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The strangest musicals of all time (for people who think Cats is too normal)
We’re only a few weeks away from finally being able to watch the big-screen adaptation of the musical Cats, and we couldn’t be more excited for the unknown chaos that awaits us. Ever since that first trailer dropped, the internet has been agog with chat of "digital fur technology," confusing body proportions, and the question that countless individuals have spent decades trying to answer to no avail: What the hell is going on?!
Musicals are inherently kind of bonkers. It’s a storytelling form that forces audiences to accept the decidedly ludicrous notion that people will stop what they’re doing to break out into song and dance numbers. To this day, musicals have many doubters but the form has helped to tell some of the most iconic and beautiful stories of the 20th and 21st century. Anything can be a musical if you’re talented enough, from the murderous tale of Sweeney Todd to Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½ to the history of Alexander Hamilton. Of course, for every success, there is a pile of failures left abandoned in the gutter, and sometimes, a musical is just too weird to ignore, for better or worse.
So, to celebrate Cats and to entertain those of you for whom the T.S. Eliot adaptation with singing cats who want to die and go to heaven is just a bit too mundane for your tastes, we present to you an array of some of the strangest musicals ever made.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
French director Bruno Dumont tends to make very dark and difficult films, but every now and then, he surprises with a comedy or, in this instance, a musical. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc tells the story of the early days of Jeanne, a young shepherdess whose pleas to God for an end to the Hundred Years War see her summoned by the Saints to drive the English out of France. This is all pretty familiar stuff to those who know the story of Joan of Arc, but Dumont decided to retell it as a metal musical. Yes, this is the movie where Joan of Arc and several nuns do some serious head-banging! Surprisingly, the film is remarkably earnest in its exploration of a young girl's faith and her commitment to her beliefs, even as people break out into song, electric guitars screech, and some of the worst dancing committed to celluloid happens. Dumont favors non-professional actors, so the quality of song, dance, and acting is, to put it politely, mixed. Still, there’s something deeply enthralling about this strange story with its homemade quality and the righteous combination of faith and metal.
The Silence of the Lambs is one of the greatest horror-thrillers of all time. It's most iconic elements, from Hannibal Lecter's slurp over fava beans to Buffalo Bill's lotion rant, have become the stuff of pop-culture legend and an endless stream of memes. Indeed, as gruesome and eternally terrifying as Silence of the Lambs is, it's also ripe for parody, so of course, someone had to make a jokey musical about it. The jokes fly thick and fast in Silence!, which began life in 2003 as an internet musical made up of nine songs that retold the entire story. The tracks became popular so quickly that the writers decided to turn them into a full show, which eventually enjoyed runs Off-Broadway and around the world. Silence! clearly knows its source material inside out and loves it enough to give it the mocking prod it deserves. It just makes us wish the TV series Hannibal had a few song and dance numbers.
Carrie: The Musical
For many decades, the term “Broadway musical flop” was synonymous with Carrie. With a then-exorbitant budget of $8 million, the show closed on Broadway after only 16 previews and 5 performances. The Royal Shakespeare Company of all groups decided to turn Stephen King’s iconic horror debut into a toe-tapping delight, only it didn’t seem to delight any audience member. Befitting of a notoriously strange flop about a telekinetic girl who causes havoc, Carrie was plagued with problems from the start. The set was ridiculously elaborate and almost decapitated one of the actors and the crew couldn't find a way to drench their leading lady in fake blood for the famous prom scene without causing her mike to malfunction! Most of this drama and the near-mythic proportions of the show’s infamy have come to define Carrie: The Musical more than its content. There are some genuinely great moments in the show but the tonal whiplash and maddeningly inconsistent quality render it a disappointment. A major rewrite of Carrie took place for the 2012 off-Broadway revival, which earned it many new fans, but sadly, they cut out the big musical number about killing a pig for its blood.
Here's a pitch for you: A musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Red Shoes set in modern-day New York and scored to the songs of Earth, Wind and Fire. Hot Feet had a catchy concept, sure, but that didn't make anyone all that interested in seeing it. The familiar story of a dancing girl and the cursed shoes that take over her body threw everything and the kitchen sink on the stage but the lion's share of critics declared it to be somewhere between a dull mediocrity and an unmitigated disaster. The New York Times compared its climactic ballet to Goddess in Showgirls, which is either the greatest compliment or most damning insult ever, depending on who you ask.
Anne Rice helped to dramatically redefine the vampire genre with her extensive series of lush, sensual novels centered on the brat prince himself, Lestat de Lioncourt. Her work earned her millions of fans and made her one of the most influential writers of vampire fiction since Bram Stoker brought Dracula into the world. Given the indelible mark that her work has left on pop culture at large, it’s something of a surprise that Rice’s books haven’t been adapted all that much beyond two movies, one of which was terrible. Two of the people who decided to rectify this glaring error were Bernie Taupin and Elton John! One of the most successful singer-songwriter duos of all time, John and Taupin had created some of the greatest pop songs ever and made plenty of major contributions to the musical form. Lestat was not one of them. Watching the show, which closed after 33 previews and 39 performances, you get the sense that nobody involved really likes the Vampire Chronicles all that much, or at the very least, they were overwhelmed by the scope of the series. These books are epic fictional biographies that often span hundreds of years and the musical simply couldn’t pull that off, especially when all the songs were pointlessly dull and sounded near-identical to one another. The sickest burn from a critic came from the New York Times, who wrote, "Joining the ranks of Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata and other prescription lullaby drugs is Lestat, the musical sleeping pill... Dare to look upon Lestat and keep your eyelids from growing heavier and heavier and heavier." Lestat once again proved that, like Dance of the Vampires, Broadway and vampire musicals do not mix. (Shockingly, the making of this musical did not appear in the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman.)
