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Comic books, science-fiction dystopias, and B-movies of the 1960s are not obvious subjects for Broadway musicals, but geek culture and the Great White Way have intersected with surprising frequency throughout the years. A few weeks ago,
ABC announced a new musical comedy which promises to satirize medieval legends and the knight’s quest. In honor of Galavant Galavant, here is a countdown of my top 10 geek musicals.
Eric Idle’s stage adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is like the greatest hits of Monty Python. Characters like the Knights Who Say Ni, Sir Robin, and the Black Knight make appearances, and “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which comes from Life of Brian and not Holy Grail) are expanded into bigger music numbers. As if the source material wasn’t geeky enough, the original Broadway cast included Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter himself), David Hyde Pierce (Niles Crane), and Hank Azaria (the voice of half of Springfield’s residents on The Simpsons).
Grey’s Anatomy’s Sara Ramirez also adds her gorgeous voice to the mix as The Lady of the Lake, a new character created for the show. Though she was referenced in the film as giving King Arthur his sword and his quest, her character is essentially new and adds some needed estrogen to the leading cast. Idle’s script unfortunately doesn’t give her as much time on stage as Arthur, Robin, or Lancelot, but she makes the most of it with songs like “Find Your Grail” and “Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?).”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is remembered for its contribution to LGBTQ-centered pop culture, but it is strongly influenced and inspired by science-fiction/horror B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s. A white, clean-cut heterosexual couple, who are saving sex for their wedding night, find themselves in the clutches of a sweet transvestite/evil scientist from a far-off planet who is creating his dream muscle-man in a laboratory. The framework of the story comes from B-movies and cautionary propaganda films like Reefer Madness, but the formula is tweaked enough to make The Rocky Horror Picture Show its own wonderfully weird creation. It is still playing midnight screenings at theaters across the country including the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea in New York City.
A Very Potter Musical
“Got to get back to Hogwarts!” StarKid Productions’ extremely popular musical has lived on through YouTube, reaching a larger audience than most college stage productions. The musical’s video playlist has over 10 million views, and
Darren Criss, best-known for his role as Blaine on Glee, got his start here as Harry Potter. He might be difficult to recognize under his curly mop of hair, but his voice and comedic timing hint toward bigger things to come in Criss’ career.
Lauren Lopez, the actress who plays Draco Malfoy, is absolutely hysterical. There is a scene where Draco is taunting Harry, and she starts draping herself across a bench and sliding under the bench and onto the ground before crawling toward Harry. It isn’t something Draco does in the books or in the movie, and it really makes no sense for Draco to do any of it, but it is so ridiculously funny and captures why I love Draco, even when I hate him too.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
No list of geek-centric musicals would be complete without
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Written by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen during the Writer’s Guild of America strike of 2007-2008, it has developed a cult following with sing-along screenings and favorite songs performed at karaoke nights. Neil Patrick Harris plays the title character of Dr. Horrible, a small-time villain who dreams of joining the Evil League of Evil, headed up by the dreaded Bad Horse. (“Bad Horse, Bad Horse, Bad Horse!”) His plan is complicated by his feelings for Penny, played by The Guild’s Felicia Day, who frequents the same Laundromat as Dr. Horrible. When she starts dating his arch nemesis Captain Hammer, played by Nathan Fillion of Firefly and Castle fame, Dr. Horrible goes full super-villain with his latest invention, the Freeze Ray.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is significant not just because of the quality of the songs and the performances by Harris, Day, and Fillion, but also because it was Whedon’s first major exploration of digital distribution. It inspired other online musical theater ventures like and A Very Potter Musical AVbyte, not to mention Whedon’s recent digital distribution of In Your Eyes. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog opened new possibilities for niche musicals to find an audience online when there might not be a sustainable audience to support a running stage show.
Little Shop of Horrors
Geek loves girl, girl loves demented dentist, geek tries to win girl with fame and a man-eating plant, plant eats girlfriend and conquers the world – A tale as old as time!
