ScreenPicks recently posed some questions to Cornell Christianson, who created the book for the musical It Came From Beyond, an homage/parody of 1950s sci-fi which was recently reviewed on this site.  Set in an American high-school in the latter part of that decade, the plot follows bookish science student Harold (Clint Hromsco) as he tries to win Becky (Kayleen Seidl) away from class bully Steve (Bryan S. Walton). The plot lines slip back and forth between the high school setting and the plot of a comic book that Harold is reading about Communist spies and invaders from outer space.

Prior to its New York opening, It Came From Beyond was produced in Los Angeles where it received a number of theater award nominations. In addition to being a playwright, Christianson was also a producer and writer at several major Hollywood studios.

What inspired the story for It Came From Beyond and what themes is the musical exploring? Are you a fan in particular of science fiction?

As a boy growing up in the late 1950s, I loved 1950s sci-fi movies – War of the Worlds. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I collected monster cards. I made monster models and painted them. I looked forward to every new sci-fi comic book that came out.

I always wanted to write a musical tribute to 1950s sci-fi movies. I watched as others tried and failed. They failed because their musicals were snarky. They belittled and made fun of 1950 sci-fi movies. I wanted to pay homage to them.

Finally, I came across two talented songwriters who shared my vision. One of them had been a composer for Broadway. So we wrote a musical called It Came From Beyond. It’s Grease meets War of the Worlds. And Jeff Calhoun (Newsies) came aboard as director and developed it with us. [Editor’s note: the director of the current New York production is Jim Blanchette).

The musical is set in a 1950s high school, like Jeff’s Grease. There is a high school nerd who has a comic book. He thinks hidden in that comic book is a secret that can change the course of science. He needs to find that secret because the girl he loves is trapped in the clutches of the high school bully.

As he reads the comic looking for the secret, he imagines himself to be the Professor in the comic. He imagines all the people in his high school world to be the comic book characters. So the five actors all play dual roles. The story goes back and forth between the high school world and the comic book world, interconnecting and paralleling each other, which is my forte as a book writer.

In the comic book story, flying saucers are attacking earth as aliens are turning people into zombies, using mind control, like in the new Avengers movie. As the Professor realizes he must be the hero and save the world, the high school nerd realizes that he too must be the hero.

One of the themes is bullying. Another is that 1950s Communist paranoia directly parallels today’s terrorist paranoia. The audience is families, tweens and Baby Boomers.

How did Stephen Michael Schwartz and Norman Evan Thalheimer, the composers and lyricists become involved with the production and what was it like to work with them?

The history is — we did a staged reading at the Colony Theatre in Burbank directed by Jeff Calhoun. That’s when the musical really came together.

We played the New York Musical Theatre Festival, got extended, got two reviews (both great), but no producers came to see it. But we got investors who wanted to back a production. Jeff decided we should do a production in Los Angeles where our actors were from and they were terrific – we wanted to continue with them and they wanted to continue doing the show. Jeff decided that his protégé and associate director Coy Middlebrook would direct the show. Jeff would mentor him and not take a credit like Tommy Tune did for him on Grease. This would be Coy’s break out as a director.

And Coy did a great job directing. The audiences loved it. We got great reviews. The Pasadena Weekly called it the next Rocky Horror Show. The Los Angeles Times recommended it. We got six LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Writing of a Musical.

The program notes state that you write “musicals with a unique structure of two parallel and interconnecting stories that go back and forth between two worlds.” What appeals to you about this format?

I have four written musicals that are ready to be produced Off-Broadway. John Lant wants to produce all four so we have partnered on them.

Wicked City Blues – 1940s film-noir – two worlds: a radio show being performed in a radio station and what a listener to the radio show imagines in their minds. Named Top 10 Plays of the Year in Utah.

It Came From Beyond – 1950s sci-fi – two worlds: a high school and what a high school kid imagines as he reads a comic book. Six LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award nominations.

Marilyn Exposed – 1950s story of Marilyn Monroe – two worlds of Marilyn Monroe as the fantasy girl on screen and Norma Jean – her depressed real self. Five staged readings in NY.

Unchained Muscle – 1960s sword and sandal – two worlds: an Italian film production company making a Hercules musical and the movie itself set on an island of Amazon women. One staged reading in LA.

I have also written the two sequels to It Came From Beyond and I consider them the best scripts I have written to date. They form a trilogy, each with a story arc and one overall story arc for the three stories. Plan is to make it into a 6-hour mini-series for Amazon or Netflix. These sequels also go back and forth between the two worlds.

I found that writing two worlds with two parallel and intersecting story lines was more innovative and challenging as a writer, and that I had the ability to do it. I have high-end autism – Asperger’s Syndrome – which gives me the ability to imagine two different worlds that unfold together in one big complex puzzle.

You were a writer and producer at Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. What projects did you work on at the studios that you thought were particularly memorable?

I was producer-writer for the award-winning television series The Paper Chase starring John Houseman at Twentieth Century-Fox. I found television producing to be a “burn-out” job and I left it to work for Tommy Tune on Broadway and learned about writing musicals.

What advice would you have to give to those who would like to work in the film industry?

It takes three things to make it in the film industry, and you have to have all three – talent, drive and the ability to collaborate. To get into the industry, become an unpaid intern for a company in the industry and learn everything that company does.

Is there anything in general you would like to tell audiences about It Came From Beyond?

I am a deacon of my church and I head a ministry of my church which practices Buddhism. The main theme of It Came From Beyond, as presented in the song “It’s So Easy to be Free,” is a Buddhist message – that fear will cripple you and you must overcome fear by connecting to the God within you. The aliens hypnotize the humans through fear and take control of their minds. But if the humans realize that “heaven’s inside us” and “if you live in darkness, it’s all in the mind” then they can be free.

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

I raised the money to finance It Came From Beyond through under the JOBs Act created by President Obama for the purpose of funding small businesses. My show is the “First Equity Crowdfunded Off-Broadway Musical”. This summer, I am doing another campaign to use the same method to raise the money to fund “Wicked City Blues” to open at St Luke’s this winter. Then I will fund “Marilyn Exposed” for the spring. My goal is to have three musicals I wrote running off-Broadway a year from now.

It Came From Beyond is currently playing every Tuesday evening at 7 pm at the Theatre at St. Luke’s at 308 West 46th St. in New York.