Trying to Shear Laughs From Lambs in Musical Silence!

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Christine Lakin and Davis Gaines in “Silence! The Musical”

If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, then anyone involved in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs might feel more than idolized with the musical creation of Silence! The Musical.

Jon and Al Kaplan — writers, composers and brothers — first planted the seeds for the musical parody more than 10 years ago, and now reap the rewards in the form of an extended run Off-Broadway, a London premiere in 2010, multiple awards and meeting some Hollywood icons as part of the show’s cult following along the way. This weekend they finally bring the show home to Los Angeles for its West Coast premiere, starring Davis Gaines and Christine Lakin.

“We loved the movie since we were kids and particularly the character of Buffalo Bill,” says 30-something Al Kaplan. “We’d go around imitating his voice. I thought he was such a funny character with that deep voice.”

Al and Jon Kaplan

And Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill in the film, is “a great actor,” adds Jon Kaplan, Al’s elder by just a few years.

The brothers have now been in Los Angeles for 16 years, drawn to LA and Hollywood through their shared interest in composing for film. Both attended USC for music composition and have composed for television and independent films along with landing the occasional comedy writing gig. They balance a sometimes unpredictable day-to-day existence while pursuing “the dream.”

“We might have two to three months with projects,” says Jon Kaplan. “Then five months of nothing but the day job — I write for an online publication — waiting for something to happen. But we’re always creating and working.”

Transplants from Staten Island, the brothers claim to always have been creating together, drawing on a shared fascination and admiration for the high-octane, almost operatic ’80s action movies they grew up on. Quiet and unassuming, both Kaplans easily light up when they talk about their early spoofs and inspirations that started back in high school.

“We would re-dub Arnold Schwarzenegger movies using a tape recorder,” Al Kaplan admits. “We re-dubbed all of his Total Recall. It was horrifying to hear it was getting re-made.”

“They just don’t make the big action movies that way anymore,” adds Jon Kaplan.

Growing up, their joy in creating irreverent manipulations of Hollywood blockbusters was also influenced by parents who nurtured their musical inclinations. Their father, a composer who later became a dentist, and their mother, a school music teacher and pianist, met while studying at Manhattan School of Music. Music was always a part of the Kaplan boys’ lives growing up. However, they didn’t fully embark on musical collaborations until after their college years.

Stephen Bienskie (as Buffalo Bill) and Christine Lakin

A line from the character Buffalo Bill, one of the villains in the original The Silence of the Lambs, inspired what eventually would became the brothers’ first musical parody for the stage. The brothers noticed the song titled “Would You?” from its appearance in another Hollywood classic, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Would you?” is also a line from Buffalo Bill’s character in Silence.

“And that’s when I said to Jon, “˜What if Buffalo Bill sang show tunes’?” Al Kaplan says. “I thought that would be really funny.”

They started with 12 songs, focusing primarily on Buffalo Bill and exploring details from his Silence character to skewer from sexuality to homicidal tendencies to his adorable little dog named Precious. The original spoof wasn’t intended to do much more than amuse them privately. In fact the film’s central character, Clarice Starling — Jodie Foster won an Oscar in the role — was barely present in their first spoofs on the story.

“Originally we weren’t thinking about it being brought to the stage or telling a story,” Jon Kaplan explains.

“It was a screw-around project for us and our friends,” Al Kaplan adds, throwing in some Buffalo Bill voice impersonations.

The Kaplan brothers shared the Buffalo Bill songs through a website, quickly gaining a following. Additional projects were later added to the online library including musical spoofs for Total Recall, Commando and Conan The Barbarian among others. The easy internet access, combined with eager fans, turned links into viral hits.

A Hollywood producer soon came to the Kaplans seeking a movie version of Silence! based on the online parody material. The brothers refined their storyline, created a screenplay and took a few meetings. But when the film project ended up eternally stalled, Brian J. Nash and John Pinckard approached the team about creating a musical stage version.

Davis Gaines and Christine Lakin

New songs were written and the brothers were joined by Obie Award-winning ([title of show]) book writer Hunter Bell and director/choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who most recently won the 2012 Tony Award for choreography in Newsies. Premiering at the 2005 New York City Fringe Festival, Silence! played to sold-out houses and was awarded the festival’s honor of best musical. The success of the NYC Fringe led to its 2011 Off-Broadway run, produced by Victoria Lang, Rich Affannato and Donna Trinkoff.  Theater Mogul, which invested in that production, moved it to the Elektra Theatre, where the New York run is still playing. It also had a run at London’s Stag Theatre in the early part of 2010. The show was most recently awarded the 2012 Off-Broadway Alliance Award for best musical.

Gattelli helms the project again for the Los Angeles stage, joined by Jeff Croiter, also a 2012 Tony winner in lighting design. Gaines and Lakin perform the roles of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, respectively, with original cast member Stephen Bienskie reprising his role of Buffalo Bill.

The brothers have enjoyed a who’s who list of Hollywood elite seeing the show, including Jodie Foster, Joan Rivers, James Earl Jones and the original film’s director, Jonathan Demme.

“I always imagined him as a very serious guy,” Al Kaplan says of the thrill in meeting Demme at a NYC performance. “But he was very laid back.”

“Not only was he there but it was a really great night for the show and he enjoyed it,” Jon Kaplan says of Demme. “That was really a great night for us. That was a highlight.”

Davis Gaines and Jeff Hiller

Still seeing themselves primarily as composers, the Kaplans have shared in the challenges faced by Hollywood with the evolution of online access to content and the difficulty in making it profitable. The industry has changed since they arrived.

“The dream has always been to write movie music,” Jon Kaplan says.

“But our dream doesn’t really exist anymore,” Al Kaplan adds.

Advances in technology have changed the speed and turn-around rate for creating film, eventually affecting the way most music is now scored. “We were always more interested in symphonic music,” Al Kaplan says, describing a kind of composition that’s more of a novelty now.

“There isn’t even as much melody allowed for films anymore,” adds Jon Kaplan.

Trained on several musical instruments between them, the brothers now work exclusively through computer programs to create and arrange music for their projects. They have found that the makers of horror and monster movies seek out the kinds of symphonic music which originally drew them to composing and found some of those niche projects for their talents. They have also scripted comedy and jokes for Hollywood award shows.

Silence! is actually the first time we truly combined our comedy writing and our music,” Al Kaplan says. Their other work has primarily been either comedy writing or music composition.

The "Lambs" ensemble of "Silence"
The “Lambs” ensemble of “Silence”

The success of Silence! has offered the Kaplan brothers a satisfying window into the full cycle of creation, watching the project evolve from an online whim to its fully realized, award-winning stage production. In 2008, they tried their hand again at another stage adaptation with 24 Season Two: The Musical, a spoof on the Kiefer Sutherland TV vehicle. But the brothers have no desire to perform any of their work down the road, be it their comedy writing or their music””they are content to stay behind the scenes.

“Although it is really cool to sit in an audience and hear them laughing at something we wrote,” Jon Kaplan says of the full experience.

“Many people who say they hate musicals tend to like this,” Al Kaplan reflects on their audiences. “And people who like musicals like it, too. We seem to have a balance.”

Silence! The Musical, Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., LA 90057. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun, 3 pm and 7 pm. Tickets $45 – $75. www.silencethemusical.com. 866-811-4111.

***All Silence! The Musical production photos by Michael Lamont

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