‘Cannibal! The Musical’ to devour Madison

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Ever wonder what it’s like to eat human flesh? According to Alfred Packer, “it tastes like chicken” is not the right answer.

In the winter of 1874, Packer led a team of five other miners from Provo, Utah, to the Breckinridge gold fields in what was then Colorado Territory. The following April, he stumbled alone into a trading outpost, saying he had been lost and abandoned by his party.

Later that spring, an artist hiking in the same area discovered five partially eaten corpses. Authorities identified them as Packers’ fellow miners.

Packer, who hid from justice for nine years, eventually confessed to his culinary transgressions. After a series of trials, he served 17 years for manslaughter. Before he died in 1907, Packer worked as a guard at The Denver Post, a job perhaps offered in gratitude for all the headlines he had provided for the paper. As to the question of flavor, Packer told a reporter in 1883 that human breast muscle tissue was “the sweetest meat” he had ever eaten.

What does one do with this delicious morsel of historical trivia? If you’re Trey Parker, co-creator of both South Park and The Book of Mormon, you create a musical comedy.

Wisconsin audiences will be the first to feast on the U.S. premiere of Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical, which arrives for an eight-performance run March 14–19 at the Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

The Canadian production, which played to enthusiastic crowds in Toronto last year, is the first licensed professional stage adaptation of the work, according to producer Corey Ross. The positive Torontonian response has little to do with the subject matter, he adds.

“I wish I had a line about Canadians and cannibalism, but I don’t,” says Ross. “But we have a love of comedy and the show features a lot of Second City performers and those of us who really enjoy Trey Parker’s work.”

The show is pretty much a straight-up telling of Packer’s story, developed for the Broadway stage and seasoned with big musical and dance numbers, Ross says. As with Parker’s other work, it’s highly irreverent, trades on a few stereotypes and contains some four-letter words.

Then, of course, there is the cannibal thing.

All of this contributed to Overture officials’ decision to label the show “for mature audiences.”

From class to screen to stage

One of the show’s most interesting facets is the way it developed.

Parker was a film student at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1993 when, for a film class project, he created a trailer for a nonexistent film called Alferd Packer: The Musical, using an alternate spelling of Packer’s name. As expected, the class responded enthusiastically to the concept, which caused Parker to take the next step and produce the film his trailer promoted.

With a $125,000 budget, Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in the 96-minute film with fellow classmate Matt Stone. (Four years later, Parker and Stone would create South Park.) The film became a cult classic and requests came pouring in to the producers for permission to do amateur adaptations of the narrative, Ross explains.

“Over the years, there have been tons of amateur groups that have put on the show, but we consider this the first professional production,” the producer explains. “We found that it needed some adaptation, which we did carefully over about a six-year period to preserve the original humor.”

Ross and his associates brought in writing team Christopher Bond, who also directs the show, and Trevor Martin. The Canadian pair worked together on the “rom-zom” film A Little Bit Zombie, but Bond is best known for creating Evil Dead — The Musical.

The stage adaptation of Sam Raimi’s goofy, gory film trilogy is best known for its “splatter zone,” an area in the first few rows of auditorium seats in which the phrase “audience participation” means “bring a raincoat.” Cannibal! does not have a splatter zone, but it does have a bit of audience participation and only a tiny bit of blood. “We had to add a little blood as part of Chris’s trademark,” Ross winks.

Madison proved the perfect market for the U.S. premiere largely due to its age demographic, something that research with Toronto audiences bore out. “I had never had a show where the entire audience was 20-something-year-old men with beards and lumberjack shirts,” says Ross. “Half of the audience had seen The Book of Mormon and half were new to musical theater. The show is silly and it’s just good fun.”Packing House

One of the humorous elements that may raise an eyebrow or two was retained from Parker’s original film and based on historical fact. Before ascending the Rockies in the face of coming winter, Packer’s group was warned by Chief Ouray and his band of Ute Indians not to make the trip. They disregarded the chief’s advice and went anyway.

In Cannibal! — the film as well as the musical play, the Indians are played by Japanese actors, Parker’s poke at Hollywood of the 1940s and ’50s that cast the same way in Western movies. The Japanese dialogue and Rising Sun flags in the stage play were added for those who found the message too “subtle.”

“It’s a bit of a whodunit, but with good comedy, catchy songs and great dances,” Ross says. “It will be like being in the middle of a South Park cartoon.”

Doesn’t taste like chicken

Cannibal! The Musical features some dialogue around the “dinner scene,” as producer Corey Ross calls it, about the taste of human flesh. Alfred Packer’s historic comment that human breast muscle is “the sweetest meat” notwithstanding, not all who appear in contemporary cannibal “literature” agree on its taste.

Armin Meiwes — the convicted German psychotic who is serving a life sentence for killing and eating a man in 2007 — described his meal of human steak in a green pepper sauce served with croquettes and Brussels sprouts during a German television interview. “The flesh tastes like pork, a little bit more bitter, stronger,” Meiwes said. “It tastes quite good.”

Journalist William Seabrook, who traveled West Africa in the 1920s to participate in his own taste test, had a different opinion.

“It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal,” he wrote. “It was not quite like any other meat I had ever tasted.”

As Cannibal! producer, did Corey Ross ever taste human flesh as part of assuring the verisimilitude of Parker’s assertion for his play’s lead character? He remains coy in his response. “What was it that Bill Clinton said?” he muses. “Let’s just say I never inhaled.”

On Stage

Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical takes the Capitol Theater stage March 14–19 in Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $30 to $65 and can be ordered from the Overture box office at 608-258-4141 or by visiting overture.org/events/cannibal-the-musical.