People who say that they don’t like musicals are wrong. Chances are they just haven’t seen the right musical yet, the one that will win their heart and convert them forever to the all-singing all-dancing 24-hour party going on in the heads of musical fans everywhere. Fortunately, musicals are created from every kind of story one can conceive and that includes many science fiction, fantasy, and horror classics. So for the sake of your poor deprived friends and family, let’s have a look at some musicals that might lead to their conversion (and some that definitely won’t).
So lets start with the SF musicals! For the sake of clarity: musicals are on stages, on film, and in specific episodes of television. (But I will always default to the official stage version of a story.) I’m not going to confine them to theater alone because… well, that would be less fun. Here we go!
Little Shop of Horrors
Written by the 80s/90s power team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Little Shop of Horrors is based on a 1960 black and white cult classic (that also, oddly, happens to be the first film Jack Nicholson ever appeared in). Pairing old-school rock-n-roll and Motown with social commentary and nostalgia, Little Shop is notable for its campy humor, its deliciously catchy tunes, and its truly tragic ending where the main characters are eaten by the vicious alien plant, Audrey II. The plants then proceed to take over the world and the doo-wop girls (who act as a sort of Greek chorus during the show) let the audience know that this was a cautionary tale that could happen to them. Interestingly, the film version directed by Frank Oz in 1986 features an alternate ending where the main characters survive and the plants do not conquer—the original ending tested badly with focus groups and had to be reshot. (You’ll be happy to know that it can now be found with the original ending intact on DVD. Finally.) Also awesome is the fact that the film’s Audrey II is voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops.
A Clockwork Orange
Everyone freaked out about Bono and The Edge writing the music for the Spider-man show, but did you know it was not their first foray into musical territory? Long before, in the yesteryear of 1990, they wrote a score for A Clockwork Orange: 2004. This was after Anthony Burgess, author of the novel, had written the script for the show and tried to convince the director to find someone who could create an entirely classical score. (So they’d be singing Beethoven’s 9th instead of just listening to it?) Burgess was greatly unimpressed by what Bono and his buddies came up with, and the musical was a flop. But there was another version! That did indeed put lyrics over classical music! And it was performed recently in Vegas. So there’s that.
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Based on a 2002 play called The Necromerchant’s Debt, Repo! was billed as a horror rock opera movie and also happened to star Anthony Stewart Head in one of the lead roles. (Paris Hilton is in it, too, somehow.) The musical strangely has the same basic premise of the largely derided film Repo Men: in the future there is an overwhelming call for new organs, and a mega corporation is willing to sell them to you on payment plans. If you default, assassins repossess the organs. This story revolves around the heirs of the corporation and the freedom desired by one 17-year-old girl. The film enjoyed only a limited release, and it’s definitely not for everyone with its level of gore, but it did achieve a certain notoriety among musical enthusiasts.
We Will Rock You
Theatre has gotten a lot of criticism in the past couple of decades for churning out what are known as “jukebox musicals.” Basically, you take all the hits from a popular band or musician, and you shuffle it around so that it fits with a coherent story. Because people already love the music—bam!—insta-hit. We Will Rock You is one of those musicals; it takes the music of Queen and packages it into something that you will like because it has Queen music in it. But wait… what’s that you say? It has a hilarious dystopian sci-fi premise where rock music is outlawed and individuality is unheard of? The critics panned this one, but it’s frankly begging to be a camp classic. The main villain of the show is Killer Queen. Young people fighting back against the government from the underground (no literally, they live in the Tube) take their new names from old rock posters they find, leading to a large, imposing man sporting the name Britney Spears. It’s basically just a Queen concert with some goofy dialogue between numbers. And it’s really fun singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the cast and audience after the curtain call.
Some might say that Urinetown has a certain debt to pay to Little Shop of Horrors and they wouldn’t be wrong—science fiction realized through a seemingly commonplace concept (people having to pay to pee), social commentary made by examining the trials of people occupying the lowest classes of society, and a primarily comedic premise that ends in tragedy. Urinetown is a satire that looks at corporations, bureaucracy, and politics while it effortlessly parodies other musicals. But one aspect that makes it stand out among the others is how much meta it allows itself. There are songs about the dangers of having too much exposition and the show is crammed full of ridiculous puns (such as the Urine Good Company and Public Amenity #9). It’s honestly hilarious and proves one of the better rules of musicals—no subject is off limits.
If you’re going to do a musical adaptation of Barbarella, having Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame write the score sounds like a genius idea, doesn’t it? Problem is, this musical adaptation from 2004 was based off the comic book rather than the camp classic film, and using comic book dialogue to pad out your musical script is not really a recommended after school activity. Extra framing devices were added, making Barbarella the star of a video game for some reason, which would have been a cool idea if it had had anything to do with Barbarella in the first place. While the songs were catchy, people found the show generally juvenile, and something that had the potential to be the next Rocky Horror and fell sadly flat. There are only 100 copies of the cast recording available, though, so it’s probable that you need a pretty penny to get your hands on the songs.
Somewhere in Time
All the more poignant following the death of genre titan Richard Matheson, Somewhere in Time is a musical based on his eponymous novel. It recently premiered in Portland, Oregon, and there are high hopes that more productions are in the works. Fans even turned up for its opening night in turn-of-the-century cosplay, proving the story’s lasting impact. On the other hand, it would seem that the musical chose to add an element that the book (and popular 1980 film) did not need—suggesting that leading man Richard Collier has a brain tumor, and reducing his time traveling romance with Elise to a fever dream brought on by illness. It wouldn’t be the first time this narrative trick has been employed, but it’s always a let down, divesting the story of its magic in favor of realism.
