Aliens have landed in Milwaukee – and they do not come in peace. No, they come singing, dancing, zipping around the city in a flying saucer and zombie-fying poor helpless humans. The base of their nefarious operations? The Skylight Music Theatre, where this weekend, beginning on Friday, Feb. 2, will mark the return of James Valcq’s Cream City-set, sci-fi musical spoof "Zombies From the Beyond."
The show, a tribute to the cheap, 1950s sci-fi movies that littered television screens for decades after – and gave "MST3K" enough material to become an industry of its own – follows several Eisenhower-era Milwaukeeans dealing with the arrival of a flying saucer filled with screeching extraterrestrial sopranos, turning the Milwaukee residents into mindless zombies and leading to a battle for humanity atop our own Gas Company Building. (When the flame is violet, the human race’s gone down the toilet.)
Raising on those silly serials, Valcq began writing "Zombies From the Beyond" back in the ’80s. And while the show eventually grew to off-Broadway hit in 1995, scoring rave reviews from theater critics almost certainly surprised to see a show about zombies on the stage, its first performance actually took place in the city it calls home: Milwaukee – and even under the watch of the Skylight.
But before we blast back to the past, OnMilwaukee got a chance to chat with the show’s writer and composer about his love of old sci-fi films, the show’s origins as a "prank" and bringing "Zombies From the Beyond" back to the city it so lovingly destroys on stage.
OnMilwaukee: Where did your love of these 1950s sci-fi movies come from?
James Valcq: Oh gosh, I don’t know. Didn’t every kid love flying saucers? I did. Loved them. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so those ’50s movies weren’t that far past. They weren’t in any way current, but those were what was being shown on TV, like you might see something from the ’80s or ’90s now. It was a lot about the flying saucers; I just thought they were pretty cool. (laughs)
What do you think it is about that era of films and stories that still charms and endures almost 70 years later?
That’s a really great question, because some of the films might not even be that good, and I think a few of them were made very cynically and for a cheap, fast buck. But I don’t think all of them were. And clearly they’re exercises in fantasy, but they address very real concerns and fears and just a general paranoia – that’s always the word that comes up – that was in the zeitgeist of the time, which had a lot to do with nuclear war and The Red Scare.
And yet, above all of that, we always won in the end. We always won, so there’s this marvelous sense of optimism. That’s where I think a lot of the charm lay in those films, in that optimism, and I think that was probably what I was responding to in the ’80s when I started writing this. I mean, I just did it as a prank, really. I was in college and thought it would be fun to do a musical where Milwaukee would get destroyed by a flying saucer invasion and the climax would take place on top of the Gas Company Building.
It was a prank originally?
Well, it kind of was! I didn’t know if anybody would do the show. I thought maybe I would have to put it on myself in some storefront or some haphazard way. It wasn’t written for a specific venue or anything. I just kind of made it up!
But Colin Cabot, who was the managing director of the Skylight at that time, got wind that I was writing a show. I was about to say that I worked a lot at the Skylight, but I didn’t; I grew up on the stage of the Skylight – I made my debut there was I was 7 – and I was just always around ever since. So I was having a meeting with Colin about something else, and he had heard that I was writing a show. And he was like, "I think I’d like to produce it." And I said, "Really? Do you realize the show is called ‘Zombies From the Beyond’?" (laughs) And he said, "I don’t care what it is. Let me exploit you." So I said, "Great! Exploit! Go ahead!"
Were you concerned about the pretenses of the theater world rejecting your show? After all, "Zombies From the Beyond" is not a title you expect to see on a theater marquee.
Well, there still are concerns. The Z-word, I know for some people, has been kind of a turnoff. They have no idea what to expect of it. I think that’s part of the reason why I used it, part of the reason why that’s the title: so that people wouldn’t know what to expect. And as far as musical theater stuff, it really uses all of the resources and tricks and the entire arsenal of tools of the genre – and not really in the meta way that has become popular in the last 15 years or so.
In fact, I think the piece’s charm has always been in its deadpan complete cluelessness, which is another thing that people have responded to over the years. When it opened in New York, the critics loved it, but they didn’t quite know how to classify the manner in which it was presented. Clearly there are elements of camp, but camp is so smug and superior to the material that it’s sending up. And this is much more of a valentine than a send-up. I love these movies and wanted to convey that love. They’re fun, and I wanted to convey that. I think they’re silly and ridiculous – but not necessarily because I think I could do it better.
There’s a note in the published script saying that the actors should feel like they’re in "Death of a Salesman." No winking at the audience – literally or figuratively. "Isn’t this funny? Listen to this funny word I’m about to say! People don’t talk like this, wink, wink!" Well, the people in this play talk like this – and if you watch those movies, they’re spouting these long lines of this scientific gobbledygook that means nothing. The first time it goes by, you’re like, "Wow! Neat-o!" But then you hit rewind on the VCR and listen to it again and it means nothing. It means absolutely nothing – and it’s kind of funny! It’s these words that are meant to sound impressive – and they do, but they’re pretty silly when you get down to it.
They always say about spoof movies and similar shows that you can tell the difference between when the creators are just making fun of something and when they really have a care and passion for what they’re playing with.
Exactly. I’ve read reviews of other productions over the years where I know people have not followed that little instruction in the script, and the response to those productions was not great. I think it’s just too much. That kind of technique can work for a 20-minute extended Carol Burnett sketch, but that’s different than sitting for two hours and having to stay with it.
What’s it like to bring this Milwaukee-centric production back to Milwaukee?
Well, it’s about time for one thing. (laughs) It feels great. I haven’t seen it yet; I’ll see it on opening night, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I know a couple of people in the cast, and the director, Pam Kriger, and I co-directed the show both back in the ’80s in Milwaukee and in the ’90s when it was off-Broadway. So I think I know her and her take on the show. I’m assuming it will be true to the spirit of the way we did it before. But I’m looking forward to it, and I hope people in Milwaukee are ready for it. (laughs)
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.