Being Jonathan Harker: recollections of The Dead English
“Dude, you’re totally going to be Jonathan Harker.” These words were from Paul, my best friend, and came across tinny on the cell phone’s speaker.
“Yea, but who is that?” I asked, pacing my bedroom. I had just received a voicemail telling me that I received a callback for a musical based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, currently under the working title of The Dead English. Harker was one of the roles I was called to read.
“He’s the one who goes over to Dracula’s castle first, gets seduced by vampire brides. I think he ends up killing Dracula.”
“Yea, and your fiancé is the one that Dracula goes after.”
Paul and I have worked together in theater for more than 10 years, and I tend to seek out his advice when working on new projects. The high school musical nerds in both of us were titillated by the idea of an original take on such a classic piece of gothic literature. Musical adaptations of Jekyll & Hyde and Les Miserables were best at their darkest, and Stoker’s book deserved to be played at pitch black.
As is often the case, Paul was correct. The callback session was my first audition for a professional production since I earned my acting degree the previous year. There wasn’t much performance work during that time, so I was ready to tear into a script. Having no familiarity with the book as of yet, save for its obvious influence on pop culture (I haven’t seen a film adaptation of the story either), I had no clue what to expect.
I can vividly recall meeting Steven Sitzman, the composer and the audition accompanist. He proudly wore his grunge vibe, replete with mussed brown hair, a frayed baseball cap and, more often than not, a complete lack of shoes. Although I was nervous at first from an overwhelming desire to please the show’s musical director, he would become more accessible to me as I learned of his many proclivities (including his appreciation of both blocks of cheese and the gastroenterological potential they created). As he taught me and several others the vocal part to Harker’s anthem for youth’s invincibility, “Young and English,” I did my best to remain attentive and maintain eye contact. After at one point holding his gaze for a solid five seconds, I relaxed and figured that I had landed an ensemble role.
The moment you decide to adapt source material from one medium into another, you have to make peace with the fact that changes will occur during the translation. Once cast, I made a resolution to read Dracula immediately, even though I knew that my Harker would by necessity be different than the novel’s version. An adaptation is always the product of an interpretation. But Dracula is an epistolary novel – you’re not going to expect an audience to pay $20 and listen to people reading journal entries all night. So some invention is necessary.
As it happened, a number of significant alterations were made. Instead of starting with Harker already overseas in Transylvania, The Dead English opens with a scene between Harker and his fiance Mina, who is distraught over Jonathan’s imminent departure to help the Count close out his purchase of the Carfax estate just outside of London. They’re quickly joined onstage by Lucy and Dr. Seward, a couple soon to be engaged. Soon we realize that the exuberant Quincey Morris doesn’t exist in this world, the Texan having been forgotten before he got a chance to be courageous. (And, yes, his clout was crucial, but I didn’t miss the bellyaching of that near-cuckold Arthur Holmwood). In the second scene, we see Dracula in the castle, preparing for Harker’s arrival. Instead of the book’s much slower revelation of the Count’s evil nature (we know the castle holds an evil power, but the manifestation of it in the book’s old man takes some time), the audience is aware of his malicious intent from the onset.
We also get a bonus rationale for the decision to relocate from homey Transylvania: Dracula, given endless time to ponder the nature of his existence, knows not what he is. “We will soon learn if boredom is the root of all evil,” he tells a familiar. “The old world could not answer for my kind. Can your world answer for it?” This kind of existential angst is often reserved for characters from teen and family dramas, not a prince of darkness. However, this goes a bit further psychologically than the original Nosferatu’s thirst for blood as sustenance. Yes, Stoker’s Dracula wants to conquer England, but the novel isn’t too concerned with his motives.
Oh, and the familiar Dracula speaks to in that first scene? Renfield. Surprise! Not just an asylum patient, in The Dead English Renfield becomes the first solicitor’s clerk sent over by Harker’s employer. This plot device is an invention that has been used in film adaptations of Dracula, but isn’t germane to Stoker’s book. Renfield falls under the influence of Dracula’s power and is sent back to London to “baffle their doctors and startle their women.” Personally, I enjoyed this invention and felt that it established a strong foil for Harker. The Dead English, from my own interpretations and what I could glean from conversations with playwright Justin Karcher, was very concerned with the unforgiving nature of experience and its effect on youth. The wonders Harker experiences in Castle Dracula, including seduction by the Count’s three vampire brides and numerous eerie phenomena, are similar to those to which Renfield succumbs. Harker survives but is remarkably shaken, while Renfield destroys his own psyche in his quest for darkness; their relationship as colleagues strengthens the association.
The beer-swilling and love-making talents of our Dr. Van Helsing will likely take Stoker aficionados by surprise as well. First introduced in the final scene before intermission, Van Helsing holds the coveted position of closing number, at least for Act I. Musical theater tends to enter intermission on a bombastic note, and Karcher writes a Danish holy man with a personality to match. He may still chide his former student Seward and devote himself to dear Madam Mina’s recovery, but in The Dead English he’s a holy man who can also be found enticing a bar wench to “warm [his] bed this evening.” Rebuffed by the wench’s assurance that she is of finer stock, Van Helsing considers her and replies: “Look at yourself; are you certain?” As he chases the devil throughout the show, he’s never far from a stiff drink, but is always further along the hunting trail than Seward, Harker or Mina. Substance abuse – one possible solution to the angst associated with knowledge of the devil.
