For Hannibal & Co., A Horrifying New Stage
By Beth Accomando
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.