If there is one lesson to be learned from Hamilton’s Broadway success, it’s that a surprising diverse number of themes can be successfully turned into musicals. After all, who would have believed Ontario’s steel town—just a second—I have just been informed that the musical Hamilton is not in fact about Hamilton, Ontario, but rather about a significant figure in the American Revolution. I see.
Nevertheless, my point stands: almost everything can be turned into a musical, given sufficient talent. Even science fiction epics. Which brings me to the exciting topic of What Science Fiction Works I Would Like to See as Musicals.
As someone who works in the theatre in addition to writing book reviews, I’ve given this a fair amount of thought, and I can rule out one possibility immediately. Having read the stage play adaptation of “Flowers for Algernon,” I can attest that changing the perspective from which the tale is told (from Charlie Gordon’s diary entries to the omniscient perspective of a stage) turns the story from touching horror story into a condescending misfire. I can’t imagine that adding songs would help.
H. G. Wells’ 1897 War of the Worlds, a tale of England invaded and defeated by Martians, is an interesting edge case. There is a stage play adaptation and there is a musical version. They are entirely different entities. The musical version is a concept album: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds appeared in 1978, with a star-studded cast and music.
While it takes some liberties with the narrative, it’s reasonable faithful to its source and the music is quite effective, at least for Moody Blues fans. As far as I am aware, however, it remains purely audio: nobody has ever adapted it to screen or stage. This is a pity… Tripods striding confidently across the stage, heat rays igniting houses and melting boats, and the black smoke covering the landscape in Stygian doom: all visually effective special effects I’d love to see done (in someone else’s theatre). Music would only make it better.
Walter M. Miller Jr’s three-part post-apocalyptic Canticle for Leibowitz details civilization’s slow recovery over the course of centuries. Like War of the Worlds it would be another edge-case production. I don’t know of a musical version, but there are several audio-play adaptations, most notably John Reeves’ 1981 adaptation, directed by Karl Schmidt and broadcast by National Public Radio.
Canticle does have the significant drawback that as written it has virtually no speaking roles for women (at most two or three, depending how you feel about Rachel), presumably because it is set at a Catholic monastery, institutions not famous for co-ed dorms. Still, casting directors have superseded traditional restrictions in the past and there is no intrinsic reason why the Catholic Church 1500 years in the future should follow the same gender restrictions the current one does. In any case, the novel offers the chance to tackle the grand scale of human history in a way few other works do, and it has at least some lyrics already embedded in the text:
From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.
This is just waiting for some inspired musician to provide the snappy tune.
Like my imagined The War of the Worlds musical, this production would also present some technical challenges: detonating a thermonuclear device just off-stage, followed by the on-stage collapse of a cathedral. That would be devastating—possibly in all senses of the word.
Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time is a tense thriller set during a monumental time war, despite which the actual set would be well within the means of a small theatre company. The entire story takes place in a small R&R facility that for plot-related reasons becomes isolated from the rest of reality. It is therefore a cousin to all those mysteries set on small islands, stalled trains, and country estates temporarily cut off from civilization (minus the usual skyrocketing body count). As in the case of War of the Worlds, stage adaptations do exist. All that’s needed for some inspired soul—and I am not asking for much here, merely a genius whose name will live on for centuries—to take advantage of the dramatic moments to insert songs.
That Catherynne M. Valente’s 2019 Space Opera is particularly well suited to a musical adaptation is no surprise, since the novel draws heavily on the Eurovision Song Contest for inspiration. Like Eurovision, the Metagalactic Grand Prix was created in an effort to bring about universal peace. Like Eurovision, anyone who qualifies can take part. Unlike Eurovision, newly contacted civilizations are not permitted to decline participation.
Also unlike Eurovision, failure does not result in an embarrassment of nil points, but total annihilation for the loser. Luckily, Earth has Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes to sing for them. Less luckily, the trio broke up years ago, Decibel Jones and Omar “Oort St. Ultraviolet” Calisșkan haven’t spoken in years, and the third member, the band’s muse Mira Wonderful Star, is rather inconveniently dead.
Musicals should provide grand spectacle of the variety which demands way too much from those poor souls hauling lines backstage. Corinne Duyvis’ 2016 young adult novel On the Edge of Gone could provide that spectacle in spades. Teen Denise’s already fraught life is complicated by an impending cometary collision. Survival depends on either finding her way into one of the Netherland’s shelters or on board one of the generation ships even being readied to launch. Alas for Denise, her mother has successfully sabotaged their chances for the first option, while if Denise were the sort of person the generation ships accept, she’d already be on one. Her odds, therefore, are poor. At least the comet should provide a memorable light show at the moment of her demise.
Yes, I am suggesting this book in part because I would very much like to see how someone else could handle the collision towards the end of the story. An epic song as a mountain-sized object slams into the Earth could have…real impact.
Other suggestions welcomed in comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.