8 More of the Nerdiest Musicals of All Time
?The Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark controversy of earlier this year was so unprecedented that even the most non-theater aware person seemed to know everything about it. Spidey may have gotten all the press (most of it bad), but he was hardly the first beloved nerd property to make the transition from comics to the stage. Back in January of 2010, Topless Robot took a list at the 10 Nerdiest Musicals of All Time. For this sequel list we’ve got more shows worthy of your attention that vary from Broadway blockbusters to regional theater oddities. Unfortunately, with a few noteworthy exceptions the majority of these productions have closed or were limited run to begin with. All of these should be remembered not only as fascinating shows but examples of the magic that can happen when a geeky subject transcends its origins to be reinvented on stage. So from porn-loving puppets to crazy trains that would make Ozzy Osbourne envious, here are eight more of the nerdiest musicals of all time.
8) Starlight Express
Andrew Lloyd Webber made a name for himself with high-concept musicals like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. Sandwiched between these two mega successes is a lesser known work that is, depending on whom you talk to, either total genius of a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-indulgence. I’m talking about Starlight Express here; a musical that answers the unasked question of what would the offspring of Tron and Arcee from Transformers look like. The plot concerns the trials and tribulations of a group of trains who have been brought to life by a child’s imagination. Not that story matters here. The show is all about visual spectacle, the best example of which is how the actors perform all of their singing and dancing on roller skates. During the original productions, the theaters housing the play were renovated to include a full size skating track that circled the audience so that they could be thrust in the middle of several “train races.” Thanks to the flashy costumes and constant possibility of witnessing someone dressed as a choo-choo fall on their ass, Starlight Express quickly earned a reputation as an event show (though it was equally criticized for these same reasons, as well as cheesy 1980s songs that make “One Night in Bangkok” sound like The Beatles in comparison). The musical was a huge hit in England and Germany, but never quite caught on here in the States. Not for lack of trying though. Recent U.S. tours have incorporated 3-D race footage, making this the gimmicky musical equivalent of a William Castle film. Full confession: I’ve seen this thing twice. I don’t think I could in good conscience recommend that you do the same.
7) You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
In a series of scenes familiar to anyone who ever read Peanuts, this musical has Charlie Brown dealing with his various neuroses and searching to discover what it means to be a good person. While he copes with typically Charlie Brownian existential crises, his pals take the stage to show off their various quirks. Since its 1967 debut, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has become the go-to musical for repertory theater companies around the country because it is inoffensive entertainment for everyone. In other words, it is the perfect stage representation of Charles Schulz’s seminal (and at times, incredibly bleak) comic strip. Good grief? It’s the best.
6) Re-Animator: The Musical
Like the Little Shop of Horrors, Evil Dead and Toxic Avenger musicals before it, a song-and-dance take on the cult classic Re-Animator was an inspired idea. For any of you poor bastards out there who don’t know, Re-Animator is Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story about a scientist who discovers the key to resurrecting dead flesh…and the nasty side effects that result from the process. The film is a gore-filled romp that largely coasts by on the merits of Jeffrey Combs’ terrific lead performance. But could the sick fun translate to the stage? By all accounts, yes. Gordon himself oversaw, wrote and directed the musical version, which ran earlier this year at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles. You can see him talking about the project’s genesis in the above video. A national touring version of this has yet to materialize, so it will probably be awhile before the rest of us get a chance to see how star George Wendt deals with drunken audience members shouting “NORM!” throughout the performance.
When the musical adaptation of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie long-running comic strip opened up on Broadway in 1977, few could have predicted just what a cultural touchstone it would become. This thing was everywhere, and its songs — most notably “Tomorrow” — became instant standards and utterly unavoidable. It ushered in a Broadway renaissance and a merchandising blitz that is still unrivaled in the world of musical theater (this thing was so massive that even the dog got in on the action with the tie-in book Sandy: The Autobiography of a Star). The success of Annie is also surprising because it resonated with audiences living in the end of the grittiest decade in the 20th century. That may be precisely why it was so popular– the show’s optimism cracked the cynical exteriors of nearly all that experienced its magic. The poor receptions of various spin-off projects including a Tim Curry-riffic film adaptation and two separate musical sequels only served to enhance the reputation of the original. Annie was a true anomaly. It sure isn’t cool, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it is still the most successful play ever based on a comic character. Uh, sorry about that, but you see what I’m saying.
4) Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
I never saw The Beatles in concert. Or The Ramones. Or The Smiths. For the most part I have made peace with the fact that I have missed out on seeing many of my favorite bands play live. But some performances — like R.E.M.’s infamous 1991 Bingo Hand Job shows — I don’t think I’ll ever get over missing. That’s exactly how I feel about not scoring a ticket to experience The River Bottom Nightmare Gang in person. You see for the 2008 and 2009 Christmas seasons, the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut hosted the only live performance of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Featuring a blend of costumed actors and puppets, the nostalgic musical based on the beloved TV special was officially sanctioned by The Jim Henson Company. The storyline was stretched out to include additional songs (written by Paul Williams, who also penned the music for the original version) and new characters. The adaptation was a success, but it hasn’t been performed outside of Connecticut and that is truly baffling and more than a little troubling. If ever a show needed a holiday engagement on Broadway or a national tour, it is this one. I think anyone who has ever shed a tear to “When the River Meets the Sea” would agree with me on this one.
3) Avenue Q
If you’ve been withdrawn from pop culture for the past decade, here’s a primer of all you need to know about Avenue Q: It’s a musical whose show-stoppers include “The Internet Is for Porn” (partially sung by a creature named Trekkie Monster), “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and the taking pleasure in the misfortune of others anthem “Schadenfreude.” Not sold yet? Well, the show mixes puppets (whose performers are visible) with live actors, including one character who is an exaggerated version of the late, great Gary Coleman. Avenue Q plays like a parallel universe take on Sesame Street (its primary inspiration) that teaches how much adult life blows instead of regurgitating information on the ABCs and 123s. It’s great theater to be sure. But what really resonates in just how much the subject matter hits close to home with anyone struggling with the realities of being a disenchanted grown up. Did I mention it was also incredibly funny?
2) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Man, I hope Bad Horse gets his own song in the sequel. That said, it’s interesting to note that Joss Whedon’s internet phenomenon has spawned various non-professional theater productions across the country. Given Neil Patrick Harris’ extensive stage background, a Broadway adaptation seems like a natural idea. Although as someone who is new to Dr. Horrible fandom, I suppose the Whedonites out there already have a petition going with hopes of making this happen. If so, point me to it, I’m totally signing it.
1) The Spidey Project
The best thing to come out of the whole Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark debacle was this no-budget Spidey production that was written, cast, rehearsed and performed within 30 days in an attempt to be the first musical based on the web-slinger to officially open in New York City. Because tickets to the few performances held in March were impossible to land, the creators of The Spidey Project graciously put the whole thing online for us all to enjoy after the fact (for the record, the “Chipotle” song is so much better than any of the tunes Bono and the Edge penned for the injury-prone other Spidey show). Similar to the beloved A Very Potter Musical, the Spidey Project is such a success because it is not beholden to studio standards/writing by committee/Broadway politics. As such, it became a Spidey song-and-dance tale that entertained without having a body count. Take that, Julie Taymor.