The Great White Way might be full of big budget musical remakes of pop culture classics and cult favorites, but there was a time when these now familiar sights of the world’s greatest theater district was actually a rare sight. They were understated and rather tasteful and usually, the only way you could tell that a show was based on a comic book or a sci-fi epic was by actually selling one of your kidneys, buying a ticket and watching the damn thing. Those occasions were rare because the productions tanked and were laughed out of the city whether they were comedies or not.
Now Broadway is full of them. Nowadays there are many musicals based on our favorite sci-fi and horror flicks, partially because they’re popular, but mostly because our attention spans can’t support a thoughtful or insightful production of Waiting for Godot or a revival of Finian’s Rainbow without making the audience’s collective skull cave in by the final curtain call. Of course, just because a musical is based on a beloved nerd property, that’s still no guarantee it’s going to be any good — and here are 10 examples of musicals that don’t live up to their nerdy originals.
10) Lord of the Rings
If you took just about every modern mainstream horror and sci-fi movie and tried to choose a single one that would be best to turn into a musical adaptation, this epic tale might be at the top of your list (assuming that Chopping Mall isn’t available on your Netflix queue, of course).
It’s got everything a great fantasy musical needs: a downtrodden character with a major flaw that makes him vulnerable yet strong, mean and bloodthirsty villains, a deep love story. Throw in a couple of arias into the original films and you’ve practically got a musical on your hands already, assuming you still have an audience. That’s just what one Broadway production tried to do with the world’s most famous fantasy tale that, according to one New York Times review, felt like you were watching all three of the three-plus-hour Peter Jackson movies end-to-end even though it was one-third of the time.
9) Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks’ brilliant The Producers musical gave him the kind of Broadway hit that most aspiring playwrights don’t have enough imagination to dream about as they crank out one-acts for cooking sherry money.
So when The Producers was done eating up every Tony in sight and touring every city with a phone book thicker than 100 pages, the producers wanted Brooks to take another classic film from his library and turn it into another cash cow (oh please, let the next one be Spaceballs). Brooks dug up his most famous film and set it to music — t/he goal was to aim for the same sense of fun and spirit for life in the face of death that Brooks has always tried to portray in his movies. However, the musical version was just an “ear-splitting,” “eye-splitting” and “would-be-side splitting” series of mediocre songs, bad visual effects and “meh” gags and puns, according to one Times review. The only thing more annoying was the price tag: a record setting $450 a seat in the premiere section. It could have been worse. They could have actually required you to pay one of your arms and legs just a seat, just to stick one more dumb pun in your face.
This space sex romp from Jane Fonda’s past might have earned her a place in pop culture history by becoming the campiest piece of camp since comedian Lee Camp went to camp with John Cougar Mellencamp and organized a campy musical rendition of Sleepaway Camp, but that just made it riper for the musical treatment.
The production premiered in Vienna and was more based on the French comic-book on which the original film was based. That just made it seem more like the whacked-out sex dream of an ecstasy-popping Victorian aristocrat. Then it gets weird: it has dance numbers! Basically, according to a review in Variety, it tried to be another Rocky Horror Picture Show by taking things so over-the-top with the lead character’s intergalactic sex-capades that there was no possible way to take it seriously or give it a bad word. However, watching it live in a theater just made people feel dirty, like they paid to watch a steampunk live sex show set to music.
7) Creature from the Black Lagoon
Humorist and cultural critic Joe Queenan once quipped that performers who aren’t good enough to play in Las Vegas end up in Atlantic City, and performers who aren’t good enough to play in Atlantic City end up in Branson, Missouri. We’d like to add an additional step down that slippery slope of stage-dom: those performers who aren’t good enough to play in Branson end up in Universal Studios (the theme park, not the actual studios, although that would explain how Crossroads got made).
That’s where this stage remake of the classic horror epic made its debut and grand exit just a few years ago in a theater that (we swear we’re not making this up) was once home to the show Fear Factor Live. Unlike other movie-based musicals, according to a review in Variety, it wisely avoids just rehashing the plot of the original film and tries to become something wholly other on its own. Unfortunately, the thing it tries to become is so ridiculous and silly that even Rocky Horror Picture Show fans would find it cringeworthy.
6) The Fly
Hearing the words “sci-fi” and “opera” in the same sentence are very rare unless you’ve stumbled into some drunken Star Trek convention featuring an operetta of “The Tragical History of Doctor McCoy.”
However, the LA Opera attempted to do just that a few years ago when they took David Cronenberg’s classic horror remake of The Fly and remade it as a full-length, ultra bloody, special effects opera. It seemed to have everything going for it that any other opera would kill to have on their playbill. They had one of the original Three Tenors conducting the music. They had a quality cast of renowned singers on stage. They even had Cronenberg himself directing the entire production. Unfortunately, none of that was able to help it overcome the fact that the audience was basically watching an awesome gore film mixed with “La Traviata.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the songs were repetitive and flat and must have been hard to take seriously since sweeping baritones are belting out tunes about “insect politics” and (seriously) “abortion.” The scariest part? It leaves itself open to a sequel. Sleep tight.
5) Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark
It was hard to avoid hearing any news about this stage adaptation of Stan Lee’s most famous comic book creation. The news had little to do with the elaborate costumes, special effects or music from U2’s Bono and The Edge. It had more to do with the fact that the cast racked up more injuried and wounded on their watch than an NRA wine tasting event.
It also didn’t help that the entire production was all style and no substance. It had sweeping special effects and dazzling stunts that they clearly had gotten right before opening night since they turned their first string cast into an endless stream of crash dummies. The costumes looked garish and flashy, even for characters that spend the majority of their spare time in form fitting Spandex and overly glorified Carnival costumes that look like a Comic-Con production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. As for the story, The Hollywood Reporter called it “the theatrical equivalent of a bad summer popcorn movie.”
Dracula is another one of those timeless stories that make you wonder why someone hadn’t tried to turn Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale into a full-fledged musical by then. Then when you see it, you realize why no one has tried it.
The 2005 production was, according to New York magazine, as mediocre as a mediocre production could get. All the focus seemed to have been put been on the massive and intricate set designs that transported the audience to Dracula’s castle, but the music, acting and the rest of the production made it look like they were actually transported to the Romanian section of Epcot’s World Showcase.
3) Jekyll and Hyde
The people who brought Dracula to the stage may have been one of their last productions, but it wasn’t their first attempt to put something on stage with a lot of sucking (I couldn’t resist).
This recreation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella had a fairly good run and even a regular crowd of hardcore “Jekies” who helped keep production going for almost five years, but it closed in the end and somehow lost money. However, it’s no big mystery to understand why when you see the thing. According to one New York Times review, it’s completely unoriginal and doesn’t attempt to even try to translate the story on any deep level beyond the story material. They could have called it Cliffs Notes: The Musical. And, no, someone did not slip you a hallucinogen. That is the David Hasselhoff playing the title role in a Broadway production.
2) It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!
Spider-Man may have set the stage on turning pop properties into plop performances but they are far from the first. The worst is another argument.
The story of the comic world’s most famous superhero got the musical treatment in the late 1960s and had a very good musical run on the stages, so much so that a theatrical version aired on ABC in 1975. It was so corny and campy that it makes Adam West’s Batman look like Orson Welles’ infamous production of Julius Caesar set against the backdrop of Nuremberg. Then again, Richard Pryor wasn’t cast in it so it’s far from the worst Superman production out there.
It’s no coincidence that one of the worst sci-fi and horror based musicals was also one of the worst theatrical productions of all time. The reason that someone thought it was a good idea to do a revival more than 20 years later will probably always remain a secret if the backers ever want to work again. The original version opened on Broadway in the late ’80s as one of the most expensive theatrical productions of all time. The reviews were so bad and word of mouth spread so fast that it closed after just five performances. Cut to the present and someone ignored all that “bad publicity” and decided to re-open it with slicker lighting and special effects and some re-tooled lyrics. The reviews weren’t any less favorable. The New York Times review called the music “repetitive” and the lyrics “plodding.” The fact that someone tried to bring back one of the biggest bombs ever makes one wonder why no one in the audience became so enraged that it unlocked their telekinetic powers and killed everyone in the theater.