Stage production turns ‘Pulp Fiction’ into musical parody

“Pulp Fiction, the Musical Parody,” is the latest in a series playing at the Funhouse Lounge in SE Portland.

Courtesy of Funhouse Lounge

The Funhouse Lounge in SE Portland describes itself as a cabaret of sorts, a “theater without a safety net.” The lineup of shows is varied, but it’s safe to say you won’t find any performances of “Hamlet” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” there. Artistic director and proprietor Andy Barrett says in addition to plays, he presents stand-up comedy, burlesque, improv, karaoke, storytelling, bingo and dance parties. “Pulp Fiction,” isn’t his first musical parody of culturally iconic shows. Past productions include “Die Hard,” “Heathers,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Barrett joins us to tell us more about “Pulp Fiction” and pull back the curtain on what makes his version of musical parody sing.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Funhouse Lounge in southeast Portland describes itself as a cabaret of sorts, a theater without a safety net. It has stand-up comedy, burlesque, improv, karaoke, storytelling, bingo, dance parties. Its artistic director and owner, Andy Barrett, also specializes in creating musical theater parodies of iconic movies from the 1980s and ’90s. He started with ‘Die Hard’ and then went on to create productions of ‘Heathers’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ Now he and his team are putting on ‘Pulp Fiction’ and he joins us to talk about it. Andy Barrett, welcome.

Andy Barrett: Hello, Dave. How are you?

Miller: Doing great. Thanks for joining us. How do you describe this genre?

Barrett: It doesn’t have a catchy little name. It’s just film parodies. You do see it all the time on Broadway – they’re not really parodies, but they take a film, and they turn it into a musical. You had mentioned ‘Heathers.’ ‘Heathers’ is one of the shows that was professionally done and they now license, so I did not write that one. But there are a lot of other ones: ‘Mean Girls’, ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’… They even turned ‘Harry Potter’ into a Broadway musical. It’s something that’s done, but I do it in more of a tongue-in-cheek parody fashion.

Miller: Right, because you’re not only faithfully transferring a movie to the stage, you’re doing it in a way that skewers it lovingly, or at least takes it in different directions. Right?

Barrett: Definitely. I look to take it in different directions. I look to introduce new characters if possible. It’s kind of a breaking the fourth wall, wink and a nod to the audience about the ridiculousness of some of the things that you see on the silver screen.

Miller: What kinds of movies do you think make for the best parodies?

Barrett: Generally speaking, movies that take themselves seriously work better to turn into a comedy. For instance, if I tried to turn ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ into a stage comedy, it’s already a comedy. So I’m trying to write jokes on top of jokes that are already done very well. Things that aren’t comedies I think are more ripe for parody.

Miller: Was ‘Pulp Fiction’ a challenge for you? Because it’s not a parody, but it is a pastiche. It’s a riff on pulp genres, and it’s never totally clear how seriously to take it even if Quentin Tarantino wants us to take everything he does very seriously.

Barrett: Right, that is true. That’s one of the reasons, in my show, that Tarantino himself is a character.. so that he can come out and comment on how amazing it is what he’s doing and how he’s doing homage to the genre while breaking it as well, which is kind of what I’m doing.

Miller: Can you describe what you have Quentin Tarantino, the character, do in the theater adaptation?

Barrett: While the story is happening, there are certain scenes where, at the end of the scene he’ll come walking out as the director and end the scene. The actors will just get up and walk off like they’re walking off of a movie set, and then he addresses the crowd. He addresses the crowd and explains to them, he has to explain to them how brilliant he is because maybe they’re not getting it because they’re just the common man. So he’s making sure that the audience can appreciate the genius of Quentin Tarantino.

Miller: When I saw it, it made me think that you’d maybe partly put him in, in this way, as a kind of inoculation to say: ‘Yes, I’m celebrating this movie because it’s super fun, but also I just want you to know that I know that the guy who made it is also basically insufferable.’ Is that accurate?

Barrett: Well, he comes out and… I also want to point out, I want to make him a character. He’s not a character because he’s the director of ‘Pulp Fiction.’ But, when you do the stage version of something, it gives you the freedom to create more characters to add more layers. That’s what this does. He’s the wink and a nod to the audience that we’re all here having fun and kind of making fun of this.

Miller: How did you decide to do ‘Pulp Fiction’?

Barrett: I’ve done ‘Pulp Fiction’, I’ve done ‘Back to the Future’ and I’ve done ‘Die Hard’ as original parody musicals. I look for projects that are going to appeal to a wide audience. I’ve had niche projects suggested to me over the years from various people. It’s like, I want to do something that people at the time loved and still love today, and [that] every year younger people or other people discover it and love it also. In a way it’s guaranteeing me more of an audience, but it’s going to give people– [For] people who love ‘Pulp Fiction,’ there’s been no new content, if you will, for ‘Pulp Fiction’ in almost 30 years. So they find out there’s a musical of it, and this is exciting to them because they’ve always loved it.

