Musicals are the popular culture equivalent of vegemite or olives. You either love them with a passion or hate them with fervor. So, when you sit down to watch a movie or book a theatre performance, are you the person who loves it when people burst into song at the drop of a hat? Or are you the kind of person who grits their teeth in frustration?
Samuel Tailor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in 1817, using it to explain the theory that we are often willing to avoid critical thinking and logic for the purpose of entertainment. Nowhere has this been pushed to the limit more than in science fiction, and even more when a musical gets added to the mix. Below, we give ten science fiction and fantasy musicals that pushed the boundaries of possibility, for good or bad.
10 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells
The selling power of toys should never be underestimated. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze had reached a fever pitch. Based on a comic by creators Eastman and Laird, it was later turned into a cartoon, and with it came a tie-in toy line plus a glutton of merchandise. To promote it, anything was being considered, including a musical.
Most musical forays by the Turtles are fondly remembered. They had a number-one hit that tied into the release of their first movie, and their second outing even featured flavor-of-the-month Vanilla Ice. However, their musical stage show, the Coming Out of Their Shells tour, is often consigned to the dustbin of history.
The plot was as flimsy as they come. The Turtles head out on a musical tour, determined to meet their fans across the world. While performing on stage, the tour gets interrupted by their enemy Shredder and his accomplice Baxter Stockman. The Turtles must then form a plan to defeat their enemy.
Highlights are hard to find. “April’s Theme” is a sickly ballad by their reporter sidekick, while “Skipping Stones” is performed by Splinter, their talking rat mentor. Sponsored by Pizza Hut, it was placed on pay-per-view television and released on VHS.
9 Via Galactica
The ’70s were a pretty strange time for science fiction. The moon landings had just taken place, but the technology burst of later decades was yet to happen. This led people to some pretty wild theories about what the future would hold. For some, that involved ping pong balls, trampolines, aluminum foil, and ballads.
Via Galactica was by Christopher Gore and Judith Ross, with music by Galt Macdermot. Macdermot had enjoyed success with the musical Hair, which had produced three chart hits. Yet he was not the only heavyweight involved in Via Galactica. Hollywood legend Raul Julia was in the cast along with Fame actress Irene Cara. Yet not even they could not save the convoluted plot and unworkable set.
The concept was to create a futuristic musical about society’s outcasts living on an asteroid. After running for just seven nights, it was canceled due to its terrible plot. The scenery and actors would sink into the trampoline surface of the set during performances. At one point, radio mics intercepted emergency service bands and broadcast fire and police radio to the audience. Cara would get stuck in the rigging, and Raul Julia was once locked in a spaceship suspended above the audience.
However, the lack of thought was easy to see with the initial title. Originally, it was supposed to be named “Up” and was to be performed at the Uris Theatre. Once pointed out, the name was quickly changed.
8 Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark
Take one outstanding director who had masterminded the million-dollar adaption of Disney’s Lion King for the stage. Add to that pop music royalty in the form of rock band U2. Finish this off with the most iconic superhero of all time. How could it fail?
The concept of a Spiderman musical had been floated when the first Spiderman movie proved a roaring success. However, problems began to appear when the producer, Tony Adams, had a stroke and passed away. A global financial crisis followed, in which many investors left the project. As well as facing a huge budget deficit, the musical also had numerous technical difficulties.
One of these involved the lead actor web-swinging above the audience but becoming stuck. This meant a crew member had to poke him down with a stick while he hung above the front two rows like a piñata.
The sophisticated equipment used for web-swinging across the theatre not only cost a lot to make but tended to injure performers. Concussions, broken wrists, and toes were all reported.
Even the music was lackluster. Rumors were that U2 had been so unfamiliar with musicals that a CD containing the best bits of 60 years of Broadway compiled onto it was burned for them. Imagine B-Sides from a mash-up of U2’s Joshua Tree and the Les Miserables soundtrack, and you may have some idea of what was in store.
7 Carrie: The Musical
At its core, Carrie is a horror film that deals with a female coming of age and menstruation. How anyone thought these themes would transfer to a musical format are unknown. Based on the novel by Stephen King, it lasted a mere five performances and is widely regarded as one of the biggest failures in the history of musicals.
The book from which it came had a very successful cinematic adaptation. The screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, and the composer, Michael Gore, decided to set about creating musical material. Gore had previous experience with the hit Fame, showing he should have known better.
Carrie debuted in the UK in 1988 and was besieged by technical problems from the onset. One actress quit on the first night after a close call when a stage piece almost decapitated her. The most famous scene in the book and the whole movie, in which Carrie gets covered in pig’s blood, kept shorting out the lead actress’s microphone.
When the show moved to the states, it was already dead in the water. The press was as cruel as Carrie’s tormentors in the actual story. Yet, oddly enough, in life mimicking art, despite loud boos from the audience, the show sold out every night. It was as if people enjoyed wallowing in the misery of a terrible production.
6 Moby Dick: A Whale of a Tale
Whale hunting and teenage girls as objects of sexual desire are concepts rightly consigned to the past. Imagine, then, a musical that combines both of these into one politically incorrect and uncomfortable stage play.
The musical was created by Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye. Originally, it was a silly, musical hall-style tale in which a girl’s school decided to put on a stage play of Moby Dick. Complete with a drag-wearing headmistress and laden with innuendo-based gags, it toured universities like an early version of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
After a string of sold-out shows, it was decided that the show needed a larger audience. It took up residency at the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End but faced terrible reviews and, after four months, was canceled. Although it did transfer to the states, it was toned down, and many of its contentious topics were removed.
5 Repo! The Genetic Opera
For this musical, we take a break from the stage and head to the big screen. If this movie was simply Repo! It would have a pretty good premise. Set in 2056, organ failure is plaguing the planet. GeneCo is a mega-corporation that provides replacements on a payment plan. Repo men are then hired to hunt down anyone who misses a payment and take the organs back for the company. It all sounds great… until the part where you turn this dark, dystopian story into an opera. Then cast Paris Hilton in it.
The movie has its genesis in a 2002 musical by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich. Smith had taken the inspiration from a friend’s bankruptcy, envisioning a future where body parts were viewed like property. It was a huge success, attracting gothic movie lovers in a similar vein to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This led to the creation of a ten-minute trailer used for pitching to movie studios.
Most of the movie’s promotion came not from Lionsgate, the film’s backers, but from the cast and writers, who did a road tour of the musical. It did little to buoy what was a plot that did not deliver and contained some pretty standard musical numbers. However, it gained Paris Hilton an award for the Worst Supporting Actress at the Golden Raspberry Awards, second only to her win for Worst Actress at the same event.
4 Raggedy Ann: The Musical Adventure
Before her first and last musical outing, Raggedy Ann had a decent career. A series of successful books by Johnny Gruelle led to a 1977 animated feature film featuring the character with her sidekick Raggedy Andy. However, for some unknown reason, it was decided that her musical outing would take a dark turn.
The story is about a dying child from a broken home. Her dolls come to life and take her on a mission to meet the Doll Doctor, who may have the ability to save her. While it does have a heartwarming ending where she reunites with her father, themes touch on everything from genocide to sex, none of which are suitable for children.
Only lasting three days, the musical fell off the radar after its cancellation. Bootleg recordings have kept the show alive, and attempts have even been made to revive it, with little success.
3 The Toxic Avenger
For anyone who knows the original Toxic Avenger movie and character, a musical makes a lot of sense. Created by cult movie studio Troma, the story tells the tale of a mild-mannered janitor who falls into a vat of toxic waste. He then becomes a crime fighter, overthrowing a corrupt mayor and ending up as the hero of the town. After starting as a flop, the movie developed a cult following with three sequels, videogames, and inexplicably, a children’s cartoon.
The tongue-in-cheek approach of the movie and character lends itself to a musical format, and as such, reviews were quite favorable, with a fair few awards given to it. Starting life at the New Brunswick Theatre in New Jersey, it then went on to tour the U.S. and perform in Australia, the UK, and several high-profile festivals across the world.
Despite not being a huge commercial hit, Starmites has longevity most musicals would be envious of. Running for two months on Broadway, it now even has a version available for children to perform. Starting in 1980, it has returned sporadically on and off for numerous different performances.
The story is about comic book-loving Eleanor, a shy teenager who often drifts into a fantasy world where she is the hero. It is one of these dreams in which the musical takes place, as the Starmites, Guardians of Inner Space, become involved in a battle with the Shak Graa. While it never set the world on fire, it is a good example of how to do a sci-fi musical without taking it so far it becomes laughable.
1 Evil Dead: The Musical
Everything is getting a musical as audiences clamor to find someplace to spend their dollars after venturing back into society. While many of them are lacking in quality, this one is actually good. Based on the cult Evil Dead movie series, the story follows a group of teenagers who unleash the undead and demonic entities while holidaying in the woods.
Part of its success is that, like Toxic Avenger, it carries the dry humor of its movie counterpart. It has one-liners, and the musical numbers written for the production are both great tunes and funny. It has now been performed over three hundred times around the world, though be warned if you go to see it that the audience does get covered in gore and guts, albeit fake.