There is, indeed, a musical based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film that began its life quietly in a 1989 production at the Picadilly Theatre in London. Brian Blessed was in it, which is sort of exciting to imagine. The show continued to be edited long after its initial run and was truly completed in 2002, when it was again produced, this time in Salem, Oregon. The show does make some rather odd changes from its source material, however. Many of the names are changed to more English-sounding ones and the ending is completely altered. This could have something to do with why the show hasn’t enjoyed more popularity….
It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman
You didn’t think there was any way that Clark Kent escaped the song and dance treatment, did you? This Superman musical premiered on Broadway in 1966, and gets revived periodically all over the country. It deals with Supes trying to stop Dr. Abner Sedgwick, who’s angry that he never won the Nobel Prize for his scientific genius and wants revenge. There’s a 1975 TV production of the musical featuring David Wilson and Lesley Ann Warren as Clark and Lois, which was apparently altered a great deal to make up for new 70s sensibilities. Hilarious.
The Toxic Avenger
In the tradition of absurd cult sci-fi films that become musicals, The Toxic Avenger had a pretty rocking run. It’s off-Broadway production garnered the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Musical, and the show received lots of flattering attention. While sharing the same basic structure as the 1985 film, the musical gives a bit more focus to the love story, and makes the Mayor of Tromaville a lady. It also makes Melvin, the man who becomes the Toxic Avenger, a scientist rather than a janitor and plays more on an environmental message—the Toxic Avenger is going to clean up New Jersey, and not a minute too soon. Good, campy fun and features a great number for book nerds in the form of Sarah’s number “Choose Me, Oprah!”
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog
After Buffy’s musical episode, it was only a matter of time before Joss Whedon strayed back into musical territory. The Writer’s Guild strike of 2007 brought Whedon a unique opportunity to create something brand new using the internet as a distribution apparatus—he created a musical in the form of a video blog miniseries featuring Neil Patrick Harris’ Dr. Horrible, an aspiring supervillain trying to get into the Evil League of Evil, and his superhero nemesis, Nathan Fillion’s Captain Hammer. It was short and sweet—only 42 minutes long in total—and received critical praise as well as fan adoration, winning a Hugo Award, a Creative Arts Emmy, and more. Whedon has been attempting to get the sequel done for some time, but it keeps getting pushed to the back burner as other projects take over his roster. Charming, touching, and damn funny, it’s a must-watch for those who refuse to consider the word musical in their vocabulary. You can change their mind in under an hour, and they never have to leave the comfort of a plush couch.
Bat Boy: The Musical
You know what might be the best idea ever? Creating a musical based on a 1992 tabloid article from the now defunct Weekly World News. And that’s exactly where Bat Boy came from, detailing the story of a half-bat half-boy living in a cave in West Virginia. His eventual discovery leads to his adoption by a local town vet and his family, and his emersion into language and human culture. The show is awesomely referential (like when Bat Boy’s training clearly mimics My Fair Lady), expert in exploiting different musical genres (rap, gospel, and rock to name a few), and touches on a host of serious dramatic themes (such as scapegoating, racism, belonging, and mob mentality). It is a musical that balances poignant dramatic moments with slapstick and horror. The show is devastatingly clever and demands a cast of only ten, with actors playing multiple parts. Critics gushed over the Off-Broadway production, and regional productions also garnered praise. Don’t miss this one if it plays nearby. Also, buy the cast recording. It’s really good.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Hoo boy. Do we want to talk about this hot mess? Between firing Julie Taymor as director, the ridiculously overrun budget, and massive production problems, this show will go down in history more for everything that held it up than whether or not anyone actually enjoyed it. Early delays lost the show some exciting actors, like Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming for the parts of Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin respectively. As the show proceeded to wrack up a budget of around $75 million, Taymor left the show and producers brought in the man responsible for the Superman musical book and a few Spider-Man comics to help rewrite the script. The show then wracked up safety violations and eventually had to be investigated by Actor’s Equity after all the injuries to cast members—the actress who played Arachne received a concussion from being struck by equipment in the wings, two stunt doubles broke limbs enacting the same move on different rehearsals, Arachne’s replacement injured her neck, and another stunt double fell 20 feet off a set piece into the orchestra pit due to his harness not being attached to its safety cord. Joan Rivers went through a period where she began her standup act by holding a moment of silence for “those Americans risking their lives daily… in ‘Spider-Man’ the musical.” As for the show itself… yeah, it’s a fun ride for some, but does anyone really want to support a production that takes such a cavalier attitude towards the safety of their performers?
The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show
Keep in mind that the “picture” part of the title is only applicable if you’re watching the film adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show. One of the most popular cult musicals of all time, RHS premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1973 and became in instant smash with its blend of sci-fi nostalgia, rock’n’roll, and sexual exploration. Interestingly, while the show’s next production at the Roxy in Los Angeles did very well, it’s first run on Broadway in 1975 only ran for 45 performances. Tim Curry, who originated the part of Dr. Frankenfurter on stage, was able to play the part in the movie as well, which has the distinction of being the longest running release in film history. It is still a hit at midnight showings where fans gather (many in costume) and do call-and-response viewings complete with props. A genre classic is every sense, and a tale the reengages with every new generation that discovers it.
There’s so much more where that came from, so many more genre musicals to tackle, but the SF category definitely houses some of my personal favorites. How about you?
Emily Asher-Perrin did play Audrey in Little Shop once, and it was her favorite time on stage. She also played a “medium shrunken witch” in Wizard of Oz as a wee one. 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.