LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Classically trained opera singer Jesse Merlin has a truly frightening resume: roles as a reanimated deviant surgeon, a cannibalistic serial killer and a Max Von Sydow-inspired Catholic priest. They're all characters in musical plays inspired by horror films. From member station KPBS, Beth Accomando reports on a career that took an unexpected turn.
BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: Jesse Merlin looks like a caricature of a young and untanned George Hamilton, and has a bass-baritone voice perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan. Since that's not what Hollywood's looking for, Merlin's had to scare up roles elsewhere.
JESSE MERLIN: I've just become Mr. Horror Musical lately - if it's Dr. Hill in "Re-Animator The Musical" and then I was Hannibal and a bunch of other roles as the swing in "Silence! The Musical" here in L.A.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ACCOMANDO: Most recently, he played a comic version of Max Von Sydow's Catholic priest in a current Hollywood Fringe production called "Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment."
MERLIN: I was a little scared by making my entrance as the priest with a hip-hop number. It's a home sweet home now, homes we show down, homes we throw down, your daughter feeling lowdown. Don't fret, don't fret, now child. The exorcist, the exorcist, the exorcist in the (bleep) house.
ACCOMANDO: This is a guy who began singing opera professionally at 22.
MERLIN: I think it's ironic because now that's my selling point, that here I am this highfalutin, snooty, ridiculous opera singer 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, you know, lay down the beats and freestyle a little bit.
ACCOMANDO: Let's leave the projectile vomit of "Exorcistic" behind and move on to the blood splatter of "Re-Animator: The Musical." Merlin plays Dr. Hill in the horror musical based on Stuart Gordon's '80s cult classic. Dr. Hill is a lecherous surgeon who literally loses his head and reanimates from the dead.
MERLIN: There's a decapitation on stage, then I have a puppetry rig where I'm carrying my own decapitated head around while singing. (Singing) I love you and I do (unintelligible)...
ACCOMANDO: Director Stuart Gordon says it's a physical challenge to make the headless gag work.
STUART GORDON: He has to wear this weird rig where he has to kind of hunch over to make it look like he's carrying around his own head. He has to be a contortionist and I found out when we were in rehearsal that he actually is double jointed.
ACCOMANDO: With a good head on his shoulders and another in the prop room, Merlin saw an opportunity to exploit something he has always loved to do.
MERLIN: I discovered early on that playing a villain is about the most fun you can have as an actor. When I got to "Re-Animator," for example, playing a decapitated zombie pervert was just like the role I feel I was born to play.
ACCOMANDO: That brings us to horror musical number three. Merlin got to understudy and eventually play the role of Hannibal Lector in "Silence! The Musical."
MERLIN: The key for me was finding his voice, that character's voice when I read an interview that Anthony Hopkins said Hannibal is a cross between Katherine Hepburn and HAL 9000. And that's totally it. It's just the, you know, now then what did Migs say to you? Multiple Migs in the next cell, he hissed at you. what did he say? I kind of thought about what about opera and particularly Gilbert and Sullivan, which is, you know, a big part of my background too - leads me to horror. I think it's a grounding in over-the-top archetypal stock characters. (Singing) If she were grand, my symbol is a (unintelligible) I could illuminate this dungeon with but one small whip...
ACCOMANDO: Merlin has grown fond of the horror genre and would like to continue putting his singing expertise to use in more horror musicals based on films.
MERLIN: I think horror is a place where actors who are off-beat, who don't look like models, who don't look like an obviously easily marketed character type, someone who's a little average or unusual looking or has an unusual talent will find a place in horror where maybe nowhere else really has a place for you.
ACCOMANDO: Merlin's revenge has been to prove that he's scary good in his new found vocation as Mr. Horror Musical. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando.