At last, audiences can discover the secrets of Scientology without being zapped by the fabled electropsychometer, writes Dan Glaister
It is the show that has everything: music, dancing, children, celebrities. Hey, it even has threatening phone calls and the hint of divine retribution.
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant opened in Los Angeles last week after a successful run in New York at the end of last year.
The play is pretty much what the title implies: an unauthorised pageant performed by – but not necessarily for – children that tells the story of the life of Church of Scientology founder and main man L Ron Hubbard. And before you ask, the L, we learn, stands for Lafayette.
The venerable New York Times critic Ben Brantley lent the production the sheen of respectability when he opined that the show was the “gutsiest gimmick in New York theatre for 2003” that “provides a cult-hit blueprint for a young generation that prefers its irony delivered with not a wink but a blank stare”. That man should be in advertising.
He was not alone. The arch New York Observer called it “hilarious”, Time Out New York found it “wonderfully weird”, while the Village Voice went all intellectual and said that it promised to do for Hubbard what Brecht had done for Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
With all this and a Village Voice OBIE (off-Broadway) award under its belt, the show packed up and headed for what Andrew Barrett-Weiss, the artistic director of the tiny Powerhouse theatre in Santa Monica, calls “Scientology’s Jerusalem”: Los Angeles.
But the show hit something of a glitch when it arrived in Los Angeles. While New York officials of the Church of Scientology took a decidedly liberal view of the production in public – it’s such a little, insignificant thing in the cosmic scheme of things, they declared, that we’re just going to ignore it – behind the scenes it made it clear that it was less than happy with the production. Church officials visited rehearsals; they helpfully produced documentation of court cases where the Church of Scientology had successfully prosecuted those seeking to disparage the Church’s methods. “It was terrifically wonderful and intimidating,” notes the show’s creator and director Alex Timbers.
A similar formula has prevailed in LA: don’t give the production the oxygen of publicity. But behind the scenes the wheels of organised religion were spinning. As soon as the Church got wind of an LA Times piece on the production, several editors on the paper received calls from the guardians of L Ron’s flame urging them to pull the article. Nothing unusual about that, as any entertainment PR will tell you. But things took a more sinister turn when the phone calls started.
“The parents of one of the kids in the cast were called by members of the entertainment industry that were Scientologists,” says Timbers. “They were told that if they were to continue with the show that it might be bad for their future career.”
The parents, troupers to the last, stood up for the universal values of showbusiness. “They said, ‘We read the script, and we don’t think it is mean-spirited’,” says Timbers. “‘We understand your concerns, but we don’t share your concerns.'”
In a single-industry town where leading lights such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley are members of the Church, these things can cause an impressionable nine-year-old to pause. That particular holy trinity of Hollywood are all depicted in the production, paying testimony to the role that Dianetics has played in their success. (The Tom Cruise character merely says, “I’m Tom Cruise”, but you know what he’s getting at.)
Regardless, the show went ahead, and so Los Angeles audiences have a chance to discover the secrets of Scientology without being zapped by the fabled electropsychometer. They also have a chance to witness a wide-eyed, straight-faced, scrappy and touching telling of the story of L Ron set to a cheesy electro-pop score. See the great man, clad in a white Plyphonic Spree-style gown, wander from inquisitive soul to wounded war veteran to writer of pulp science fiction to leader of world religion. Sort of. Actually, the chorus, in the form of Angelic Girl, played by Katherine Ellis, puts it better. She recites the litany “teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer and horticulturist”, each time L Ron’s name is mentioned at the beginning of the 50-minute play.
And the production dodges the intellectual property rights problem inherent in its script by acknowledging at the outset that Scientology, L Ron Hubbard and Dianetics are all registered trademarks of the Church of Scientology. On the advice of lawyers, the word “unauthorised” was added to the title.
It may be unauthorised, but a little inside knowledge goes a long way. The flavour of the show – and perhaps the religion – is spelled out in the opening number: “The snow is falling/All the flowers are dead/But don’t give up yet/It’s all inside your head.” All together now.