To Kaplan brothers, ‘Silence’ is golden

Remember Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic horror flick “Silence of the Lambs,” where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) turns to incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help her catch another killer, this one named Buffalo Bill? Bill, as you may recall, is a transvestite murderer who wants his own chick suit, so he likes to kidnap zaftig women and sew stylish garb out of their skin. The clock frantically ticks away, as Starling attempts to wheedle clues from the wily Lecter before Bill kills his next victim.

Jon and Al Kaplan, a couple of 30-something Jewish brothers from Staten Island, have long been so enamored of the grisly film that they thought it would be a hoot to make a cheerfully twisted musical based on it. That effort turned out to become an exuberantly tasteless off-Broadway hit, “Silence! The Musical,” which will have its West Coast premiere Sept. 8 at The Hayworth Theatre. If you’ve ever yearned to hear Hannibal the Cannibal croon a hilariously vulgar love ballad to Clarice — accompanied by a chorus of floppy-eared dancing lambs — this is your chance. Time magazine and the New York Daily News lauded the musical in their top 10 theater lists for 2011. But, as The New York Times warned, don’t bring grandma. She might not appreciate Buffalo Bill prancing about with the traipsing lambs while bellowing “Are You About a Size 14” to a potential victim: “That creamy, luscious skin/I really am impressed. I prayed for someone corpulent/It looks like I’ve been blessed!”

Over lunch the other day, the Kaplan brothers finished one another’s sentences and complemented one another, well, like Lecter’s favorite meal of human liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti. “People tend to think of us as one person, except that I’m bald,” said Jon, adding that they’ve watched Demme’s flick more than 20 times and have memorized much of the dialogue, which they frequently quote.

While growing up in a Reform Jewish home, the brothers became obsessed with the thriller, especially Buffalo Bill: “We’d go around mimicking his ridiculously deep voice, which would get us in trouble at school,” Jon said, tucking into his matzah-ball soup. “We just thought it would be funny to hear Buffalo Bill sing.”

“Silence!” began in 2002, when the brothers had graduated from USC with degrees in musical composition and were sharing a one-bedroom apartment downtown, where “Jon got the bedroom,” Al said. “I’m older,” his brother retorted. It was in these modest environs that Jon chanced to notice that the title of the song “Would You?” from the film “Singin’ in the Rain” happened to match an iconic line from Demme’s movie.

Davis Gaines and Christine Lakin in “Silence! The Musical.” Photo by Carol Rosegg

Together, the pair quickly penned six goofy songs based on lines from “Silence of the Lambs” purely as a joke for themselves and their friends; they also performed all the voices and posted the audio of their ditties online. They were stunned when, soon after, the songs went viral.

Entertainment Weekly and Maxim promptly wrote stories about the phenomenon; Howard Stern played the tunes on his show, and Hollywood came calling, although writing a screenplay from the project sounded silly to the Kaplans. They penned one anyway, and so they were ready with a script when theater producers wanted to bring a staged version to the New York Fringe Festival in 2005. The show premiered with choreography and direction by the Tony-winning Christopher Gattelli and a book written by Hunter Bell. Further productions followed in London and off-Broadway, respectively, in 2010 and 2011.

So what possessed the Kaplans to create a musical comedy based on one of the grisliest films ever? “The movie works wonderfully as a thriller, but it also has kind of a theatrical, campy element,” Jon said. In the film, Clarice lisps, so the brothers wrote her a duet titled “It’s Agent Shtarling.” And Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “could be seen as lunatic,” Al said. “He’s got these frozen, staring eyes and a calm, dignified voice, but what he’s saying is the most, like, vile, ridiculously over-the-top stuff imaginable. So we’d pick up on those kinds of things and hype or twist them for the show.”

“Silence!” is as much an homage as a satire of Demme’s film; indeed the Kaplans have been parodying their favorite movies since they were kids, when they redubbed all of “Total Recall” “with stupid dialogue,” Jon said.

But film music was their first love — their father was a composer-turned-musician, and by the time the brothers were in grade school, they said, they could hum the theme from “Ben-Hur” and rattle off facts about their favorite movie composers, many of them Jewish expatriates (think Franz Waxman) who had fled the Nazis. The Kaplans’ Hungarian-born grandmother had also fled Hitler’s Europe, the brothers said.

During their interview, the Kaplans raved about American-born movie composers John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, as well as Howard Shore, whose sinister soundtrack from “Silence of the Lambs” they’ve tweaked into major modes for “Silence!” The songs also draw on other musical styles, from pop to jazz, and Buffalo Bill’s “Are You About a Size 14?,” Al said, “is kind of a joyous hoedown number, because he’s out on the town hunting his prey — he’s going shopping.”

“The show is filthy, because the source material is filthy,” Jon said, adding that the naughty lyrics may initially have delayed the show’s journey to New York. In 2007, the brothers were about to fly out to rehearsals in Manhattan when they learned that the financing for the initial production had fallen through. “Some people were like, ‘This is in terrible taste,’ ” Jon said. “But when we returned to New York in 2011, ‘The Book of Mormon’ had pushed the vulgarity [envelope], and suddenly what we had done was OK.”

Since then, the brothers said, their mother has been nudging them to write more musicals, and they have obliged with online videotaped parodies of films such as “Total Recall,” as well as TV’s “24,” and even “Schindler’s List.” They’ve also made a demented, short horror film, titled “Elijah!” spoofing Passover. But before you say oy vey, the brothers want to emphasize that everything they do comes from a place of respect.

“It’s about our love for our favorite things,” Jon said.

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