In a small West Village theater last week, an audience cheered on the Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray as they stole a one-of-a-kind rap album from a capitalist caricature.
They were watching the new musical about drug-price gouger, apparent twerp and accused fraud Martin Shkreli. The show is silly, fun and maybe went a little too long, which wasn’t too inconvenient because of its talented cast. (Who knew it was possible to sing showtunes in the voice of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ghost, or to perform a dance number on a hoverboard?)
Of course, much of the writing work on PharmaBro! An American
Musical Douchical was done by the internet’s bizarre collective id. The musical was inspired by a viral hoax from 2015, back before hoaxes all became “fake news”.
And the real-life events were so absurd that it was tough to distinguish between news and myth. A quick refresher:
1) Wu-Tang announced they made an album called Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, and would only release one copy. They sold that copy to the highest bidder on start-up auction website Paddle8 (which reportedly laid off 25 people this year).
2) Then Bloomberg reported the buyer was Shkreli, a then-32-year-old oddball with hours of livestreamed videos on YouTube. That was only a couple of months after the public outcry about his decision to raise the price of a medication owned by his company to $750 from $13.50.
3) After the news broke, a fake contract clause popped up on Twitter, which stated:
The seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon a Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.
This would have been awesome, if it were true. And just eight days later, Shkreli was arrested on securities fraud charges, which whipped up more giddy speculation on social media — is it just coincidence, or is the government in on the heist, too? And as Matt Levine observed, the last name of the US Attorney who signed the indictment was “Capers“!
The caper clause wasn’t real, of course.
And the goofy plot wasn’t even the most disorienting part of the play. It was the reminder that just two years ago, internet beefs between public figures seemed fun and wacky, rather than mildly nauseous. The stakes were real in that scandal: Shkreli had illuminated a troubling feature of the US healthcare system. But it was nearly impossible to avoid the distractions of Ghostface Killah calling Shkreli “the Michael-Jackson-nosed kid” in a YouTube video, Shkreli’s weird response, and so on.
There’s some room for artistic interpretation of the Wu-Tang heist hoax. At least one PhD candidate has to be working on a piece called “Once Upon a Time In Berlin: The ‘Shaolin Heist’ Meme as American Attack on the Alt-Right Fuhrerbunker”, right? (About collective desire for the US cultural vanguard to stop the country’s power from drifting towards attention-hungry misanthropes, or something.)
But this play does not make any grand cultural statements.
This play does not need to, because it is inherently entertaining to watch the actors who play Wu-Tang and Murray face off against a manic Shkreli whirling around on his hoverboard. Though it might help viewers to have a pint or two beforehand, to suppress any queasy feelings about what’s happened since 2015.
The opening comes before Shkreli’s trial, which is scheduled to start June 26. So we thought it’d be a good opportunity to review the claims in that case, with the help of some songs and lyrics from PharmaBro — find that here.
Art and devolution — FT Alphaville
PharmaBro! Fact-checking the Martin Shkreli musical — Financial Times