Little Shop of Horrors, a Roger Corman B-movie from 1960, was adapted into an off-Broadway musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the songwriting team that went on to write music for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Little Shop of Horrors is arguably one of the geekiest musicals ever written. It has alien plant monsters, a meek but good-hearted protagonist, an over-the-top bully of a dentist with a love of motorcycles and leather, and a romantic interest who the hero views as a prize to be won. What is so fantastic about the original stage show and the original ending of the film is how it takes these familiar characters and tropes and then twists them in such a subtle but meaningful way. When Seymour starts feeding people to the plant, he knows exactly what he is doing, and despite his squeamish feelings, he does it anyways. Why? Like Breaking Bad's Walter White, Seymour Krelborn believes he is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. With money, he can take care of Audrey, even though he has no idea if Audrey wants someone to take care of her, much less her timid co-worker.
The awesome/awful twist in all of it is that Audrey did care for Seymour, regardless of money or fame, but Seymour has fed his monster so much that it devours Audrey without needing Seymour’s help. If Seymour had been honest about his feelings for Audrey, they might have found a way to leave Skid Row together without resorting to murder, but in treating her as a prize to be won, he created a monster that consumed Audrey, himself, and the world. That is pretty deep for a musical comedy with
Rick Moranis and a singing plant.
Starmites is likely the most obscure musical on the list, but for a sci-fi musical from the 1980s, it is shockingly progressive. The show’s hero is a teenage girl named Eleanor who loves comic books. Her favorite superheroes are an intergalactic team called the Starmites, and Eleanor dreams of traveling across the galaxy, fighting alongside their handsome leader Space Punk.
Starmites tend to fall in to love-it or absolutely-despise-it camps. Back in 1989, the show was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but rather than lend it credibility, some critics at the time called it the worst musical to ever be nominated for Best Musical. Comic book fans in 2014 might similarly misunderstand the appeal of Starmites, having grown accustomed to dark and gritty comics.
Starmites is significant, however, because it is silly and campy. So many comic books have taken the dark and brooding route that people take them too seriously or push characters who were fun or silly or an uncomplicated kind of good into a mold that they don’t fit. Starmites hearkens back to a time when comics were written for kids, and audiences will either get on board with it or they will not. Considering its continued success in community theaters, it is fair to say that Starmites found an audience that got it.
I remember seeing
Starmites as a kid at Theatre Cedar Rapids, and I was so excited to see a girl on-stage who loved comic books as much as I did. Long before I was acquainted with terms like “ fake geek girl” and “ Slut-Hulk,” a musical made me feel accepted as a comic book geek, and that is amazing to me.
Bat Boy: The Musical
Starmites for the most obscure entry on the list, Bat Boy: The Musical is an off-Broadway stage musical based on the creature made famous by Weekly World News. The show opens with Bat Boy being captured by animal control in a quiet little mountain town. Rather than see him put to sleep, Thomas Parker, the local doctor, and his family agree to adopt him. Thomas’ wife Meredith re-names Bat Boy as Edgar, and with the help of her teenage daughter Shelley, she helps Edgar to learn English, read, and pass his high school equivalency exam. The town is less welcoming to Edgar, though, and they accuse him of killing their livestock. As tensions flare, Thomas and Meredith continue to hide a much darker secret that could destroy Edgar’s last chance at happiness.
Despite having a really dark and violent plot,
Bat Boy is very funny, and the plight of Edgar will be familiar to anyone who has experienced discrimination, especially based on race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Besides the themes of accepting outsiders, Bat Boy is a great geek musical because of its plot twist and how it places Bat Boy more in the science-fiction genre than straight-forward monster movie horror.
Sadly, the show’s original off-Broadway production closed early due to drop off in theater ticket sales after the September 11th attacks, but the show continues to be popular with regional theater companies. The original cast recording is also available on Amazon and iTunes. Fans of
Laurence O’Keefe, who wrote the music and lyrics for Bat Boy, can also check out his newest musical adaptation of , which is currently running at the New World Stages in New York City. Heathers
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Bono’s spectacular Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark begs to be recognized on this list. The show was a failure critically and financially, the latter being more significant considering it is currently the most expensive musical in Broadway history. It connected neither with comic book fans, who were upset about significant changes such as Uncle Ben’s death, nor with Broadway theater fans who found Bono and The Edge’s soundtrack to be lacking. New characters created for the show such as Swiss Miss (a human pocket knife and not a cocoa mix) made the show a punchline for late night hosts and The New Yorker alike, and frequent accidents with the show’s flying mechanism left several cast members injured.
