In 1989 Carly’s mother came home from a trip, opened her suitcase, and was attacked by bedbugs. In her fright she tripped and fell and broke her neck. Carly, who was ten years old at the time of her mother’s death, eventually chose a career conducive to revenge: exterminator. Her intentions, i.e., being bent on ridding the earth of bedbugs, were more or less honorable when she prepared her ultimate bedbug killer, an insecticidal jambalaya made up of, well, a lot of chemicals I’m too lazy to spell, but her concoction, or its application, led to certain unforeseen consequences, the most pressing of which being the rapid mutation of the pests it was supposed to murder into human-sized, highly organized evil beings, which raises certain ethical questions regarding the killing of sentient (albeit killer) bedbugs that I don’t think will be explored in the musical, which will appear on Broadway, or off Broadway, or maybe at somebody’s apartment in Brooklyn, on an as-yet-to-be-determined date.
Fred Sauter and Paul Leschen, the creators of Bedbugs!!!, which they describe as a “sci-fi thriller comedy rock musical,” have never had bedbugs, but they see them sometimes on the street, infesting discarded mattresses, and they know people who’ve had bedbugs, like the actress who got them shortly after she appeared as Carly in the Bedbugs!!! premiere at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2008. They take a calculated karmic risk in their subject—"If we write a musical about bedbugs," said Sauter, “you know they’re coming”—but they don’t seem concerned. An infestation would give them insight into their characters.
At this point, reader, I know you’re scowling and unconsciously scratching your arms and wondering why anyone would ever write a goddamn musical about bedbugs, but I have five words for you: American Idiot and Mamma Mia!. Bedbugs!!! is that rara avis of twenty-first century musical theatre, a show with original tunes.
“The initial paradox that drew me,” that is, Leschen, who wrote the music, “into the idea is that the name ‘bedbug’ doesn’t match up with the reactions. ‘Bedbug’ sounds cute, but there’s so much anguish over bedbugs. People talk like it’s the second coming of Osama bin Laden.” “Plus,” said Sauter, the lyricist, “the bed is an intimate space.”
The bedbugs in Bedbugs!!! are more than bedbugs. (This is Leschen I’m paraphrasing.) They’re a metaphor for things that need to be overcome. Those things could be bedbugs, or something else.
The show is rooted in campy musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it also shares a theme with the great film of the ‘80s (the songs are rooted in the music of the ’80s). Think back to Lucky Day’s stirring speech, at the end of ¡Three Amigos!, to the good people of Santa Poco:
“In a way, each of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo!”
On a personal note, in the field of journalism, taking poor notes is my bedbug/El Guapo. I write slowly and don’t know shorthand and I’m a fairly dreamy fellow, so I’m lucky to get down on paper a tenth of what my subject says.
I used to have two good digital tape recorders, but I sold them on eBay during a recent time of economic hardship. It occurred to me, about halfway through the “interview,” that I could record my subjects with my multifunctional phone, but even though I placed it directly between the two interviewees, Sauter’s voice is the only one that’s regularly decipherable, which led to some incomplete transcriptions like the following response to the question of whether, in light of the extensive coverage of the sexual habits of bedbugs, there’d be any bedbuggery in the show: “There’s a song in our show” (that’s Leschen) “called ‘He Pierced Me.’” Sauter: “Oh yeah!” Leschen again: “And that refers to the act, but also how he pierces himself”—several seconds of staticky gibberish, and then, “and the relationship between the head bedbug and Carly,” followed by something indecipherable, then something about a spoiler. Sauter interjected: “And also, here’s another spoiler, but I’m just gonna maybe say it: there may or may not be gay bedbugs, piercing.”
But anyway, Bedbugs!!! is about catharsis, according to Sauter, for anyone who’s ever had to deal with them. Leschen added: “Or any personal demons.” And I’d add: Or any literal demons.
In terms of casting, they were very happy with the actors from the NYMF performance, but in a dream-performer type of situation they’d love to have Adam Lambert play the role of Cimex, the main bedbug. For those of you who’ve never heard of Adam Lambert, he’s some kind of American Idol person.
They’re trying, “with a wink and a nod,” to get Tiffany to play Carly. Sauter: “Tiffany, as in ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’” I knew who she was, and I think she’d be a great choice. She’d bring poetry to the role: her career, like the bedbugs her potential character professionally kills, is resurgent. But it might not work out. Sauter: “We’d have to put her up in a bedbug-infested hotel.” If she won’t do it, allow me to suggest Cyndi Lauper or Paula Abdul.
They see Ana Gasteyer as Dionne Salon, who is the moral compass of the show. Sauter: “People who actually hate Dionne Salon, which is a lot of people, I mean Celine Dion, in real life, people who can’t stand her, saw this show and loved the character of Dionne Salon, so that says something. We made fun of her just enough to make her semi-likable,” which is a hell of an achievement.
I’m fairly certain it was Leschen who said, “We tend to take a decade and exploit it for whatever show we’re working on.” For Bedbugs!!!, Leschen tried to write the No. 1 song of the eighties, and then do it again for the next number.
“Basically,” said Sauter, “you’re just trying to write ‘What a Feeling’ again.”
Leschen: “Oh, if I could only write a song like that.”
I’ve listened to all the demo songs that are on the website (www.bedbugsmusical.com), and when I listen to “Genocide” “It’s gonna be a genocide! (Genocide!) / Nothing could break my dedication! / Ever since the night my momma died (Momma died!) / Nothing could shake my motivation! I’ve dreamt of their annihilation!” all I can see is Kevin Bacon running around inside a barn.
Are New Yorkers ready for a show about bedbugs? Leschen: “Oh absolutely. They’re crying out for it.” Sauter: “It’s overdue. We wish it would’ve been off-Broadway two years ago right after NYMF, but things didn’t work out, so that’s the point of the concert, though, the concert is to get it back into the world, to try to get Broadway or off-Broadway producers to discover it and be like, ‘Oh my God! The world needs this. Let’s do it,’ you know? And I don’t mean let’s, like, develop it in three or four years, I mean let’s do it in frickin’ March, like let’s put it on, ready to go, maybe a few workshops, but, you know, one out-of-town performance.”
There are actually two concerts. The first one, Astronauts, Bedbugs and Other Killers: The Songs of Leschen and Sauter, will be at 9:30 p.m. on October 27 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue. There’ll be a concert performance of strictly Bedbugs!!! some time in January, which I’ll miss because I won’t live in New York anymore. You should go, though.