April Kidwell shrieks, "Different places!" about five minutes into Showgirls the Musical, and the crowd loses it. This is in response to being asked where she's from, and though these words alone are not particularly funny, their delivery is. So are the flying French fries that punctuate the line.
And then there's the nostalgia, the personal associations, the fact that these words were initially written by Joe Eszterhas, directed by Paul Verhoeven and spoken by Elizabeth Berkley in American cinema's last big-budget camp classic, the infamous flop Showgirls. The stripper-pole-licking, mispronunciations of Versace and fucking underwater that ensue all but bring down the house.
The musical satire opened in April at the Kraine Theater in New York's East Village, where it was been packed night after night. It has since moved to the gay nightclub XL, where it opened Wednesday, and is set to run Wednesdays and Saturdays through June 15. Though XL's neon-on-black color scheme is more Cheetah than Stardust, this venue is bigger and flashier than the Kraine, and just blocks away from the theater district. Rena Riffel, who played Penny in the movie, is now reprising her role onstage—the stage version comes complete with the song "No One Wants To Fuck a Penny." Like its demented protagonist who goes from whore to stripper to showgirl and back, Showgirls the Musical is clawing its way up in the world.
This is deserved. The audience at the two performances that I have now attended seemed to agree that the musical does their beloved movie justice. There is a sense of communion, of congregating to worship this rare breed of film that never stops devising new ways for its characters to be insane and disgusting. As a Showgirls devotee since the movie was released, I endorse this show. (I saw the movie opening weekend, way back in September 1995. It had me at "smiling snatch.")
Showgirls the Musical probably shouldn't work as well as it does – crucial to Showgirls' charm is its obliviousness. In an essay in its photo book companion that's as misguided as the film itself, Showgirls: Portrait of a Film, Verhoven gushes, "I got to direct an MGM musical!" Slate writer and Barneys creative-ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan is an opening-weekender like myself who is well connected enough to have discussed the film with its stars Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan. "The fascinating thing is that they all concur that while they were making the movie, they thought they were just making a really dramatic film about Vegas," he told me last weekend over the phone, cackling. "Which, of course, they were. They said they were just showing up for work that day and throwing themselves into it. They were unaware that they were making a camp classic. They had no sense of it at all. I guess that’s what makes it so genuinely, ferociously camp is that it was done for real. It’s haute couture camp."
That unawareness is what Susan Sontag deemed "pure camp" in her seminal set of bullet points, "Notes on Camp." Showgirls the Musical, then, presents a different sensibility, one entirely aware that it is straightforward comedy. Sometimes the musical takes lines from the movie and builds on them to stretch out the absurdity ("I didn't fuck him. I just made him cum in his pants. Not. Fucking," spits Nomi). Sometimes it merely replicates the film verbatim (the Nomi/Cristal scene in which they discuss eating dog food takes place at the Café Le Actual Dialogue from the Movie). Sometimes its cast comments on the action Greek-chorus style ("They can't dance! They can't dance!" actors sing when Nomi and James flail at each other in the club). Sometimes it operates as film criticism – the song "We Should Probably Just Fuck" explores the unresolved sexual tension between female friends in the film: "We're best friends now / We should probably have sex / Because that's what best friends do / When the writers are men." During the final song, Molly sings to the crowd, "This movie would be better without the rape at the end." What's amazing is that Showgirls loses very little in the translation from unknowing comedy to pointed spoof.
Showgirls the Musical is the brainchild of the pseudonymous duo Bob and Tobly McSmith, who wrote the bulk of it last fall when they were trapped in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy. They were so inspired when a Showgirls joke in their Bayside! The Saved by the Bell Musical! repeatedly killed. Kidwell told it – she played Jessie Spano, which means she has now translated two Elizabeth Berkley roles to the stage.
Neither Bob nor Tobly were diehard Showgirls buffs before they watched it the 50 or so times necessary to crank out a 90-minute musical (with about 15 songs) based on it. Now Tobly says it's her favorite movie.
"We’re not taking it down, we’re celebrating it and all its amazing and terribleness," she told me earlier this month when I met her, Bob, Kidwell and the show's choreographer, Jason Wise, at the Kraine a few hours before a performance.
Kidwell, who looks a lot like Berkley but with more conventionally attractive proportions, was the McSmiths' muse. Her energy fuels the show, and watching her, you get the feeling that she could power a city with her sweat. Her performance is a tour de force. Along with most of the cast, she is rarely not topless. She is at once absolutely ridiculous and straightforwardly amazing. She has Nomi down to the lopsided wiggle. Her face is a freak show of contortions. She's no butterfly. She's all pelvic thrust. She prowls. She's got it. She learned it, but they don't teach it in any class. Hers is exponential absurdity – you can imagine Kidwell watching Nomi on screen and replicating her scissor-hands move while Nomi watches Cristal on stage and replicates her scissor-hands move.
