Interview: Kristen Bell Talks About How Reefer Madness Changed Her Life

Bell was in the original off-Broadway cast and is now producing the revival in Los Angeles.

Kristen Bell (© Ricky Middlesworth)
Kristen Bell
(© Ricky Middlesworth)

When Kristen Bell was 21 years old, she played Mary Lane in the original cast of Reefer Madness off-Broadway. Since then, she has become known for lead roles in TV shows like Veronica Mars and The Good Place and as the voice of Anna in Disney’s cultural juggernaut Frozen.

She says that none of that would have happened without the people she met during Reefer Madness, a musical satire of the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, with a book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, lyrics by Murphy, and music by Studney. She is working with many of those people again, as a producer on the 25th-anniversary revival, currently running at the Whitley in Los Angeles through July 21.

Bell is joined on the producing team by Murphy, Studney, Christian Campbell (who played Jimmy Harper off-Broadway), his wife America Olivo, Alan Cumming (who played the Lecturer in the film version, which Campbell and Bell also starred in), and the show’s original director, Andy Fickman. Paul Nygro, one of the original cast members, is company manager.

They aren’t just re-creating what they originally did in Los Angeles in 1998 and New York in 2001. Bell says they wanted a fresh take, and Spencer Liff is the director and choreographer this time around, bringing an immersive vision in which the action happens all around the space, called the Reefer Den, which turns into an after party and cabaret after the performance. TheaterMania spoke to Bell about her memories of the show and more.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alex Tho, Darcy Rose Byrnes, Claire Crause, Bryan Daniel Porter, Anthony Norman, Andre Joseph Aultmon, and Jane Papageorge in <i>Reefer Madness</i> at the Whitley (© Andrew Patino)
Alex Tho, Darcy Rose Byrnes, Claire Crause, Bryan Daniel Porter, Anthony Norman, Andre Joseph Aultmon, and Jane Papageorge in Reefer Madness at the Whitley
(© Andrew Patino)

It’s the 25th anniversary of Reefer Madness. You’ve done a lot in your career since then. Did you learn anything from the original that has stayed with you throughout your career?
I learned how much fun satire can be when you push the limits through this show, but on a personal level, I can look at the time I was doing Reefer Madness and truly see a fork in the road for me. When I was doing Reefer Madness, the friends and family I made during that show were all from LA and said I should come out to LA. And I said, “I don’t know how. I’m only 21. I don’t know anyone.” And I lived in our writer Kevin Murphy’s guest bedroom for three months. If I hadn’t had that level of encouragement and help, I wouldn’t have moved to LA, I wouldn’t have had my career, I wouldn’t have met my husband, I wouldn’t have had my kids.

Has producing this show brought you back to that time in your life at all?
Yeah, more than anything it’s reinvigorated my sense of passion and the why of doing theater. If you live in LA long enough, you forget that there aren’t many high-quality musical theater experiences aside from touring, and in such an artistic town, it feels a bit sinful. So, the goal here was to re-create Reefer Madness because the messaging is still relevant, but also create a community space. We believe that people don’t necessarily just want to see a musical and go home. LA has a hangout vibe and creating the Reefer Den as an umbrella for the musical provides a whole night out. Audiences can come early for dinner and drinks or for brunch at matinees and they can enjoy the musical and then they can hang out afterwards for a post-show cabaret or a drink outside in the Victory Garden and the goal more than anything is to create a community around this musical, which I think can be done because we did it in New York and I am living proof of it.

Is it weird at all to be on the producing side and not in the show?
No. It’s so much fun. Knowing the show inside and out provides a level of knowledge that I can always draw upon whether it’s fixing something or updating something from an audience perspective because I know how the show is experienced. I don’t want to be a producer that’s just doing paperwork or just hands off doing budgets. I was in there yesterday washing out the bottom of the freezer because I really wanted the interior bar to be spick and span when we opened it this weekend.

You started performances right after 9/11. I’m sure that was tough. What are your strongest memories from that time?
In retrospect, I suppose that was what might have bonded this cast and crew even closer. We were together in tech on September 11. I had actually slept on Christian’s couch that night because I lived uptown and he lived closer to the theater. So that morning was wild and traumatic for everyone. We met at the theater. We spent the night together at one of our New York producer’s homes. We helped one another call our family members, held each other close, and kept each other safe. And then we experienced something that is rarely seen in the New York theater scene which is weeks and weeks of a city in recovery that isn’t going out. I remember performances of Reefer Madness where there would be four people in the audience in a 299-seat theater and we had to make the most of it. We had to still give it our all for those four people and realize that we were lucky to be there and alive and have jobs and commit to doing it to get the city back on track.

Thomas Dekker and Darcy Rose Byrnes in <i>Reefer Madness</i> at the Whitley (© Andrew Patino)
Thomas Dekker and Darcy Rose Byrnes in Reefer Madness at the Whitley
(© Andrew Patino)

Did anything surprise you about the show now?
I didn’t want to do too much thinking about a new cast before I saw it because I didn’t want to be judgmental if they took it in a different direction, and all I can say is I was so pleasantly surprised because this is not an imitation of the original. Particularly, I was impressed with Darcy Rose who plays Mary Lane. I didn’t know how I would react to someone taking over a role I kept so near and dear to my heart, and I think she’s doing it better than I ever could have.

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