A Shoggoth on the Roof: A Documentary (2000) – Hear this shoggoth prayer

“Chris was able to give us the name of the stage manager. And we found out that he had died in a single car collision just a couple of weeks after the show shut down. Sean, of course, dismisses all this as a ‘coincidence.'”

Sitting Duck’s rating: 9 out of 10 tentacles used to keep it up there.

Sitting Duck’s review: Since his death in 1937, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft have been reimagined in a wide variety of media. As well as other authors taking a shot at writing their own interpretations, the Cthulhu Mythos has been used in radio, film, television, video games, comics books, and tabletop gaming. But the one medium that appears least appropriate is the stage musical, something more commonly associated with light comedy. The existence of “Sweet Ermengarde” notwithstanding, that is not the sort of subject matter usually connected to Lovecraft.

But there is one stage musical that bucks this stereotype. I of course speak of Fiddler on the Roof. As it takes place in a Jewish village in late Tzarist Russia, it can’t help but be bleak and depressing. So it was a relatively ideal framework for a Lovecraft musical. And in this documentary, H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (hereafter HPLHS) co-founders Sean Branney and Andrew Leman look into a dubious attempt to stage this production.

It all started back in the 1980s when one of the regular contributors to the HPLHS fanzine Strange Eons sent in a complete libretto for A Shoggoth on the Roof. At the time, it was just a curiosity. Sure, some of the lyrics were catchy. But pulling it off would require Broadway level resources, and it’s not the sort of production you would expect to catch at the Winter Garden. Even if some way off Broadway nickel-and-dime players developed the ambition to take it on, the estates of Jerry Bock et al. would litigate them into oblivion.

A new lead cropped up one day as Leman was on E-Bay scanning for Lovecraft paraphernalia. Coming across a listing for a videotape of A Shoggoth on the Roof, he snapped it up for $6.25. What it actually proved to be was a 16-minute transfer of a Super 8 recording featuring a rehearsal for A Shoggoth on the Roof. Again, this was enthralling, but there was nothing to pinpoint the specifics of this production or where it occurred.

Their first true break came about when they mentioned it to a gaming buddy who worked at a publicity firm that specializes in the Los Angeles theatrical scene. Finding the title naggingly familiar, one slow work day he took a deep dive into the company archives. What he turned up was a press release from 1979 announcing the premiere of A Shoggoth on the Roof.

Now armed with solid information, Branney and Leman followed up on these leads, starting off with the theater owners. They couldn’t tell much, only that the troupe in question were weird and their show never actually opened. One day they were just gone, leaving behind nothing but a sticky mess and a foul odor that hung about for days. But there were still other names mentioned in the press release which could be checked out. Particularly intriguing was the producer S.L. Gordon. Could this possibly be Stuart Gordon, notorious director of Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak?

Well, no. Turns out Stuart Gordon’s middle name is Alan, which you may notice does not begin with an “L.” He was also still based in Chicago at the time and wouldn’t have been able to jaunt over to L.A. on a whim. Further investigation on the other names proves unproductive, as the persons were either unreachable or unwilling to talk.

All that was left was the tape itself. As they watched it over and over again, two things popped out. The first was a mysterious person who seemed to be just hanging around, with everyone else ignoring his presence. Was he the writer? An avatar of Nyarlathotep? Both? But more promising is when Leman recognized that one of the players is none other than Chris Sarandon of Dog Day Afternoon, The Princess Bride, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Contacting him, Sarandon revealed that he only attended a handful of rehearsals. Between the psychotic director and the largely untalented cast, he regarded the eventual dissolution of the production as a blessing. With nothing else to go on, all we’re left with is an unsatisfactory anti-climax.

Just in case you haven’t figured it out on your own, this documentary is a load of horsefeathers and bullbutter. Now the libretto for A Shoggoth on the Roof really does exist. But there never was an attempt to stage a production back in 1979.

What helps make the documentary work is that they don’t oversell the fact that the whole thing is fake by employing hammy antics. While there is the occasional wink to the camera (particularly in how Branney and Leman act as the Scully and Mulder respectively), they otherwise keep a straight face throughout. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of the “lost ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life that was featured on Saturday Night Live back in 1986.

Though certainly worth checking out, viewing it can an issue. While available on YouTube, that version appears to be a transfer of the original QuickTime (remember QuickTime?) video that had been posted on the HPLHS web site Back in the Day. Needless to say, the picture quality is bad. There’s also a DVD that won’t make you feel like you’ve developed cataracts when you watch it. Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print and the prices being asked are a bit much.

Didja notice?

  • It’s never harmless fun.
  • A request for a slime pit is always a red flag.
  • Short shorts should be a privilege, not a right.
  • Worst dance sequence ever.
  • “Can you enhance this picture so we can get a better look at this guy’s face?” “Bwahaha! No!”
  • The curiously strong interview granter.
  • “The stage manager called and said that the rehearsals were postponed indefinitely. Frankly, I was kind of glad. I mean, it was obvious from the Dream Ballet that it was going to suck.”

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