.

His name is Jesse Merlin, and he looks a little like a young, untanned George Hamilton. But he has a bass-baritone voice that would be perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan.

Since that's not what Hollywood's looking for, Merlin had to scare up roles elsewhere.

"I've become Mr. Horror Musical lately, with Dr. Hill in Re-Animator: The Musical," he says. "And then I was Hannibal and a bunch of other roles in Silence! The Musical here in L.A."

Recently, he's played a comic version of a certain demon-plagued Catholic priest in a Hollywood Fringe production called Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment. The show took home the festival's Best Musical prize last weekend.

"I was a little scared by making my entrance as the priest with a hip-hop number," he admits.

This is a guy who began singing opera professionally at 22.

"It's ironic, because now that's my selling point, that here I am this highfalutin, snooty, ridiculous opera singer — that's my background — having to wade into the entrails of a rock musical, and not just do hard rock and perform with a four-piece really cooking rock band for the first time, but also lay down the beats and freestyle a little."

In addition to dealing with Silly String projectile vomit, Merlin has had to wade through buckets of blood splatter: In Re-Animator: The Musical, based on Stuart Gordon's '80s cult classic film, he plays a lecherous surgeon who literally loses his head and returns from the dead.

"There's a decapitation on stage," Merlin says. "And then there's a puppetry rig where I am carrying my own decapitated head around while singing."

"The new, improved Dr. Hill," or so the lyric goes.

"He has to hunch over to make it look like he's carrying around his own head," says director Gordon, who describes the gig as a real physical challenge for Merlin. "He has to be a contortionist. And I found out when we were in rehearsal that he actually is double-jointed."

"Playing a villain is about the most fun you can have as an actor," Merlin admits. "Playing a decapitated zombie pervert was like the role I feel I was born to play."

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Aaaaaaaaand that brings us to horror-movie musical No. 3: Merlin got to understudy and eventually play the role of Hannibal Lecter in an L.A. production of Silence! The Musical.

Narrated by an adorable chorus of flop-eared lambs, the unauthorized parody began life as an online concept album and found an audience at a New York fringe festival in 2005. After runs in London and off-Broadway, it played Los Angeles in late 2012.

"That character's voice ..." Merlin says. "I read an interview where Anthony Hopkins said Hannibal is a cross between Katharine Hepburn and HAL-9000. And that's totally it. [Goes into character] 'Now what did Migs say to you, Multiple Migs, so he hissed at you, what did he say ..."

Opera — particularly the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that are a key part of Merlin's repertoire — proved surprisingly useful as he prepared for his bloodier recent undertakings.

"I think it's a grounding in over-the-top, archetypal stock characters — extreme characters," he says.

And there's an upside to doing genre work, Merlin argues, for an artist who doesn't fit neatly into a precast mold.

"Actors who are offbeat, who don't look like a model, who don't look like an easily marketed character type — one who is a little average or unusual looking or has an unusual talent — will find a place in horror where no one else really has a place for you," he says.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Classically trained opera singer Jesse Merlin has a truly frightening resume: roles as a reanimated deviant surgeon, a cannibalistic serial killer and a Max Von Sydow-inspired Catholic priest. They're all characters in musical plays inspired by horror films. From member station KPBS, Beth Accomando reports on a career that took an unexpected turn.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: Jesse Merlin looks like a caricature of a young and untanned George Hamilton, and has a bass-baritone voice perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan. Since that's not what Hollywood's looking for, Merlin's had to scare up roles elsewhere.

JESSE MERLIN: I've just become Mr. Horror Musical lately - if it's Dr. Hill in "Re-Animator The Musical" and then I was Hannibal and a bunch of other roles as the swing in "Silence! The Musical" here in L.A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ACCOMANDO: Most recently, he played a comic version of Max Von Sydow's Catholic priest in a current Hollywood Fringe production called "Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment."

MERLIN: I was a little scared by making my entrance as the priest with a hip-hop number. It's a home sweet home now, homes we show down, homes we throw down, your daughter feeling lowdown. Don't fret, don't fret, now child. The exorcist, the exorcist, the exorcist in the (bleep) house.

ACCOMANDO: This is a guy who began singing opera professionally at 22.

MERLIN: I think it's ironic because now that's my selling point, that here I am this highfalutin, snooty, ridiculous opera singer having to wade into the entrails of a rock musical, and not just do hard rock and perform with a four-piece really cooking rock band for the first time but also, you know, lay down the beats and freestyle a little bit.

ACCOMANDO: Let's leave the projectile vomit of "Exorcistic" behind and move on to the blood splatter of "Re-Animator: The Musical." Merlin plays Dr. Hill in the horror musical based on Stuart Gordon's '80s cult classic. Dr. Hill is a lecherous surgeon who literally loses his head and reanimates from the dead.

MERLIN: There's a decapitation on stage, then I have a puppetry rig where I'm carrying my own decapitated head around while singing. (Singing) I love you and I do (unintelligible)...

ACCOMANDO: Director Stuart Gordon says it's a physical challenge to make the headless gag work.

STUART GORDON: He has to wear this weird rig where he has to kind of hunch over to make it look like he's carrying around his own head. He has to be a contortionist and I found out when we were in rehearsal that he actually is double jointed.

ACCOMANDO: With a good head on his shoulders and another in the prop room, Merlin saw an opportunity to exploit something he has always loved to do.

MERLIN: I discovered early on that playing a villain is about the most fun you can have as an actor. When I got to "Re-Animator," for example, playing a decapitated zombie pervert was just like the role I feel I was born to play.

ACCOMANDO: That brings us to horror musical number three. Merlin got to understudy and eventually play the role of Hannibal Lector in "Silence! The Musical."

MERLIN: The key for me was finding his voice, that character's voice when I read an interview that Anthony Hopkins said Hannibal is a cross between Katherine Hepburn and HAL 9000. And that's totally it. It's just the, you know, now then what did Migs say to you? Multiple Migs in the next cell, he hissed at you. what did he say? I kind of thought about what about opera and particularly Gilbert and Sullivan, which is, you know, a big part of my background too - leads me to horror. I think it's a grounding in over-the-top archetypal stock characters. (Singing) If she were grand, my symbol is a (unintelligible) I could illuminate this dungeon with but one small whip...

ACCOMANDO: Merlin has grown fond of the horror genre and would like to continue putting his singing expertise to use in more horror musicals based on films.

MERLIN: I think horror is a place where actors who are off-beat, who don't look like models, who don't look like an obviously easily marketed character type, someone who's a little average or unusual looking or has an unusual talent will find a place in horror where maybe nowhere else really has a place for you.

ACCOMANDO: Merlin's revenge has been to prove that he's scary good in his new found vocation as Mr. Horror Musical. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.