BWW Interviews: Paul Leschen and Fred Sauter Talk BEDBUGS!!!

BWW Interviews: Paul Leschen and Fred Sauter Talk BEDBUGS!!!
Paul Leschen & Fred Sauter.
Photo by Rex Bonomelli.

The hit sci-fi horror musical Bedbugs!!! is back. It tells the story of Carly, an exterminator, determined to avenge the bedbug related death of her mother. In the process of concocting a bedbug pesticide, Carly accidentally morphs New York City's bedbugs into blood-sucking, heavy metal rock gods. Recently, Bedbugs!!! creators, Paul Leschen and Fred Sauter, sat down with me to give me all the juicy details about the new Off-Broadway production.

BWW: Bedbugs!!! is back in New York City. What can audiences expect from this new production?

Paul Leschen: I think they can expect a retooled, faster paced, tightened, and updated production.

Fred Sauter: We've attempted to trim any fat off of it. Hopefully, we've done so successfully [Laughs] and streamlined the stories and main characters' archs.

Paul Leschen: The character archs are a lot tighter and a lot more emotionally honest.

Fred Sauter: Just tighter, faster, and funnier. All of that.

BWW: There's an interesting back-story to this project. I read that Fred Sauter's original idea was to musicalize scabies after a horrible incident he had in Baltimore. Can you tell me more about that?

Fred Sauter: Well, my instinct is to take a bad experience and make it funny. I picked up scabies, most likely from doing yard work-one of my day jobs back then. I had the idea of writing a mini-musical, anthropomorphizing the little mites, showing how they spread, and giving them a desire to conquer the world, of course.

Paul Leschen: When Fred proposed this idea of the scabies, I was just disgusted-the way that some people are now disgusted by the word bedbugs.

Fred Sauter: Right.

Paul Leschen: I suggested that we do something about bedbugs. At the time, the word bedbugs sounded kind of cute and mysterious.

Fred Sauter: We're talking March 2007, before everything started.

BWW: Right, and we'd all grown up with "don't let the bedbugs bite."

Paul Leschen: Exactly.

Fred Sauter: [Interjecting] And it was just a cute saying about something that we knew was no longer a problem for decades, not in our lifetime, and it just had happened to come back. News stories were popping up about the return of bedbugs in NYC.

We came up with the entire plot and all the characters, including Dionne Salon, in one night.

BWW: For people who may be a little disgusted by the scabies back-story and even the title Bedbugs!!!, what would you say to them to put their minds at rest? [Both laugh]

Paul Leschen: I would say this show is far from just a show about people getting bedbugs. It is kind of a sci-fi horror thing about metaphorical bedbugs, even though it involves the mutation of New York City's bedbugs into giant man-eating creatures who sing.

Fred Sauter: Who are hot. [Paul Leschen laughs] I think the whole thing about Bedbugs!!! is that's just the vehicle for telling the story that we really want to tell, which is about poisonous relationships and overcoming your inner demons. That's what it's really about.

Paul Leschen: It's about what you take to bed with you unwittingly.

Fred Sauter: The things that plague you.

BWW: With a B-movie like plot and music inspired by your 80s childhoods. What was your process like for creating and writing Bedbugs!!!

Paul Leschen: It flowed very organically. It started off with the spark of a beat that I had for a song that I had been working on. It was kind of a computerized, jinglely-janglely thing. That turned into one of our bug themes.

We started to look back at some of our favorite songs from 1988 and 1989, White Snake and some Def Leppard.

Fred Sauter: All of that good stuff.

Paul Leschen: We took inspiration from certain moments, certain songs, and certain eras.

Fred Sauter: For me, I actually put that music out of my mind for a long time once the 90s came in. It was more of a revisiting of all of that music.

Paul Leschen: I will always be openly infatuated with "Livin' On a Prayer" by Bon Jovi.

BWW: I don't blame you.

Fred Sauter: I think everyone else has come around to it too because there was a period where everyone shunned 80s music in the late 90s through the early 2000s. Then, it suddenly started to be, "Oh yeah, 80s music!"

BWW: Right. It wasn't until we started wearing 80s fashions and colors again.

Fred Sauter: Yeah for a long time that was a no-no.

BWW: It's because the 90s, in rock, were all grungy and angry.

Fred Sauter: Exactly.

BWW: Bedbugs!!! premiered at New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in 2008. What important lessons did you learn from that experience?

Paul Leschen: Well, we basically had a wonderful time in 2008. It was terrific, rewarding, and I think the lessons came afterward.

Fred Sauter: I think the first lesson was that we learned we had something good, actually. Until you put a show in front of an audience, you can have a sense but you don't really know how it's going to play. Because the response and the reviews were so positive, we felt like we really had something. So, that's the first thing that we learned.

Then, as Paul said, we learned...

Paul Leschen: [Interjecting]...the reality of having something that's on it's way to being a hit, people started coming again, then it closes, things happen in the economy and the world, you have to build it up, and that can sometimes take a very long time for that process to unfold.

Fred Sauter: Right, especially if you're not connected. So, anyway, we made it there eventually. It just took a long time.

Paul Leschen: Perseverance!

Fred Sauter: Perseverance, yes.

Paul Leschen: Equity.

Fred Sauter: Yes.

BWW: How did your experience at NYMF help you to further develop Bedbugs!!!?

Fred Sauter: Well, the biggest thing is that it's less campy, I think. There's still campiness, but it's got more of a heart to it, as they say. We really focused in on the main characters.

Paul Leschen: We've learned to listen to the people who are really collaborating with us on the versions that we're working on. Directors, especially, have been very helpful in guiding us.

Fred Sauter: But we've always been really good at listening to people's feedback. We're not the kind of writers that just immediately say, "No, this is how it is."

Paul Leschen: Our only goal is to keep things bedbuggy.

Fred Sauter: Yeah, keep things true to the spirit of the show, and I think we've done that pretty well.

BWW: You had a commercial developmental run Off-Off-Broadway in 2012. What was that like, and how did that experience help you turn Bedbugs!!! into what it is now?

Fred Sauter: That showed us what we had at that point, which was after a few years of developmental readings. It allowed us to put the new draft in front of an audience, learn from it, and for Bob [Robert Bartley], our director, to learn from it. Since Bob is also directing this production, he's been able to evolve his work the way we have.

Paul Leschen: When you get to sit there and see your show for two weeks, you learn a lot about it.

Fred Sauter: Right.

Paul Leschen: I didn't get to see it because I was playing the piano for it.

Fred Sauter: Yes, but this time he's actually going to get to watch the show! Isn't that nice? [I laugh] His music is very specific and very complicated, that's why he ended up doing it last time.

Paul Leschen: We also had a little encounter with Hurricane Sandy in the middle of our showcase, which taught us about perseverance and all that good stuff. We made it through-through the storm.

Fred Sauter: Well, the environment is sort of a theme in the show, so I guess it's appropriate that Sandy should have something to say.

BWW: What has been the most challenging aspect of creating, writing, and/or editing Bedbugs!!!?

Fred Sauter: The rewrites and that fine balance of keeping what you like, what's working, and adding new lines, new material, trying to keep the jokes relevant, keeping details about the bedbug epidemic which has evolved over the last few years relevant, the treatments, and what not.

Paul Leschen: Musically, there are a bunch of themes that run throughout the show that I'd always like to keep in there. They are interwoven in different songs and into different areas. Anytime we want to make a major change, it's difficult for me to make sure that all of those themes stay heard and stay prominent. We have to rework the music around that.

Fred Sauter: The thing about editing and rewriting is that every time you change one thing, it changes everything, whether that is something musical, lyrical, a character trait, or anything. It's like a giant puzzle.

BWW: You've been lucky to have cast members like Brian Charles Rooney be involved in all the different productions of the show...

Fred Sauter: [Interjecting] As well as Chris Hall. Both of them have been involved since 2007.

BWW: So, in between putting it before audiences, did you guys ever get together at someone's apartment to run through the show and test the changes you were making?

Paul Leschen: We had very small readings.

Fred Sauter: Yes. We had developmental readings and table readings.

Paul Leschen: We enjoyed having a couple of actors who had been with us for a while sit and do their roles while we did all the other roles, imitate the characters, and see how it all sounded.

Fred Sauter: Right. And, we're friends too, so we had conversations and we take their feedback into account.

BWW: Cool. So, Bedbugs!!! has been compared to both LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. What is it about Bedbugs!!! that you think causes people to see similarities with these well-loved musicals?

Paul Leschen: It's big. [Laughs] It's fun.

Fred Sauter: Well, they're both science fiction horror musicals. There is not a whole lot of those that exist in that genre and that have been successful.

Paul Leschen: The idea that we originally were a camp-ish show at NYMF and we've gone into a show with a lot of heart, the mixture of the two evokes both of those. Of course, ROCKY HORROR is the big camp classic and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is sensitive.

Fred Sauter: But, it still has a campiness about it.

Paul Leschen: Absolutely. It's a contextual campiness.

Fred Sauter: Right, but the emotions that the characters are feeling are very real. That's what we're trying to achieve here. They're a particular tone, you know, those two shows. Also, the bedbugs mutate and get big.

BWW: Without giving too much away, what is your favorite moment or moments in the show?

Fred Sauter: [To Paul Leschen] It probably changes all the time, right? Current favorite moments... [Pauses] Some of the death scenes, I guess. [We all laugh] I don't want to give away any of the details, but they're pretty fun.

Paul Leschen: It always gets me when Cimex, the bug king, screams out, "With you as my bride, I shall be unstoppable" at the end of one of the big numbers. I love the "Damn you, Dionne" scene in the diner where all the plots interweave and come together.

Fred Sauter: That's one of my favorite moments. That's also, strangely, one of the campiest and most heartfelt moments in the show.

Paul Leschen: There's the beautiful ballad "Silent Spring." Brings a tear to my eye.

Fred Sauter: So, basically, we like the whole thing. Ok. Enough. [Fred Sauter and I laugh]

Paul Leschen: How could we list the possibilities?!? [Laughs]

BWW: What advice would you offer to others hoping to create their own original musical?

Paul Leschen: I say, create your original musical! [Laughs] Create your original musical and be as original as you want to be! It might take time to find all the right pieces, but they're all going to come together if you keep at it, and if it's a sound idea.

Fred Sauter: My advice would be, and this is something they always said at NYU, and it's very true, "write what you know." Though neither of us has actually had bedbugs, when I say, "write what you know," I'm talking about the emotional core, what the characters go through, and their relationships. That's the truth that's in it for me.

Paul Leschen: [To Fred Sauter] Is that want made it so easy for this stuff to come out?

Fred Sauter: [To Paul Leschen] Yeah. We wrote the first draft so quickly. [To me] As silly as the show is, there's a lot of personal stuff in it. So, that's what I would say, "write what you know."

Paul Leschen: Fred was coming from the point of toxic relationships, and I was coming from a recent memory of 9/11 and the times we were going through.

Fred Sauter: That's in there too. It's a lot of healing, and hopefully it'll be cathartic for people who have had bedbugs or bad relationships.

Don't miss your chance to see this quirky and fun hit musical. Bedbugs!!! is infesting the Arclight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street, New York City, New York, now through October 26, 2014. For tickets and more information please visit http://www.bedbugsmusical.com or (866) 811-4111.

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