Review: Jamie Lee crafting scary good musical

Musical comedy poised to creep out of the crypt and onto the stage

Playwright Jamie Lee Cortese pens new musical with a fun and spooky twist on the horror genre.

Jamie Lee has acted, sung and danced her way across stages from local community theater to Chicago’s iO and Second City. But recently, the self-proclaimed overachiever has stepped into another role – that of playwright and musical composer. It’s those talents that have created her latest venture: a horror musical comedy titled “Brides,” which explores the themes of choice, friendship and the chaos “that happens when you don’t fit the role others try to force you into.”

Heavily influenced by that much beloved MeTV horror film host Svengoolie (whom she faithfully watched every week); Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; and films ranging from the 1948 “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” to “Beetlejuice,” Lee paid attention to their different eras, subgenres and qualities while noting elements that were effective or frustrating. She admits the very essence of “Brides” evolved from watching those horror films and performing in musicals.

The “Brides” characters involve a hunchbacked assistant, a mad scientist, a vampire, a collection of vampire brides and a villager who gets caught up in the chaos. The hunchbacked assistant and vampire brides are the leads; the assistant is sick of her background and rallies the brides, encouraging them to break out of their roles. Lee noted that in the majority of vampire movies, female characters “often get the short end of the stake,” and are all interesting characters until they get targeted by the vampire. They then either become damsels in distress or are turned into a vampire bride with personalities that too often disappear.

She always wondered what happened to their personalities and why did they change? Lee stated that is where and when the first seed of “Brides” was planted: “What would make someone want to become not just a vampire, but a vampire bride in eternal servitude to a boss who, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly boss of the year?”

Lee came up with characters who all chose to become vampire brides but for different reasons. She delighted in naming the characters. Some came to mind immediately, such as Igora; some took research. The head vampire is Nemilos (Romanian, of course, because it’s Transylvania); the mad scientist is Doctor Parietal. She does admit the most difficult character to name was the normal villager; she wanted to avoid blandness and potential laughter when that character was named. “I remembered a handy piece of trivia. In the 1931 Frankenstein film, Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant was not Igor but Fritz. Given the character’s role in the show, it’s perfect.”

Lee realized they were all a fun group of characters, but there was no plot, so she introduced the newcomer who didn’t want to become a vampire, much less a vampire bride, and made her hunchbacked “to harken back even more to those monster movies I love.”

Most of the plot fell into place from that concept alone. Her characters sing different musical styles, and Lee cites some of her favorite influences, such as Irving Berlin for one bride. “I love his music so much it’s practically in my blood, pun intended.” Another inspiration is Dolly Parton, while one bride sings patter, and another does 1980-esque rock ’n’ roll – all wide and varied musical styles. Lee also looked to another favorite – the musical “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” by Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger – for guidance with musical approaches.

Lee combed through many of her favorites to find specific touchstones for the characters; what she found aided her creativity in writing the book and lyrics for “Brides.” Fortunately, co-composer for orchestration Gary L. Luz took each example she gave him, and listened to every element that makes the style what it is in order to create the “Brides” orchestration with Lee.

Perhaps because of her directorial experience, Lee wrote “Brides” without a supporting ensemble, but a small cast of eight. Every actor plays a character vital to the plot with their own personality and story line. And of course, every actor gets to sing a solo. “I worked hard to ensure that every actor who’s ever cast in the show has something to sink their teeth into.”

Lee and Luz share many mutual friends, and have seen each other perform countless times. Their first collaboration was “Christmas in Quarantine,” with song and lyrics written by Lee, and music written in collaboration with Luz. As for “Brides,” the two “hit the ground running” in January 2022; Lee complimented Luz’s ability to listen to her, to accommodate every element of song styles she wanted, and to give her space to experiment. They collaborated virtually, which allowed them to meet often on a regular basis and without much notice.

In early 2023, Lee noted she was hitting her stride, and gave herself a “loose deadline” of finishing the script “as much as art is ever finished” by her June 26 birthday. She succeeded with time to spare. Additionally, she recorded a cappella demos for all of the songs, including the male roles, during the writing process.

As to what happens next, Lee is excited that “Brides” is already in the hands of some interested theater contacts. She also has found other potential sites for submission that “run the gamut of different types of theater companies,” and is talking with those venues about doing a fall production, a concert and “everything in between.”

Hey, Svengoolie! A spooky musical comedy with a small cast and big fun? Lee definitely has one that “can’t wait to creep out of the crypt and onto the stage.” And as for me, I truly hope someone bites, pun intended.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a retired Reading Recovery and special education teacher who loves to act and direct. When not traveling with her husband, she can be found onstage, backstage, in the audience, serving on a theater board or writing a review in a theater somewhere.

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