It’s hard to separate out the fantasy from the sci-fi in the case of musicals because you already have the added fantastical element of characters breaking into the song with practically zero provocation. But there are some clear winners in the fantasy category, not counting their fairy tale counterparts.
This time around we’ve got a boy who’s gotta crow, a girl who can move things with her mind, and hobbits! Hobbits who sing!
You’ve seen the stage version, yes? With Mary Martin? Go on, grab a copy, you can find it on DVD. I’ll wait.
…Now that was serious fun, wasn’t it? While many children grow up with the Disney version of Pan, the musical offers a slew of lovely songs, interactivity, and one of the most hilarious renderings of Captain Hook you will find anywhere. (His pirates all play instruments. When he has to think, he gives them a “tempo” and makes them play so he can sing it out.) Invoking the traditions of English pantomime and the original Barrie-penned stage play, Peter is always played by a woman—which is just about the best present you can give a little girl—and the kids in the audience are encouraged to clap for Tink when she’s poisoned in order to bring her back. Of course, this usually happens in the non-musical stage play version of Peter Pan as well. But only in this version will you see Tiger Lily and her band do some legit tumbling, Peter seduce Hook by pretending to be a lady, and a ballet number featuring the Darling’s nanny and some giant bizzaro animals. This musical is perfect.
How it took Disney so long to bring “practically perfect in every way” to an actual stage is beyond my reckoning, but Mary Poppins did finally get the treatment in 2004’s West End production, which was quickly followed by a near-7-year stint on Broadway (making the 30th longest running musical in the Great White Way’s history). With a couple of added numbers and some fun visual effects, Mary Poppins was always bound to steal the spotlight; it’s fun for the whole family, and most of us have a few precious childhood memories wrapped around the film at the very least. Interestingly, it has been ousted from its place at the New Amsterdam theater to make room for a new Disney musical adaptation coming in 2014—none other than Aladdin.
Created by Monty Python member Eric Idle and directed by Mike Nichols, Spamalot was basically a sure thing as soon as it rolled up. The original cast included Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde Pierce in the leading male roles, and its Broadway premiere in 2005 was met with tons of money and critical acclaim. (Those who saw the previews in Chicago were treated to extra songs that were eventually cut from the show, and one memorable performance where Hank Azaria was forced to ad-lib in front of the curtain for about 15 minutes due to backstage difficulties.) The Terrys of Monty Python—Gilliam and Jones—are both on record saying that the show is a waste of time, but that didn’t stop audiences from coming to the theatre. The show is a fun time, but certainly not anything new; it is simply the perfect excuse to put every Monty Python reference in one place and then sing some silly songs.
Wonderland: A New Alice
Also on the Frank Wildhorn side of Broadway was the brief life of this Alice in Wonderland musical. (There is a much older one, but it’s highly doubtful that anyone has done a production of it in a good long while, hence its exclusion from the list.) Set in modern day, Alice, a children’s book writer who lives in Queens, is suffering from a recent divorce and getting her manuscript rejected. What results is a trip to Wonderland that saves her marriage and her creative life… somehow. The script was unfortunately incredibly convoluted and confused most critics, with an unemotional ending that fell flat. While colorful and flashy and fun to look at, the show didn’t sit well with audiences and closed in only a month. It’s hardly surprising—Alice’s adventures are often reimagined, but it’s difficult to find adaptations that bring something truly new into the mix.
The Lord of the Rings
Even with the hours of film we now have at our disposal where Middle-Earth is concerned, it’s impossible to ignore the 2006 musical version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece. Music was contributed by a lot of people on this one, including A. R. Rahman, who is better known for those Oscars he won writing music for Slumdog Millionaire. The show is in three acts, which would lead some to believe that it followed the trilogy structurally, but Act I ends when Gandalf is lost to the Balrog and everything sort of gets condensed from there. This odd front-loading (the first act also contains more songs than the second and third by a hefty margin), sort of speaks to the experience. While it’s understandable that someone might want to make a musical out of Lord of the Rings, it might have been good to wait until all the fervor from the films had died down a bit.
This adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic started in the U.K., moved across the pond just this spring, and has been getting the most rave reviews of any musical in the past decade. The plot of the show follows the book relatively closely, and the music and book have been praised for their wild energy and wit. It has won Tony Awards, Olivier Awards (the most ever won by a one show), Drama Desk Awards, and every other award you could possibly hand a musical. In a fun theater switch, much like Mrs. Turnblad in Hairspray, Miss Trunchbull is being played by a male actor—Bertie Carvel has originated the role in every production so far and wowed audiences. Capturing Dahl’s particular brand of madness has boggled filmmakers for years, so Matilda’s success is a real win for all fans of his work. Run to this one now, if it’s humanly possible. There’s no point in denying yourself.
And there are still bound to be more! A special shout out goes to the Princess Bride musical that can’t seem to get made, and to the many shows on their way. (Looks like Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame is making a musical that is supposed to be all Muppet-Labyrinth-Princess-Bride-ish?) Which are your favorites?
Emily Asher-Perrin cannot explain just how much of an influence the Peter Pan musical has had on her development as a person. 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.