Considering everything working against it, why should
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark take a spot on the list? Even though it was ultimately a failed show, the money and talent that were attached to the show were stunning. Tony Award-winner Taymor was at the helm. Bono wrote the music. The cast included some great Broadway talent including Jennifer Damiano and Patrick Page, who saved the show with his performance as Green Goblin. All of these people were working earnestly and pouring their resources into a Spider-Man musical. If that doesn’t legitimize comic books as mainstream pop culture, I don’t know what will.
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Repo! is a sci-fi dystopian rock opera and the goriest commentary on the American health care system that musical theater has ever seen. In the world of Repo!, organ failure is a wide-spread problem, and nearly every human has had organ transplant surgery. GeneCo, the world’s premiere organ supplier, emerges as a new world power player, charging exuberant fees for necessary surgeries. The wealthy can pay for their surgeries, and young socialites even opt for plastic surgery, stretching their faces past recognition. Meanwhile, the poor have to keep up with impossible payment plans, and if they miss a payment, the GeneCo repo man shows up with a knife for some impromptu surgery. The story follows Shiloh, a teenage girl with a chronic blood disorder, and her over-protective father played by Anthony Stewart Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. Little does Shiloh know that her father is the dreaded Repo Man and that he spends his nights ripping organs out of poor souls who missed their payments.
Repo! is, if nothing, an original idea. 2010’s Repo Men, a box office bomb, allegedly stole its concept from Repo!, but it failed to capture the fantastically grotesque world of the original genetic opera. This is a world of death and opulence, where the poor scavenge like rats and the rich celebrate the wonders of GeneCo’s surgeries at lavish operas.
Aside from the film’s sci-fi dystopian world,
Repo earns its geek cred with its imagery. Many of the animated flash-backs directly reference horror comic books, even framing still shots in comic book panels. Head is also an interesting take on the costumed hero or villain. Putting on the costume, he transforms into the Repo Man, a psychopath who slaughters his victims with glee. At the end of the night, though, he hangs up his costume and thus separates himself from his work.
If the concept still seems distasteful,
Repo! is worth checking out for its soundtrack alone. The big music numbers have great hooks, especially “Legal Assassin” and “Zydrate Anatomy,” and I often catch myself humming the soundtrack, even if I haven’t listened to it in months.
“Once More, with Feeling” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Once More, with Feeling,” the musical episode of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sets a standard that all future musical episodes are judged against. The episode falls in the middle of sixth season when Buffy is going through a rough patch, to put it mildly, and the rest of the core cast are all going through major changes in their lives. Xander and Anya are imagining their impending marriage, for better or worse. Willow has manipulated Tara in the worst possible way using magic, and if Tara finds out, she will probably never trust Willow again. Even Spike has a healthy dose of angst with his unrequited feelings for Buffy.
The episode does not ignore the on-going plotlines of the show for a one-off musical special but rather uses the music numbers to explore their conflicts and move the plot forward. Show creator Joss Whedon even used the format to push boundaries with Willow and Tara’s sexual relationship, and looking back, it is astonishing what this episode got away with only four years after
Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet.
Music-wise, the episode’s song styles are quite diverse. Xander and Anya’s song is a more traditional song-and-dance Broadway number while Willow and Tara’s love ballad is more in line with
Hair or Godspell. Considering how ambitious Whedon was with “Once More, with Feeling,” it is surprising how well everything works together and how organically the music meshes with the story. “Once More, with Feeling” is more than Buffy’s musical episode, it is one of the best geek musicals ever written for stage, screen, or television.
Some great musicals didn’t quite make the cut, including Silence!, the Silence of the Lambs stage parody, and If/Then , Idina Menzel’s new musical about parallel universes and how a small decision can change a person’s life. Leave a comment below with your favorite geek musical, and let us know which shows you think should have made the list.
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Rachel Kolb is a Disney fangirl, Swan Queen shipper, and life-long Broadway nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of original Broadway cast recordings. She is currently a staff writer at JustPressPlay.net and a contributor to Sound on Sight . She is also the creator of LudusNYC.com , a website celebrating Broadway theater that offers tips on making theater-going more affordable. Since the fall of 2013 she has been a regular co-host on The Disney Film Project podcast , a show dedicated to reviewing every film released by the Walt Disney Company, from the classic animated features to Pixar and LucasFilm. She can be found on Twitter @rachelekolb and @LudusNYC.
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