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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Are you surprised that Charles Busch has adapted the beloved children's book Bunnicula into a family-friendly musical? That's okay. He's a little surprised, too.
Now at the DR2 Theatre in a production from TheatreworksUSA, the show follows Chester and Harold, a cat and dog who believe their human owners have adopted a vampire bunny. After all, something is draining the juice out of the vegetables every night, and Bunnicula was found at a movie theatre showing a vampire flick. Based on this evidence, Chester and Harold decide to save their family from an adorable monster.
In some sense, this story echoes Busch's earlier work. He's written and starred in a series of genre parodies like The Divine Sister, Die, Mommie, Die!, and Psycho Beach Party, which blend the tropes of classic films with drag, camp, and savage wit. It's easy to imagine a vampire bunny in this canon.
But can Busch's sensibility work for the juice box set? When he was first approached about writing Bunnicula's book---the music is by Sam Davis and the lyrics are by Mark Waldrop---he wasn't so sure.
"In a way, my genre parody plays have a childlike quality to them," he says. "There's something playful and childlike about them, so it's not such a crazy stretch. But I had to get past my own prejudices about children's theatre."
Busch assumed, for instance, that kiddies couldn't handle drag. "Barbara Pasternak, who runs Theatreworks, had said from the beginning, 'Oh, can't you put some drag in it?' And I said, 'No!' Suddenly, I got very conservative. 'No, I find that offensive in a children's show!'"
His hesitation didn't help his writing. "My first stab at it was terrible," he recalls. "I just did a very literal adaptation of the first two books, and it was just as dull as could be. We did a workshop and had a focus group of kids watching who seemed to enjoy it. But then by the time they were interrogated, they ended up being like the subscribers at MTC. They were so tough in their judgments! Eight year olds, you know. They had problems with the quintet. The rabbit's arc was under discussion.
"Afterward, James Howe, the author of the original books, came over to me with a slight panic in his eyes and said, 'Please, throw out the books. Just be yourself. Give it your own voice.'"
So Busch stopped reining himself in and found a way to blend the book's perspective with his own. Though the show is still family-friendly, it now crackles with his signature humor. Chester makes catty remarks (ahem), and in one crucial scene, Howard dresses in doggie drag so that he can break into a pet hospital.
"Part of me had been trying to 'write for children,' but I don't know about that sort of thing," Busch says. "I'm the village curmudgeon in my neighborhood that children run away from. 'Get out of here! You ought to be in a reformatory!' So I decided to write it for adults and put in a lot of movie parody stuff that I enjoy. It must be the first children's musical that has references to Caged!, the women's prison film."
However, now that the show has gone on a national tour and settled into its run at the DR2---it plays through April 14---Busch has learned that children really do like his humor after all.
He explains, "I started asking friends of mine who had children and grandchildren, 'What does your granddaughter or what does your son find funny? And each of them said, 'A guy in drag!' So I thought, 'Well far be it from me to not want to cater to an eight year-old's comic sensibility. So I added this Tallulah Bankhead parody. And the kids just love it."
After a pause, Busch adds, "And Barbara was thrilled that I finally buckled and put a drag element into the show."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Jeremy Daniel