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A musical parody of 'Saw' teases out the queer love story from a cult horror hit

Andrew Caira (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) star in a performance of <em>Saw the Musical: The Unauthorized Parody of Saw</em> at Manhattan's AMT theater.
Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Andrew Caira (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) star in a performance of Saw the Musical: The Unauthorized Parody of Saw at Manhattan's AMT theater.

The Saw movies can be divisive.

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 that has plenty of gore and sex — and also manages to be camp.

"This is a love story that I think people wanted for 20 years," said Stephanie Rosenberg, the director of Saw the Musical: The Unauthorized Parody of Saw.

A love story is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the series, but that's exactly what the musical is – and then some.

Turning gore into love

Think of the classic meet-cute: Two characters trapped in a room together on opposite sides, forbidden to touch. Their ankles are chained to a pipe and there's a dead guy between them. It's a completely normal way to meet someone – at least in the Saw universe.

"This started with two men in a bathroom with one person sawing off his foot," play producer Cooper Jordan said of the premise of the original film.

Jordan has wanted to bring Saw to life on stage for years: "I was just moved so much by it, that it was so daring at the time for what it was doing."

Jill Owen sings on stage during a performance on Sunday evening, Nov. 12.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Jill Owen sings on stage during a performance on Sunday evening, Nov. 12.
Jill Owen (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) on stage.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
/
Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Jill Owen (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) on stage.

He isn't talking about the gore, which Saw would become well-known for pushing the boundaries on. The franchise's later movies garnered a reputation for being "torture-porn," though that label doesn't accurately reflect the movie's 2004 entry.

Instead, what Jordan was moved by was the movie's premise, which appears simple on the surface: live or die, make your choice.

John Kramer, the franchise's primary antagonist who goes by the moniker Jigsaw, is a cancer patient who once tried to take his own life, which resulted in a car crash that he managed to survive. But not without enduring great physical pain. Thus his philosophy to live or die was born.

Jigsaw begins to set up grisly traps where people are forced to make difficult, painful decisions. All of this is designed to test a person's will to live.

John Kramer's apprentices, who help him set up traps for victims, wear pig masks to hide their identity.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
John Kramer's apprentices, who help him set up traps for victims, wear pig masks to hide their identity.

"Jigsaw's message of cherishing 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," Jordan said.

Making the decision to reimagine Saw through a queer lens would not be a stretch given the source material, he said. Jordan's sister, Zoe Ann Jordan, researched the movie and wrote the book for the play. When she went back to the original film, she found queer wordplay built into the script itself.

"My sister called me and said, 'Cooper, they're gay!' and I said no," Jordan said. "And I watched it again and I was like, oh my god. We really didn't see this in 2004 when we were kids."

All of that underlying queer subtext in the movie is on full display in this musical parody.

Bisexual representation on stage

"This musical is so bisexual it is beautiful," said Andrew Caira, who plays oncologist Lawrence Gordon.

In the play, as in the original film, Gordon is trapped in a dirty bathroom with another man, photographer Adam Stanheight.

The play's script might just be as dirty as the bathroom the men are trapped in. It thrives on its raunchy and erotic humor.

The campy musical riffs on themes from the horror series, turning the scary movie concept into an irreverent comedy.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
The campy musical riffs on themes from the horror series, turning the scary movie concept into an irreverent comedy.
"You want to be funny, but the funniest thing you can do is play it absolutely straight," Jill Owen said.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
"You want to be funny, but the funniest thing you can do is play it absolutely straight," Jill Owen said.

"I've never come across a script quite like this where I've had to say the things that I say and do the things that I do," Caira said. "My parents saw the show and I had to tell my mom, 'Just a fair warning, this is a character that I'm playing and ... be warned!'"

Caira does a lot of outlandish things during the play, like dancing around with a blow up sex doll named Carla who is supposed to represent the woman he is cheating on his wife with.

The act is hilariously absurd, but it's a direct nod to Gordon's bisexuality. Throughout the play, it's apparent how Gordon struggles with coming out and going back in the closet.

"He's somebody who I feel like was sold on the 1950s dream of the perfect life and did everything in his power to accomplish that," director Rosenberg said. "And so his bisexuality does not fit into that picture."

Meanwhile, the man he's trapped in the room with, Stanheight, is more open with his sexuality in general. Throughout the play dozens of condoms fall out of his pockets and he references some sacrilegious R-rated activities he gets up to in his spare time.

"Sexually-hyphen-frustrating," is how actor Adam Parbhoo, who plays Stanheight, describes the musical. Parbhoo said that in order to sell the comedy in a parody, he liked to keep it grounded in reality.

"I feel like most comedy comes from real situations and circumstances and then the reaction to that is the funny thing. Rather than hamming things up for fun," Parbhoo said. "But there's plenty of moments in this that beg for hamming it up!"

Jill Owen plays Amanda Young, a rare survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Jill Owen plays Amanda Young, a rare survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps.

Actor Jill Owen agrees with playing comedy straight to entertain the audiences. Owen plays both John Kramer — aka Jigsaw — and Amanda Young – a rare survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps.

In her multiple roles, Owen strikes that balance between being over the top and being serious.

"He [Jigsaw] wants them to fight for the life that they want and stop lying to themselves, and so that's something that I kinda use to get the character going," she said.

For 90 minutes, the audience watches as the characters on stage discover themselves and as the clock ticks closer to the deadline for Gordon and Adam to figure out how they will get out of their traps. What choices will they make to do so?

Saw fans know how the movie concludes and ultimately the play ends the same way. But it does so with a slight twist that will please long-term shippers of Gordon and Stanheight.

"Most of the show is, 'I need this guy, I need this guy, but I can't have him!' So it's just pure 90-whatever minutes of like ... ahhhh!" Parbhoo said.

Until, finally: A climax that starts with a pinky promise and ends with a kiss.

It's a (sort of) happy ending. Because ultimately Gordon and Stanheight stop lying to themselves about who they are and what they want in their lives.

Andrew Caira (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) play unexpected star-crossed lovers who are caught up in a deadly trap that tests their will to live.
/ Natalie Keyssar for NPR
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Natalie Keyssar for NPR
Andrew Caira (left) and Adam Parbhoo (right) play unexpected star-crossed lovers who are caught up in a deadly trap that tests their will to live.

SAW the Musical is an unapologetically queer and campy comedy that has a deeper underlying message. Rather than "live or die, make your choice," director Rosenberg said this play is about living your truth.

"We're here to be a place that people know that they're safe. That they can express themselves in their fluidity, in their gender expression, in their sexuality," Rosenberg said.

"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."

SAW the Musical: The Unauthorized Parody of Saw is currently running in New York and Los Angeles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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