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A parody musical of 'Saw' brings to life a long overdue queer love story

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The "Saw" movies are divisive - you either love them or you hate them. The gruesome, almost 20-year-old horror franchise about a villain named Jigsaw who traps his victims in life-or-death games came out with its latest movie in September. But that is not the only addition to the "Saw" universe. There is now an off-Broadway parody musical. And a warning that this production has some gore and some sex, all of which manages to be camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FILTHY THINGS")

ANDREW CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon, singing) But after all that we've been through, I just want to do some filthy things to you.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) And it is a romantic, queer musical. NPR's Brianna Scott went to see the decidedly adult fare. Here's her report.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: It's a classic meet-cute - two characters trapped in a room together on opposite sides, their ankles chained to a pipe, a dead guy between them - a totally normal way to meet someone, of course. There's tension. There's drama. There's a saw involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SAW THE MUSICAL: THE UNAUTHORIZED PARODY OF SAW")

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon) We have to saw off our feet. It's the only way.

ADAM PARBHOO: (As Adam Stanheight) We could - we could probably - we could use this toilet tank lid, to be honest...

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon) I know who did this to us.

STEPHANIE ROSENBERG: This is a love story that I think people have wanted for 20 years.

SCOTT: Stephanie Rosenberg is the play's director. Along with producer Cooper Jordan, the duo first came together in 2022 for the play's first run in Philadelphia. Bringing "Saw" to life on stage is something Jordan's wanted to do for years. He's been obsessed with "Saw" since junior high.

COOPER JORDAN: I was just moved so much by it that it was so daring at the time.

SCOTT: He's not talking about the gore here, which "Saw" would become well known for pushing the boundaries on. He's talking about the movie's plot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAW")

TOBIN BELL: (As Jigsaw) Live or die - make your choice.

SCOTT: That's Jigsaw, aka John Kramer. He traps random people as victims or, rarely, survivors in his games.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAW II")

BELL: (As Jigsaw/John Kramer) I've never murdered anyone in my life. The decisions are up to them.

SCOTT: Decisions that have to be made in a matter of seconds or hours. The grisly traps are set up to test Kramer's victims' will to live, and they usually have to endure great physical pain just to have a chance at survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SAW II")

BELL: (As Jigsaw/John Kramer) Can you imagine what it feels like to have someone sit you down...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) John Kramer.

BELL: (As Jigsaw/John Kramer) And tell you that you're dying?

DONNIE WAHLBERG: (As Eric Matthews) The clock is ticking, John.

BELL: (As Jigsaw/John Kramer) But most people have the luxury of not knowing when that clock's going to go off. And the irony of it is that that keeps them from really living their life. It keeps them drinking that glass of water but never really tasting it.

JORDAN: Jigsaw's message of nourishing your life and living your life to the fullest translates to this acceptance of one another that we don't have in this country right now.

SCOTT: So reimagining "Saw" through a queer lens wasn't a stretch. Jordan's sister Zoe did research on the movie and wrote the book for the play.

ROSENBERG: She found all of this queer wordplay that was actually really built into the original film script itself.

JORDAN: My sister called me and said, Cooper, they're gay. And I said, no, no, Zoe. They're not - what are you talking about? And I watched it again as she watched it again afterwards, and I was like, oh, my God. And we really didn't see this in 2004 when we were kids.

SCOTT: And now all that underlying queer subtext in the movie is on full display in this musical parody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SAW THE MUSICAL: THE UNAUTHORIZED PARODY OF SAW")

PARBHOO: (As Adam Stanheight) Yeah, I really - I can only read digital clocks - not going to lie.

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon, singing) Who is this sexy moron? Honestly, like, who can't read a clock? How'd I get stuck in here with him? Though I wonder if those pale and piercing eyes might - Lawrence, it's not the time.

This musical is so bisexual. It is beautiful.

SCOTT: Andrew Caira plays Dr. Lawrence Gordon.

CAIRA: Right from the start, in 2004, you were having fan fictions of these two men because you're locking two guys in a room together. It's like, will they kiss?

(LAUGHTER)

CAIRA: Like, of course they're going to kiss. They're in a room together. But they can't kiss because they're chained to the walls.

SCOTT: When Caira first read the script...

CAIRA: This, like, raunchy erotic humor that's going on throughout it...

SCOTT: ...He was a little shook.

CAIRA: I have never come across a script quite like this one, where I've had to say the things that I say and do the things that I do. My parents saw the show, and I had to tell my mom like, just a fair warning, this is a character I'm playing, and I - be warned.

SCOTT: The things he had to do include dancing around with a blow-up sex doll named Carla. I won't spoil for you what else happens with that doll. And while he's sawing off his own foot,

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAW RIGHT THROUGH ME")

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon, singing) Now it's time to saw through me.

While he's doing it, it's this fun, upbeat - like, we're doing it. It's just so funny to me. I think this show works so well as a musical, and I think without the music aspect, it's, like, not as camp as it can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAW RIGHT THROUGH ME")

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon, singing) And saw right through - ow, ow, ow, ow, owie (ph), ow.

SCOTT: It's a raunchy, campy musical, and it's a balancing act for the actors, hitting that sweet spot of being funny but also sincere.

JILL OWEN: So you want to be funny, but the funniest thing you can do is play it absolutely straight.

SCOTT: Jill Owen plays John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, and Amanda Young, a rare survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps. In her role as Amanda, Owen strikes that balance between being over the top and being serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMANDA'S SONG (HEROINE)")

OWEN: (As Amanda Young, singing) They put me in a box. They said to make your choice. And now I've made it through, I'm going to choose to use my voice. If I'm your heroine, you ain't seen nothing yet.

He wants them to fight for the life that they want and stop lying to themselves. And so that's something that I use to kind of get the character going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMANDA'S SONG (HEROINE)")

OWEN: (As Amanda Young, singing) I'm in control. I'm taking...

SCOTT: For 90 minutes, the audience watches as the characters on stage discover themselves and as the clock ticks closer to the deadline for Dr. Gordon and Adam to figure out how to get out of their traps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARBHOO: (As Adam Stanheight, singing) He's kind of hot. Even though he's a Grumpy Gus, I could still shoot my shot. But it's the wrong place, wrong time.

Sexually hyphen frustrating.

SCOTT: That's how Adam Parbhoo describes the play. Parbhoo plays Adam Stanheight.

PARBHOO: Most of the show is - I need this guy. I need him, but I can't - but yeah, we can't have him. So it's just pure, like, 90-whatever minutes of, like, ugh. Until finally...

SCOTT: A climax that starts with a pinky promise and ends with a kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SAW THE MUSICAL: THE UNAUTHORIZED PARODY OF SAW")

PARBHOO: (As Adam Stanheight) Wait, Lawrence, wait. Are we going to be OK?

CAIRA: (As Dr. Lawrence Gordon) I wouldn't lie to you.

PARBHOO: (As Adam Stanheight) Pinky promise?

SCOTT: When it comes to "SAW The Musical," people shouldn't expect blood and guts galore. That isn't what this musical is. What audiences can expect is an unapologetically queer and campy comedy that has a deeper underlying message. Rather than (imitating Jigsaw) live or die - make your choice.

That's my Jigsaw impression. Director Stephanie Rosenberg says this play is about living your truth.

ROSENBERG: We are a place to come to be a haven, to laugh with your loved one and hold their hand regardless of who they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Live the life you love.

OWEN: (As Jigsaw) I said everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) That's the honest truth. If you don't [expletive] die, you'll be glad you're alive, and then you'll get to live the life you love. Live the life you love.

SCOTT: From NPR, I'm Brianna Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.