Miller: Do you have to love a movie yourself in some way to spend the time and effort to make a parody about it?

Barrett: Without a doubt. yeah. I’ve had a couple of people approach me with projects, and I’m like, ‘You know what, it doesn’t speak to me. I can see why you might like that, but doing that wouldn’t be any fun for me.’ The amount of work that goes into it, if it’s not going to be fun for me, it’s not for me. yeah.

Miller: What is the work that goes into it? How do you go about figuring out your version of a movie?

Barrett: The first thing I’ll do is I’ll go back and watch the movie, probably more than once. I’m looking for what the movie is really about. There’s a moment in every movie that tells you what it’s about. With ‘Die Hard,’ it’s that moment where Holly McClane says, ‘You’re nothing but a common thief.’ and Hans Gruber gets very upset with that and jumps in her face and says, ‘I am an exceptional thief.’ You realize the entire thing is just about Hans Gruber proving himself. If you realize that, then you extrapolate: Well, who would he need to prove himself to? In my version, it’s to his dead, domineering, German mother who always told him he was never good enough. In my version, she appears as a ghost to him and haunts him. So, with these movies, I look at what is the kernel of the story? With ‘Pulp Fiction’ it’s interesting because it is not one story. It’s specifically three chapters: It’s Vince’s story, it’s Butch’s story and then it’s Jules’ story. So you have three different stories going on that slightly overlap, or more than slightly. You just look for the truth of the real emotional center of the story and then write out from there.

Miller: You decided to cast an extraordinary actress named Landy Lamb as the John Travolta character. She is just hilarious and amazing in every scene. How did you know that she was right for this part?

Barrett: I have been working with Landy Lamb for, I think 15 years, since we did improv together when she was 17. I have watched her turn from a girl who would go home every night from improv rehearsal and cry, into a superstar. And it has been a pleasure to watch her evolve. I knew she could do this role because I’ve watched everything she’s ever done. She also plays the Alan Rickman character, Hans Gruber, in ‘Die Hard’ and does it amazingly well.

Miller: Her impersonation of John Travolta is fascinating because instead of sounding just like him, which is often a kind of boring version of an impersonation, she somehow captures something that is in his essence, something that seems like John Travolta and then takes it in an absurd direction. How much of that was just what she brought and how much was something that you all worked together on?

Barrett: We tend to work this out together, but when I wrote this script, there are actual notations in the script that says, ‘At this point, Landy does her Landy thing for about 10 seconds.’

Miller: You know her well enough that you just write that and trust her.

Barrett: Yes Yes.

Miller: What about, near the end, when she stuffs entire pancakes in her mouth and then still somehow talks?

Barrett: It’s one of her things. Some nights it’s just half a pancake. Some nights it’s two pancakes and two sausages. Her timing of her is impeccable, and she’s always looking for other little bits to add, little layers to add. It’s how she works. It’s how I work. It’s how a lot of us work. You’ve got the, ‘how it was written’ but then, ‘Can we make it a little better? Can we sweeten it a little?’ yeah.

Miller: I guess I went on a one sausage, two pancake night, then.

Barrett: You did, you did.

Miller: How does this show reflect what you aim to do more broadly at the Funhouse Lounge?

Barrett: This show’s a great example of what we do at Funhouse Lounge. What I like to say to people is, ‘Fun is in our name, so we’re legally required to provide it at all opportunities.’ This is a scripted show that we do, but we also do improvised comedy shows. Our improv shows are similar in nature. For instance, our next one is called ‘Clue, the Improvised Mystery’ and it’s a riff on the board game, Clue. We also do one called ‘Avenue PDX’ which is similar to ‘Avenue Q.’ It’s all improvised and the songs are all improvised, but it’s stocked with Portland characters, and it’s all humans and puppets. Even some of our improvised shows are kind of parodies of existing things people are already familiar with.

Miller: How does it feel to be open again, to have people in seats for live theater?

Barrett: Oh, it’s so good. When the pandemic started, people were talking about 5-6 months, this will be done. I wasn’t buying it, so I made plans: I looked at my finances. I looked at other things. I were going to still be around on the other end of this decided and planned accordingly and got some allies – my landlord helped out a little and then the government helped out a little. Being open again is great. The return of live theater is amazing and it’s something that I urge people to go out and experience again.

Miller: Andy Barrett, thanks for joining us.

Barrett: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Andy Barrett is the director of the parody musical ‘Pulp Fiction’. You can see it this weekend and next weekend at the Funhouse Lounge in southeast Portland.

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