"I don’t feel angry throughout my daily life because I get to get out on stage and go nuts," Kidwell told me about the catharsis in convulsing for 90 minutes multiple times a week. (Kidwell recently told Slate of how the show has been therapeutic for a past sexual assault.)
There have been other musicals based on Showgirls, including a brown-bag puppet show in New York some years ago and a more straightforward retelling that played Chicago last year and used pop songs like Britney Spears "Gimme More" and Christina Aguilera's "Keeps Getting Better." Tobly told me that they didn't even Google the earlier shows: "We had our Nomi. We had our writing style and we just went for it." None of the past productions touch this one because none of them featured Kidwell.
Regardless, tapping into the madness of Showgirls is something people have been doing for years. It's a no-brainer: Get a bunch of Showgirls fans in a room to focus on the film and mass giddiness ensues. Kidwell and company recently performed at a screening of the film in Williamsburg's restaurant-theater Nighthawk. She described the experience of watching it with a crowd as "joyous."
"It’s almost like there are two shows going on at once," said Showgirls the Musical choreographer Jason Wise. "The reactions of people are just as fun as the action that’s happening onstage." The stage show's original script had to be cut down because the audience's laughter dramatically extended the show's running time.
I notice such joy when I reference Showgirls, which is often. I mention it on Twitter and get dozens of responses. I bond with people over that movie like Nomi and Cristal do with Doggy Chow. When I was talking to Doonan, his designer husband Jonathan Adler jumped on the phone, breathlessly eager to discuss this movie.
"The kids who work for me are in their 20's and they don’t know any of the references that they should," he lamented. "They don’t know Valley of the Dolls or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But they all know Showgirls, thank god. That generation thinks Bring It On is a classic. It’s not. Showgirls is."
Indeed, it is the last vestige of high-scale, old-school camp, the kind of thing that demands repeat viewings to simply wrap your head around the depths of its outrageousness and the dearth of its taste. After getting off the phone with Doonan and Adler, I performed an informal poll by texting anyone in my phone contacts who's 25 and under the question, "Do you like Showgirls?" Out of about 10, one said, "No," one didn't know what I was talking about and the rest answered emphatic yeses. Out of those, only one could rattle off movies he thought of as similarly funny/awful: Batman and Robin, Troll 2 and The Room.
But out of those, only Batman and Robin has the sort of Hollywood opulence that makes Showgirls the full-throttle mess it is. It is sinful, through and through, and its tits-out lewdness allows it to transcend the traditionally gay ghetto of camp.
“Some of the followers I’ve picked up along the way will be these mistresses and madams and the men who follow them," the anonymous person who runs the RealNomiMalone parody Twitter account told me by phone this week. "I can’t tell if they’re actual fans of Showgirls or if they appreciate any kind of seedy picture I post here and there."
The straight guy that I live with, A.J. Daulerio, loves this movie and I asked him if it is at all erotic to him. "Yes. I've never looked at a swimming pool the same," is what he told me. Bob McSmith told me that before writing Showgirls the Musical, his biggest association came when he would masturbate to it as a teen. I'm not sure that he was kidding.
I thought it was interesting that all of the gay guys that I talked to for this piece mentioned having empathy for Nomi, and in the process, straightforwardly reading her fame-hungry narrative between fits of laughter.
"There's no mumbling," said Doonan. "It’s very dramatic and sad and insane and camp and funny. It’s very successful on so many different levels. You want Nomi to succeed and you are rooting for her. There are genuine components to it."
I never quite experienced it that way, as Nomi is a raging asshole and I enjoy seeing her cry way too much. But I do know a good underdog story when I see one: Showgirls itself has that narrative. A flop at the time of its release, it took years to find appreciation, to attain its classic status. Even Elizabeth Berkley, who was paid a meager $100,000 for her work and subsequently referred to as a "blow-up fuck doll" by Eszterhas (who was reportedly high while writing much of the screenplay) has come around. She mentioned it in her book 2011 Ask Elizabeth book as a symbol of self-discovery. (Berkley's management didn't respond to my interview request.)
"She’s more than happy to do a few of those scissor hands in front of the face," reports Doonan. "It’s good to be known for something, hello."
"It’s been an amazing blessing, an incredible opportunity this past year to make something off somebody else’s career. That sounds horrible," says Kidwell, who may be the world's only working Elizabeth Berkly impersonator. "I hope it makes her feel better about her Showgirls experience that she’s bringing sunlight to everyone else’s lives."