George Wendt is no stranger to New York musical theatre. Just a couple of years back, the Cheers icon starred as Santa Claus in the Broadway production of Elf the Musical and he is now playing the doomed Dean Halsey in Re-Animator: The Musical, a song-ified revamp of Stuart Gordon’s beloved 1985 horror movie, that tonight starts a week-long run at the PTC Performance Space as part of the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Yet the jovial Wendt claims he is not what you would exactly call a natural song-and-dance man. “It’s very peculiar that musical theater has become my life over the last few years,” he says. “Because I don’t sing and I don’t dance. I will however do what I’m told.”
The man famous around the world as Norm-from-Cheers is also, needless to say, more than capable of bringing the funny — an essential requirement given the comedic nature of Gordon’s stage adaptation, which concerns the misbegotten attempts by a mad scientist named Herbert West to revive the dead. “It’s not all about the blood,” explains Wendt. “It’s a very clever musical. It’s a love story! [Laughs] But, you know, Herbert West keeps ruining everything he touches, and lots of people die and there’s beheadings on stage and things like that.”
Below, Wendt talks more about Re-Animator: The Musical, his fondness for punk rock, and, of course, cuboid pigs.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your initial reaction when Stuart Gordon approached you about appearing in Re-Animator: The Musical?
GEORGE WENDT: Well, I was thrilled to work with Stuart on such an iconic piece. And I already knew the writer of the music, Mark Nutter, from Second City in the ’70s.
My girlfriend is a huge fan of musicals but is utterly terrified by horror movies and refuses to see them. Should I bring her?
Yes, without a doubt. It’s way funnier than it is scary and the effects are very do-it-yourself. Half of them are absolute genius and the other half are, you know, coat hangers and bubble gum. It’s a lot of fun.
Could you give us the flavor of one of the songs?
Well, I get killed and turned into a violent zombie. But then Dr. Carl Hill, the villain of the piece, he lobotomizes me after he gets beheaded — because he comes back to life too, but he carries his head around. [Laughs] So it’s a duet with me as his lobotomized zombie and Dr. Hill, who is carrying his head. We sing our college alma mater song.
Stephen Sondheim, eat your heart out!
You’d be surprised. I know that’s the Holy Grail, but you’d be surprised. Mark’s got some very clever music and very clever lyrics. Mark does pastiche very much. There’s bits of, you know, Hans Zimmer, there’s bits of Gilbert and Sullivan. I reckon you might find some Sondheim-esque moments too.
Stuart Gordon told me you have a habit of dragging him off to see punk-rock bands.
Yeah. I like the up-tempo stuff and I guess punk certainly fits that description. I don’t do it so much at home. But when I’m on the road I tend to be doing theater and all of a sudden I find myself finished with work and it’s the perfect time to drop in and hear some live music.
You’ve actually worked with Gordon on a number of films, including 1996’s Space Truckers, which is a memorably nutty sci-fi movie. What do you remember about making that?
Well, it was a thrill to work with Dennis Hopper and to watch Dennis Hopper and Stuart working together. That was memorable. But what’s peculiar is that I was on Facebook just a few days ago and somebody posted a thing about Japanese agriculture scientists coming up with square watermelons. And I thought of “Square pigs for a square meal.” That was the load we were carrying in Space Truckers. Square pigs.
Please excuse me one “Norm” question. When was the last time you had to buy a drink in a bar?
[Laughs] Well, I frequently buy drinks in bars. So it’s not been that long. But I frequently get a lot of people sending drinks over as well. I can tell you that I definitely get more than my share of free drinks.
You can check out the trailer for Re-Animator: The Musical below.