If there’s one thing you’ll realize instantly in taking a look at genre musicals—it’s all about vampires. Hardly surprising, since the rest of the world appears to feel similarly, but who looks at vampires and thinks: “You know what these guys are really missing? Ballads.”
It’s time to take a look at horror musicals! And if “the lonely ones” aren’t your thing, don’t worry your pretty head—there are demon barbers, bloody teenagers, and a tap-dancing monster ahead too....
Dance of the Vampires
I’m going to warn you ahead of time—there are lots of musicals about vampires. So many of them. But Dance of the Vampires is notable for being based off of the Roman Polanski film, The Fearless Vampire Killers. It has gone through many productions, but is known stateside for being one of the costliest failures in Broadway history due to a massive overhaul of the script (that made the content mostly comedic), cast troubles, and the firing of the composer and a producer. Basically, if you ever get a chance to see this baby, make sure the production is international.
Evil Dead: The Musical
Interactive theatre! This musical was created with the blessing of both Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi and quickly gained a following among fans. The show began in Canada, enjoyed a brief stint in New York and many other cities, and is currently running in Vegas where it’s super popular with convention goers. This may or may not have to do with the fact that you are likely to get splattered with blood during the performance. People sitting in the front rows were given plastic anoraks to cover themselves with at first, but getting soaked grew to be an honor and now many patrons go to the show wearing white t-shirts in hopes of getting covered in red.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Once More, With Feeling”
After the success of silent episode “Hush,” Joss Whedon and Co. decided to go all out in a musical episode for the Scooby Gang. The results were surprisingly effective because unlike your average musical, where a spotlit number can indicate that a character is alone in their head, many songs in this episode are witnessed by others. So that lyrical confessional that was meant to be your solo outing? Yeah, everyone just heard it. Your deepest, darkest secrets are revealed. What was most impressive about this move was how Whedon proved that he could use music to move a narrative within the television format, as the major revelation of the episode—that Buffy is distraught at being pulled back to earth from heaven—is the big curveball a third of the way through the season. And no magic can undo it. Probably why it was ranked #14 on TV Guide’s “TV’s Top 100 Episodes of All Time.” Yeah, that’s how cool musicals are.
Jekyll & Hyde
Frank Wildhorn is known on the Broadway circuit for adapting many 19th and early 20th century stories (The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Svengali, and Cyrano de Bergerac to name several) into musicals with a certain operatic-pop-power-ballad style to them. Yeah. Nevertheless, his productions are frequently quite successful, and Jekyll & Hyde is one of those. Adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, there is a lot of fun to be had watching the show for the sheer delight of watching any version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on stage. It’s currently running on Broadway again and one of the early concept album recordings of the show (featuring songs that were eventually cut from the final version) is truly gorgeous in places and a really fun listen. Whatever you do, don’t watch the filmed David Hasslehoff (yes, the dreaded ’Hoff) version. Unless you want hyperventilate yourself to death by laughing—his transformation sequence alone warrants it.
It’s no wonder that Ann Rice’s vampires eventually made it to stage, but you might not have expected their score to be penned by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Or for the show’s visual concept design to have been done by artist Dave McKean. It had a short two month run on Broadway, which is interesting considering that the earlier San Francisco run was the highest earning pre-Broadway show in the city’s history. But that might have something to do with the many changes made before the Manhattan premiere—the original version had more stage effects, including images that filled the audience in on Lestat’s story. Looks like whatever they hacked out was what made the show work. Either that or San Francisco audiences have very different taste. Which they likely do.
Dracula the Musical
One more time, fang fans! Another Frank Wildhorn jaunt, it would seem that vampire musicals are generally a bad idea. Though the Dracula musical made an effort to follow the Bram Stoker novel, the show was then criticized for making the material inaccessible to anyone who did not know the book well. Nevertheless, putting Dracula’s name on something is usually a good idea, and the show has received multiple runs around the world. If you know some of Wildhorn’s more popular musicals, this one might grate a little—it too closely mirrors much of his earlier material.
Penned by the script-writer for the 1976 film, Carrie ran into more than its fair share of troubles. The pre-Broadway run of the show at Stratford-upon-Avon saw its leading lady nearly decapitated one night by a set piece, and the crew could not figure out a way to cover her in stage blood without shorting out her microphone. The show cost $8 million by the time it premiered on Broadway (which was a whole lot in 1988) and seemed to divide audiences—some cheered when the show finished and others booed, although both leading ladies got full standing ovations regardless. Because of terrible reviews the show shut down in a hurry, marking it as one of Broadway’s most expensive failures of all time.
Hot off the success of The Producers, Mel Brooks quickly brought Young Frankenstein to Broadway in 2007. Brooks was a big fan of the audiences who came to see the show, as they turned it into something interactive—neighing every time Frau Blucher’s name came up, and such. The show was unfortunately too often compared to The Producers, and many critics felt it lacked a certain sparkle that the previous Brooks musical had put forth. Even so, the show was successful during its two year run, and gained a certain cult status in its time on Broadway. A few changes were made from the original film, including an extended ending where it appears that Frankenstein has been hanged and the Monster revives him.
You may know that Howard Shore (of Lord of the Rings scoring fame) also wrote the soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s film version of The Fly, yes? But did you know that he also created an opera based on that film (but not musically related)? Cronenberg actually came in to direct the opera, which premiered in 2008 with the legendary Placido Domingo conducting. There is no official recording of the score, which is the biggest shame of them all. Though likely not for the faint of heart, the soundtrack is likely a singular experience.
Okay, it’s a musical adapted from a play adapted from Victorian Era penny dreadfuls, not really an SFF yarn. It still counts because geeks of all stripes love the demon barber of Fleet Street, and it is easily one of Sondheim’s greatest musicals. Angela Lansbury famously originated the role of Mrs. Lovett in 1979 when the show opened on Broadway, and productions have been running ever since. One of the most impressive things about Sweeney Todd is how it lends itself to reinterpretation—there are versions where it is suggested that all the characters are inmates in an asylum acting out their terrible fantasies, and the 2005 Broadway revival (featuring incandescent turns from Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in the leading roles) cut back the orchestration so that a whittled-down cast of ten sang and played the entire show on stage as they performed their parts. Todd is a dark rumination on loss, desire and revenge, but its sense of humor is really what makes it shine. If you’ve never heard “A Little Priest,” you are missing out on one of life’s great joys.
Any others that you’d count in the horror genre? I’m sure there are more singing vampires yet to be uncovered....
Emily Asher-Perrin has a very heavy bias toward the Broadway revival version of Sweeney Todd. It was literally the best. Ever. She has written essays for the newly released Doctor Who and Race and Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.