Those lucky, or, depending on who you are, unlucky enough to catch Joseph Green’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, will likely remember the 1962 B-movie classic. The plot was relatively simple in its own sleazy ass way. A hot shot doctor, Bill Cortner, goes on a joyride with his fiancee, Jan. His reckless driving leaves him bruised and his ladyfriend stricken with a severe case of headlessness.
Like most devoted men, he decides that just because his lovely lady has an impairment doesn’t mean he can’t love her. Dr. Cortner decides that it’s better to toss Jan’s head in a saucepan and just keep that lady alive until he can find the right body for her. While her hubby-to-be scampers about the seedier spots in town to survey the female flesh landscape as “research,” Jan is left to carry on contentious convos with one of Bill’s old experiments locked away in a nearby closet.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die hit a new height of prominence, outside the B-movie fan sphere, when it was lampooned in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It even inspired director Frank Henenlotter to make his own opus with similarly plotted scuzzfest — Frankenhooker. He wasn’t alone in feeling the inspirado.
Producer Bruce Bernhard, of Spinnaker Productions recalled, “I saw it on TV with some fraternity brothers late one night at college. I recall observing that Jan looked amazingly unscathed following a terrible car accident. Her face could have graced the cover of Vogue, despite the fact that she’d been decapitated and incinerated.”
Bernhard was so captivated by the cult classic’s insanity that he one day took steps to secure the rights to the film while living in Los Angeles. And thus began his seven year journey to bring his version of Green’s work to the masses.
Initially Bernhard had written The Brain That Wouldn’t Die as a filmed musical, but, unfortunately, this was before films like La La Land got everyone’s attention, so that didn’t quite pan out. When Bernhard moved to Charleston, he fell in with the theater crowd and was convinced to adapt The Brain That Wouldn’t Die for the stage. Bernhard, a fan of musicals like West Side Story and My Fair Lady, is also partial to another musical that The Brain That Wouldn’t Die resembles in some aspects — Little Shop Of Horrors, a campy adaptation of a ’60s cult classic.
With the help of director Linda Eisen and musical director David McLaughlin, Bernhard used some of the same cast members from Footlight Players’ productions, selected after a lengthy audition process. Naturally, another aspect of the musical’s key ingredients is the 18 songs featured throughout. That’s where long time friend and seasoned songwriter Chris Cassone comes in.
Bernhard details the process: “Songs in a musical must do two things, in addition to being entertaining they must reveal character and advance plot. His tunes are catchy and sing-able right out of the box. He applied that talent to the unique challenge of writing show tunes. The process was a lot of fun. I would identify a moment in the show that required a song, and maybe give Chris a lyric to work off of. Then he’d come back with a rough demo and we would develop it together. David McLaughlin then wrote all the arrangements for the band and singers.”
This production, which debuted at Footlight Players last October, had its run cut short thanks to Hurricane Matthew. Despite the frustration, being able to put the show on its feet before a live audience proved to be a valuable learning experience for Bernhard and Eisen.
The Charleston Music Hall presents The Brain That Wouldn’t Die … The Musical this time, utilizing the Hall’s stellar sound system. With the show’s premiere getting closer, the cast and crew are focusing on character subtleties as well as the intricate dance moves created by the production’s choreographer, Anthony Nannini.
Like Little Shop Of Horrors, Bernhard is hopeful that everyone’s hard work on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die … The Musical will translate beyond the thrilling lunacy of its B-movie source material. “The original movie was pretty grim: It was a cautionary tale of a doctor who flirted with the dark side and brought his world crashing down around him. I reimagined the film as a love story about a physician who would not rest until he healed the love of his life,” he says.
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