So, where would the sound of The Dead English fall into the taxonomy of the music kingdom? It would definitely be in the rock family, probably found under the genus known as “emo.” To me, it could be a close relative to both Death Cab for Cutie and Coheed and Cambria. Dracula and Renfield get to swim in the rich minor tones of “Act and Act Fast,” “Renfield’s Requiem” and “What Am I?” The merry band of British protagonists, on the other hand, is able to soar brightly into the simple yet stirring chord progressions that make up “Death Before Dishonor,” “Young and English” and “I Wanna Be An Ocean Tide.” The inebriated nature of Dr. Van Helsing lends a ska vibe to “Another Drink Please,” but the rhythmic forcefulness of Act II’s “The Student and the Teacher” indicates the good doctor’s superior ability to handle the chaos driving Lucy to death and Seward to despair.
A few clear images come to mind when trying to recall the process of creating The Dead English. During our first read of the script, I remember the mischievous glint in the eyes of Nick Lama, a young man full of affable charm who embodied the learned John Seward, as we approached a line we were to shout in unison. We massacred it, and the ridiculous laughter that rang forth told me that I might have found a perfect comic sidekick. We had fun, but we worked like hell. During performances, the trio of Harker, Seward and Van Helsing got a pretty good shock when we opened a coffin lid in Act II to stab Lucy the vampire, only to find that Hannah Sharp, the actress playing Lucy, was experiencing a pretty severe nosebleed. Another night, we opened the coffin to see Lucy, in her crimson red gown, wearing the fuzzy Gizmo skull cap that our director had worn earlier that night. Hannah kept us on our toes.
Some of the most indelible memories come from cast outings and other activities that barely involve the show at all. Like an idiot, I told some cast members that, sure, I’d love to go see Paranormal Activity 4 after one of the productions, and that no, I didn’t mind scary movies. We were working on a stage adaptation of a famous piece of horror literature, for God’s sake. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that I was the only one tagging along who didn’t have a significant other to cry on. After thirty minutes of cowering into Nick Lama’s shoulder, to his complete amusement, I realized I may have made a mistake. This was confirmed when, arriving home at 3:30 AM (which is when everything happens in that movie, dammit), I had to call a friend of mine from Los Angeles to keep me company while I took out my contacts and locked the bedroom door. I played a decent Harker on stage, but I might lack his unshakeable courage in real life.
Then, there was the pumpkin pie eating contest. Our Dracula could hold one hell of a party, kind of what you’d expect from a Transylvanian count. Nick Lama and I had recently discovered a mutual obsession for all things pumpkin, and talks of competitive eating followed fast. Anthony Alcocer, our gracious host, told us to pig out at his place; he was holding a costume party directly following a Saturday night performance. I arrived with 14 pumpkin pies in tow, wearing a Minnie Mouse outfit that was lent to me that night by a friend. She’s about a foot shorter than I am, and I’m not ashamed to say that I fill out her wardrobe well. At 2 AM, Lama, Karcher, fellow cast member Matt Kindley, myself and three men we had never met before began a savage desecration of pie, the likes of which will not soon be repeated. There is video evidence, although I haven’t seen the final edit as of yet. The contest’s outcome is in slight doubt, as I gave a former army serviceman named Peter a very good run for his money. Lama, who said he wasn’t going to try, was only a few bites behind, while Karcher was munching on a ball of crust, with a look in his eyes that said he was reconsidering some life choices.
Being Jonathan Harker for a few hours every night was a life worth living through vicariously. I got a chance to play a romantic lead, an opportunity I hope I get again sometime. I wore the longest hair I had ever grown in my life, and realized that it doesn’t look awful. I was seduced onstage every night by three beautiful soulless vampire brides, which is something that real life Steve has prayed for but will never come close to. I never got chances to perform musical theater at school, which made every compliment about my “pipes” that much sweeter.
The end of every show has a sense of funeral to it. Personas die, and the memories live on. There’s also a transformative aspect; the audience and your cast members see things in you that you didn’t realize about yourself. The art of theater is nothing if not the art of manipulating the perception of others, ideally in a constructive way. An actor may be the sum of his parts, but his or her actual value is determined by an audience who can’t help but be judgmental or adore the actor without reason. Buying into your own mystery at too dear a price often cheapens what you’re able to accomplish later. Jonathan Harker and the rest of The Dead English will live on for the creative team that continues to shepherd its existence and clean the script for submission to musical theater festivals.
Of course, every death is a harbinger of new life. After having waited to find professional work, I’m blessed to have found so many people with not only the same goals but also a great ability to collaborate creatively. In many ways, we’re just on hiatus; many of us will be teaming up again for Cannibal! The Musical, written by South Park creator Trey Parker, for a March 2013 production in Buffalo, N.Y. But what we achieved together during The Dead English was a truly cooperative artistic experience, and for a month I got to live in a world where I had a fiancé, a full time job and some sharp black Converse sneakers. Everyone ought to be able to have those things for at least one day.
Steve Brachmann is a writer and actor based in Buffalo, N.Y. His writing work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com and Motley Fool. As an actor, Steve has worked this year with American Repertory Theater of WNY, Theatre Jugend and Buffalo United Artists. He is also a project coordinator for Buffalo-area theater company Road Less Traveled Productions.