There are plenty of fantasy musicals out there, and quite a few of them have their roots in fairy tales, fables, and other lesson-plugging stories. Some chose to turn those tales on their heads, while others are simply your favorite kid-films on stage. Either way, they’re ever-popular and always fun!
So let’s have a look at some wicked witches, a singing donkey, and one special red rose….
Into the Woods
“I wish….” The first words of what is easily one of mega-composer Stephen Sondheim’s best works, Into the Woods subverts the tropes of fairy tales by exploiting the typical 2-act structure; all of the characters get their Happily Ever After by the end of Act I, leaving Act II to show the audience what happens beyond the day when all your dreams come true. By the end of the show half of the cast are dead, their kingdom destroyed by a grieving giant’s widow. The show works on a very intricate meta level as well, reminding us that we must be careful of the tales we tell—“children will listen.” In that way it is a celebration and indictment of fairy tales at the same time, requesting that the audience think more carefully on what these morality plays are trying to impart. Funny but dark, full of complex lyrics and beautiful melodies, Into the Woods is one of the most moving musicals out there, and has more than one recorded performance if there’s no one reviving it nearby. (There’s the original Broadway cast and also the most recent West End production, which are both stellar and available for viewing.) Also, a movie is being made! Chris Pine is going to be Rapunzel’s Prince! Which is going to amazing.
Shrek the Musical
Not to be outdone by Disney, DreamWorks gave the megacorp a run for their money with a musical adaptation of the film Shrek starting in 2008. The show received markedly good reviews for the most part, getting points for comedy and some very impressive visual effects. Of course, because Shrek’s humor on screen was primarily referential, the musical did the same, this time adding in slews of jokes for musical-going audiences, getting laughs in on The Lion King, Wicked, Gypsy and many more. Despite this, the show failed to recoup its investment during its Broadway run because it was one of the most expensive musicals produced in Broadway history (at $25 million). Adorably, The Monkees “I’m A Believer,” used at the end of the film, was added to the end of the show mid-run and sung by the whole cast. The dragon, which is a puppet on stage, is the character who has gone through the most changes in production, altered even after the Broadway run was over for the U.S. National Tour.
Once on This Island
Based on a book by Trinidad-born writer Rosa Guy titled My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl, Once on This Island is a beautiful but tragic tale about class division, love, and sacrifice. On Haiti, villagers tell a small girl the tale of the peasant Ti Moune, who ends up the caught in a game between two island gods. In an attempt to prove whether love or death is stronger, the gods put Ti Moune in a position to fall in love with a rich grande homme from the other side of the island, and watch to see what happens when she finds out about his arranged marriage. Though not accurate island music, the emotional score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty gives this show an epic, operatic feel. Definitely a good one for anyone who loves their fantasy with a mythic dimension to it.
Adapted from the 2003 Tim Burton film (which was adapted from the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel), Big Fish just hit the stage in Chicago, though plans have been made to bring it to Broadway. Early buzz has been largely positive, and with Producers choreographer Susan Stroman, music by Addams Family and Wild Party’s Andrew Lippa, and a book done by the movie’s screenwriter John August, it’s not all that surprising. Still, it’s an interesting pick for a musical adaptation; the story has a lot more in common with older musicals than the current Hollywood-charged glamour-fest currently lighting up the area surrounding Time Square. It’s sad to lose Danny Elfman’s score, but Lippa writes some fabulous tunes—keep an eye out for this one!
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid replaced Disney’s stage production of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway in 2007 because the company was concerned about dividing audiences between two of their shows (which they seem to be doing again with Mary Poppins and Aladdin). The stage musical is markedly different from the animated film; Ursula is Triton’s sister, meant to rule half of the ocean until her love of witchcraft forces her brother to dispossess her. In addition, the sequence where Ursula uses Ariel’s voice to brainwash and woo Prince Eric is replaced with Eric holding a singing contest to see if various foreign princesses are “the voice” who rescued him. Ariel wins him over by dancing instead, which is sort of cute in that Eric at least manages to make the right decision regardless of his obsession with her voice. The show was a family pleaser, and is currently running internationally.
A musical consisting of an amalgamation of Dr. Seuss storylines sounds like it should be great fun for everyone. Unfortunately, Seussical managed to be nothing more than a great big mash of Seuss’ most popular characters, and the plot is sort of a mess. In addition, the characters are treated with none of the charm that they are owed—there’s a plotline where Gertrude McFuzz wants Horton to notice her and starts taking pills to make her tail more feathery. Then she ODs. I repeat, in a Dr. Seuss musical, a character overdoses on pills to try and make herself more attractive to a boy. Clearly we’re all missing out on that Seuss classic where he dealt with self-perception and drug use. Despite all these flaws, there is a cut down version that often gets put on in schools. Hopefully, they edited that little bit out.
The Wizard of Oz
One of the first musicals most children are introduced to, the film and stage versions of The Wizard of Oz are practically identical, and always sure to please. The only thing you have to watch out for are the occasionally overdone creative flourishes in stage productions—I once saw a version of the show where someone had decided to create giant dancing head costumes with tiny feet coming out of them as one of the obstacles in the woods before Dorothy and Co. reached the Wicked Witch’s castle. It was easily twice as frightening as the witch managed to be and lots of children were traumatized. There’s absolutely nothing to improve upon where the film is concerned, and it should probably be law to know who Judy Garland is, so this musical is something of a treasure.
Another based on L. Frank Baum’s land of Oz, Wicked takes its basic premise from Gregory McGuire’s novel of the same name. With its score penned by musical maven Stephen Schwartz, the show displays powerful, rangy songs that require some serious pipes from the actresses playing Elphaba (that’s the Wicked Witch of the West before she got all wicked) and Galinda (soon to be the Glinda the Good Witch). The show struck some unflattering chords for its poorly considered portrayal of Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister, Nessarose, who was handled very differently in the book. However, the show is notable for being one of the few hit musicals starring two female leads, particularly since the story revolves around their friendship. Wicked has been a sensation from the start—it’s been seen by millions, frequently breaks box office records, and is still running after a decade of performances.
Beauty and the Beast
Well-known for being Disney’s first foray into stage musicals, Beauty and the Beast is at least partially responsible for the many film-to-musical adaptations we see on Broadway today. Certain changes were made from the film; the rose is meant to bloom for “many years” instead of until the Beast’s 21st year (which eliminates certain time inconsistencies in the movie), and the servants are said to be slowly turning into household objects—the immediate need for Belle to break the spell is their fear that they will become inanimate soon, which has already happened to many of the castle staff. The spectacle and superb design of the show has long made the musical a favorite, and it has tours still running around the world to this day. Beauty and the Beast has a penchant for attracting high profile Broadway royalty, and everyone should be pleased to know that there was once a production in which Hugh Jackman played Gaston. All is right with the world.
Are there more? Should I have included Disney’s Tarzan? (I really didn’t want to.) Do you think we’ll start seeing more of these sorts of musicals soon?
Be sure to check out the list of science-fiction musicals, too!
Emily Asher-Perrin absolutely played Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods once. 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.