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One evening eight years ago, Stephen Gregory Smith did something he admits sounds a little silly now: He covered the windows of his Fairlington apartment with blankets. His mother had called earlier from Connellsville, Pa., to tell him she’d seen a news report that the Beltway sniper, then rampant, had shot someone near his house.
“My mom said, ‘You know what, you should put blankets over your windows,’” Smith, 32, says. “I said, ‘Well, why?’ She said, ‘What if he starts shooting in houses?’ And I said, ‘Well mom he hasn’t shot in houses.’ She says, ‘He hasn’t—yet.’ The next thing I know I’m digging out blankets.” Once he’d covered his last frame, Smith returned to his couch to continue watching George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Smith had dug up the 1968 cult classic, a favorite since his childhood, to distract himself from the anxiety of those uncertain days.
“The second I went back to my movie, it was a scene in which all the six people in the farmhouse are sitting around the TV with the windows boarded up,” says Smith. “I went ‘Huh, there’s some irony right there.’”
Ironic, yes. It was also the germ of an idea that would take years to reach fruition—NightoftheLivingDead: the musical.
In addition to side gigs tending bar at Signature Theatre and manning Ticketplace in Penn Quarter, Smith is a prolific actor in the D.C. area. He starred in the Super Mario Brothers spoof Super Claudio Bros. at July’s Capital Fringe festival and frequently performs at Signature—right now he’s rehearsing for the theater’s upcoming run of Sunset Boulevard. His partner of 12 years is Matt Conner, an actor and composer of such works as Signature’s Nevermore and The Hollow.
When Smith decided to bring Night of the Living Dead to the stage, the goal wasn’t to create a campy or humorous take on the film, but to capture its sense of fear and foreboding, and its parallels to modern life. The same week that Smith watched the film with his windows covered, he wrote a draft and showed it to Conner, hoping he’d sign on as composer. The only problem, as far as Conner was concerned, was that on-stage zombies tend to inspire more laughter than fright. Says Smith: “So when I asked him to join the project with me, he said, ‘I don’t think it’s really possible to make this scary.’”
Undeterred, Smith forged ahead, collaborating with one area composer and then another, revising along the way. But he couldn’t get either to stay with the project for more than a few weeks. Getting zombies taken seriously was proving more difficult than it first seemed. Disheartened, Smith tucked his script away, resurrecting it from time to time, whenever a creative whim struck him.
Nothing seemed to stick, however, until this spring. Convinced by Smith to look at his latest revision (the seventh), Conner started to see potential. He agreed to work on it with one condition: No zombies.
In other words: No camp. Conner didn’t want to see the work become another Reefer Madness or Bat Boy (the musicals). “The last thing I want is for people to be singing along and throwing spoons or different things before a showing,” says Conner, 40.
The pair agreed that the audience’s imagination, as it watched the fully alive characters react to unseen intruders, would generate more terror than four more actors in freaky makeup bumbling around the stage.
Things started moving quickly. Smith finished the book, while Conner wrote the music (they collaborated on lyrics). Thanks to $9,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, they were able to hire actors to rehearse and perform a live reading of the show in October at the Kensington Arts Theatre. The purpose: to inspire a local theater troupe or stage to bring NightoftheLivingDead: the musical to life.
On that mid-October evening, Smith is standing in the parking lot. A slightly cracked door leaks the sound of soaring vocals and driving piano chords from the theater. Smith’s cast is cramming in a couple more hours of rehearsal before the night’s 8 o’clock reading begins.
The day that Smith has been preparing for eight years has arrived, but he’s surprisingly serene. “I think more than anything I’m just enjoying it,” he says. “I can’t be stressed anymore.” The cast has been rehearsing since noon, and although they’ve had the script for three weeks, it’s the longest they’ve all been in the same place.
Thirty minutes before show time, the audience begins to trickle in, filling most of the 112 seats. Behind a black curtain, the actors are dressed in simple variations of black and white—shirts, slacks, skirts, and frocks—so that potential show-backers can imagine their own vision of how the musical should look.
“It will be interesting—once this goes further, hopefully—to see what people have in their minds when they come,” says Gillian Shelley, who plays Helen. “And how they feel when they realize that there are no zombies. This is not about the zombies. This is about the people.”
Her point is further illustrated when they take the stage, the actors standing behind metal music stands, where they’ll stay throughout the reading. Evan Casey sets the scene by reading stage directions: “The time is 1968. A farmhouse in Western Pennsylvania. Two levels of the interior of a seemingly abandoned house…”
Yet it’s the musical’s opening song that indicates this is hardly a typical zombie romp. A hopeful, optimistic tune rises from the chests of the sextet of singers. It was a perfect morning, the sky so blue, the most picturesque morning, leading into afternoon…
As the characters come into contact with the (unseen) undead, however, the numbers become more distressed. “Music Box,” sung by a nearly catatonic Barbra (Karissa Swanigan) to her missing brother, is set eerily to a syncopated, high-pitch tune that emulates the children’s toy. With lyrics like “No—this can’t be happening,” “Ben’s Song” conveys the panic and disbelief of a man struggling to keep his cool. At no point is the central conceit played for laughs.
As the audience applauds, Smith takes the stage. There’s a palpable buzz in the air—as if this is the start of something big, the next Sweeney Todd, perhaps. What happens next, unfortunately, is out of Smith’s hands. But on this night he savors the moment, standing tall in his black suspenders: “I was in the very back row on the back corner,” he says. “I was a mess for the last 10 minutes of the show. A good mess. I was very proud.”
Nearly two months later, it’s a pride Smith still feels. Now he’d like to experience it on a larger scale—as a legit production performed on a legit stage. He says theatrical organizations in New York and D.C. are currently considering the musical, but won’t say which—or even who attended the Kensington reading—for fear of jinxing his undead brainchild.
Before any contracts are signed, however, he’d like to hold one more reading early next year in order to work in a few tweaks following audience critiques. Even if the current interest in NightoftheLivingDead: the musical fizzles, he says he’ll continue on, with zombie-like persistence, no doubt. Giving up is not an option, he says. “I believe in it too much.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery