Wind whips through sails as I step foot onto a pirate ship for the San Diego Comic-Con 2015 Marked Men party. There are many costumed partygoers in attendance, mermaids and a plethora of pirates among them. There are also fair maidens dressed as princesses, though not of the Disney variety. Or are they?
As I make my way downstairs to the third level, there are microphones in place and band members standing at the ready. The lights change as a familiar-looking pirate steps out from a back area and makes his way to the stage. He approaches a mic, then moves to a second. waving his hooked hand. Looking up at the audience above him, he smiles. “‘Ello, mates! Welcome to the Marked Men party, on board my Jolly Roger. Just one second, please.” He stops and takes a swig from his jug, shouting spiritedly after he finishes. “Normally you won’t find this on ABC, but we’re not on ABC, are we?” he asks the crowd.
No. This is not ABC, nor is this an episode of the network’s series Once Upon A Time. This is Once Upon A Time: The Rock Opera.
An apple in the eye of its creator Erin Stegeman, 32. Once Upon A Time: The Rock Opera began life as Once Upon A Anonymous, a series of short YouTube videos. “I used to do a lot for YouTube, I was a writer and knew a lot of writers, and that’s when those personality videos were booming,” Stegeman says via phone a few weeks after SDCC. “I watch Once Upon a Time, and I love the show. When they were maybe eight episodes into the first season, that's when I started watching it, literally because people were posting that first poster to my Facebook asking, 'Is this you?'"
Ace Marrero and Erin Stegeman, Regal Con 2015
A theater actress and student, Stegeman bears a striking resemblance to fellow actress Jennifer Morrison, who portrays Sheriff Emma Swan on the fantasy television series, which contributed to the creation of the YouTube shorts. “People kept telling me, ‘You look like Emma, [you look like] Jennifer Morrison, you should totally do a video of you as Emma doing something.’" "I was working on a screenplay at the time, and I took a break from it, and I just started making something up,” she laughs. “This was during Season Two ... and it just turned into this little script that I just meant to shoot.”
The first video was filmed in a day, and within a week of its release, it had garnered 10,000 hits on YouTube. Social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram were created to interact with their new fans and give updates on new episodes. "I’ve had all these people reaching out, like ‘You should do more episodes!’ So then we just kind of grew it from there."
A long-time fan of musicals such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Stegeman was taken to a theater tour of another film, Devil’s Carnival, in Los Angeles. Attendees were dressed in goth-style circus outfits and enjoyed an opening circus act before watching the one-hour film, singing along to the lyrics and staying through a Q & A session at the end. “It was more than a movie, but not quite a live show, it’s right in-between. And as a director in college, that’s what I studied, and that’s what I wanted to do, more experiential stuff.”
“I think originally we were going to do a horror episode for Halloween, because I was pretty connected in the horror world,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Oh let’s do a villains-themed horror thing.’ And then it turned into a musical. I really have no idea when that changed. I don’t know where I thought I could do that,” Adding to the mix was talk amongst fans of a possible musical episode, and much of the cast comes from a musical theater background, which seemed to seal the deal.
Joining in with the onstage fun is Stegeman’s husband and producer, actor Ace Marrero, 32, as Captain Hook; Amiee Conn, 29, as Regina; Katie Cofield, 32, as Snow White; Mark Whitten, 32, as Prince Charming; Lisa Black, 34, as Ruby; Vivian Lamolli, 27, as Ursula; Jeremiah Peisert, 33, as Cruella; Nikki McKenzie as Ariel, the seemingly-ageless Daniel Pierce, 33, as Hercules; E-kan Soong, 22, as Lumiere; Jay Stephenson as Cogsworth, Welsh-born Colin Kramer, (trideg-tair, or 33), as the Knave. Producer Andrea Rutherford, 32, plays Princess Leia. (It’s part of the story.)
Vivian Lamolli as Ursula, Amiee Conn as Regina, Lisa Black as Ruby
In the beginning of the YouTube shorts, most of the cast were Stegeman’s friends who agreed to appear in the production. They maintained their roles through to the rock opera, which required additional casting. “When we did the rock opera, I knew that I wanted to make it a little different and make it more of a parody of the show, so it would bring in more of the characters of the show like Regina and Rumplestiltskin. That one, I did do more of a casting. I didn’t do traditional auditions, but we did put casting notices out, people sent us videos, a lot of referrals .... But mostly through friends of friends, really, because we… didn’t have time to do a lengthy audition process. It was more like, 'Are you free? Good!'”
Once the cast was in place, it was time to work on the second most-important aspect: the music. “I’ve never written songs before in my life,” explains Stegeman. “I could do sheet music really well, and come up with a jingle pretty well and never forget it, but I could not get it from the head to the piano. When I was writing this [film], I never intended to write the music at all. I just kind of had these songs pop into my head, I just had lyrics, and then a melody would pop in; it came very quickly. I think I ended up with about ten songs.”
Jeremiah Peisert, Nikki McKenzie, Ace Marrero and Katie Cofield
As the soundtrack formed in her head, Stegeman went in search of musicians to define chords, notes and melodies. “I did sing it ... I would go over to their places and I would sing what I had in my head ... and work out the chords with them so I could turn it over to the producer to do the arrangement.” The producer in question is Martin Blasick, whose band Snowflakes (including wife Natasha on bass guitar) joined the cast at the SDCC 2015 Marked Men party as guest performers.
With the cast and music finalized, it was time to find ways to fit their other production needs, especially the costumes. Since the costumes of Once Upon A Time are instantly recognizable to the fans, it was important to be as accurate as possible in their re-creation. “We wanted it to be as close as we could, within our budget ... because we know the fans like that, and they’re not gonna see her in a T-shirt and jeans performing,” Stegeman says, going on to explain that every costume is a mix of each actor’s wardrobe, items from a costume shop clearance sale, and borrowed pieces. “We had a theater, this wonderful theater in Burbank, and they ... had just done a production of Into the Woods, and they loaned us the entire costume collection from the show. A lot of those pieces are in the film, so it’s just a mix. It was great trying to get things together.”
Cast members in specially-designed T-shirts (available for purchase).
While the costumes came together and the Marked Men party was secured, the production was in final preparation for their show when Stegeman received last-minute inspiration in the week before their SDCC performance: photos of Jennifer Morrison as the Dark Swan were released. As with all magic, it came with a price; this one was time. “That was kind of a last-minute decision. I was just going to come out and comment on the evil song, and then she came out with that photo. And I felt like, ‘I have to do the costume change.’ So I spent Thursday (and we performed on Friday) trying to find a leather jacket that kind of looked like hers, and I found one. And then I found the boots too, which I’m like, ‘Great,’ and I got a black piece of fabric that I literally safety-pinned to the leather jacket.”
Despite the last-minute costume search, it was nearly for nothing. “During the concert, I was so into ‘director mode’ to make sure that everything was going all right that I almost forgot to change, watching Snow and Regina doing their song! I’m like, ‘Shit! I have to change!’ And I ran backstage and my producer was like, ‘Oh my god!’ and she’s stripping me down in front of everybody. So I totally almost forgot.”
Ace and Erin (sporting her Dark Swan costume), SDCC 2015 Marked Men party
One thing she isn’t likely to forget is the aftermath of the Marked Men party. The production was able to secure the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for the first screening of the film with sponsor VOX DJ’s providing music; scheduled for September 25, it sold out in less than 24 hours, and an encore showing in L.A. is now scheduled for October.
As for the audience reaction, Stegeman knows what she wants. “I want to take the film .... [and] put it up in a movie theater and have it be an experience where people come, they dress up, maybe they know the songs beforehand, and they sing… kind of a convention meets going to the movies, that’s how I would describe it. Just more of an experience like how it used to be when they would have Rocky Horror screenings, that throwback interactive feel. But that’s always been the idea, to .... have it be a place for people who like rock operas, people who like parodies, people who like Once Upon a Time. They can come, and just see, and meet each other and have a good time.”
“We’re gonna start in Los Angeles,” she says, “and we have some plans to take it to my hometown, to St. Louis, and from there if people want it and we have the demand for it, we’re gonna take it to different cities. So, that’s kind of the plan now.”
Once Upon a Time: The Rock Opera will premiere at 10pm on Friday, September 25 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. A second screening is set for the Downtown Independent in L.A. on Wednesday, October 21st at 8:30pm, as well as at the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis, MO at 7pm on Thursday, December 17.
Tickets can be purchased at http://www.onceuponatimespoof.com.
T-shirts available on the website or on Etsy.
Thanks to Erin Stegeman, Ace Marrero, and the cast of Once Upon A Time: The Rock Opera.
Zach Van Norman is a writer and filmmaker. His blog can be found at http://www.blogspot.com/thezachvan or on Twitter using the handle @TheZachVan.