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
We could talk all damn day about the majestic train-wreck that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The show itself even calls itself “a $65 million circus tragedy” before correcting itself to note that it’s “actually more like 75.” Seriously, this show cost $75 million! That’s the budget for three and a half John Wicks! Was it worth it? Well, not precisely. The making of the musical itself may be stranger and more entertaining than the final product. Director Julie Taymor, who made Broadway magic with The Lion King, was essentially given a blank check to do with as she pleased, while music was provided by Bono and The Edge of U2 fame. Nobody involved seemed to have that much interest in the Spider-Man mythos beyond the first two Sam Raimi films and Taymor was more focused on telling a meta-musical reimagining of Greek mythology that involved a giant woman spider trying to f**k Peter Parker while sending her minions out to steal some shoes. That doesn’t even get into the madness of how many people were seriously injured while making this show. On one infamous occasion, they simply forgot to hook the stuntman into the harness and he fell into the orchestra pit! Eventually, Taymor was fired and the show extensively retooled before opening to meh reviews. Shockingly, the show never made back its exorbitant budget and the chances of a revival are next to impossible. To gross back that $75 million, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would have needed to sell out every single show for at least seven years. Still, we’ll always have the Green Goblin strutting his stuff.
Did you ever watch Jurassic Park as a kid and think that the dinosaurs got a really raw deal? If so then we've got a musical for you! Triassic Parq The Musical decides to skip past the human concerns of theme park profits and being eaten on the toilet to examine the societal fallout of this dino-society when one of their own begins to mutate from male to female. What follows is an examination of the rift between science and religion as this community's leader to try and banish the anomaly, leading to questions over the fallibility of dogma and the possibilities of evolution. And yes, this does all involve dinosaurs, plus a human narrator called Morgan Freeman, played by a white dude.
Andrew Lloyd Webber makes weird musicals. He first broke out with a toe-tapping rock opera about Jesus Christ, then he made a musical biopic about a South American dictator’s wife before bringing us the ceaselessly perplexing beauty of Cats. After that show became popular to a baffling degree, Lloyd Webber wanted to make a show for kids that was high on spectacle with a unique hook, so he turned to the beloved Thomas the Tank Engine stories for inspiration. The end result was Starlight Express, a show about toy trains where the entire cast sing, dance, and act on roller-skates. As expected, many people were seriously injured because, shock horror, skating at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour on a stage while dressed as a train is pretty tough work. The show was torn apart by critics but a hit with its intended audience and it’s still playing today in Germany, where it’s been continuously running for 31 years! The show has changed a lot over the years, with songs cut or added and new characters brought in to keep things "relevant", such as the Brexit train and the renaming of the Japanese bullet train to Manga. Hey, we never said subtlety was Andrew Lloyd-Webber's forte.
Galt MacDermot is the man behind one of the most radical counter-cultural musicals of the 20th century, Hair. His follow-ups never quite managed the same level of Broadway impact, but the biggest flop of his career is Via Galactica. Hair sought to document a specific era, one that changed history and culture at large and remains iconic to this day. Via Galactica decided to look towards the future and the space era of the 30th century, imagining a group of outcasts living on an asteroid in the year 2972. The hero of this tale is Gabriel Finn, an intergalactic trash man working on a garbage ship called the Helen of Troy. This show was going to have everything: Spaceships, actors flying across the stage, thousands upon thousands of ping-pong balls, a whole load of trampolines, and Raul freaking Julia in the lead, albeit painted blue. Writer Jennifer George, whose parents worked on the show, wrote about its failure for the New York Times, noting embarrassing moments such as when the spaceship got stick and Raul Julia was left hanging over the orchestra put for 20 minutes, and the actors' wireless microphones being on the same frequency as the local police precinct, leaving emergency call about local arrests to blare out instead of the show's song. The plot to Via Galactica was so notoriously incomprehensible that the Playbills had to include a plot synopsis just to keep audiences sane! Via Galactica closed after only seven performances, becoming one of the first Broadway shows to lose more than $1 million.
It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane… It’s Superman!
Many decades before Spider-Man crashed on Broadway, Superman made his mark in musical form. It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman debuted on Broadway in 1966 but failed to capture the attention of the theater-going public so closed after only 129 performances. A TV special was made in 1975, filmed over the course of three days, and boy, can you tell? The material itself isn't necessarily bad and at least you get the feeling these writers liked Superman a whole lot more than the creators of Turn off the Dark cared about Spider-Man, but it was all just a little too ahead of its time. Given the superhero genre’s stranglehold over pop culture at large for the past decade, we can’t help but wonder if a show like this is worth reviving with a more ambitious budget and the stagecraft to match. Or, at the very least, maybe we can convince Warner Bros. to add a few dance scenes to the next DCEU film.
Jerry Springer: The Opera
British comedy writers Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee were looking for a new way to examine and poke fun at American society in the era of George W. Bush but didn't necessarily want to take the easy route, so they put their heads together and thought about what, in their opinion, was the most fitting exemplification of the highs, lows, and pure madness of the American dream? Enter Jerry Springer and his amazingly vulgar talk show. Through some of the funniest and most profane songs committed to the musical genre, Jerry Springer: The Opera follows the eponymous agent of TV chaos as he hosts his show with the usual array of shocking guests — a grown man who likes to dress as a baby, a man cheating on his multiple girlfriends, a woman who wants to be a stripper but hasn't told her mother — before being shot and sent to hell to host his series with Jesus, Mary, and Adam and Eve as guests. The musical, of course, greatly angered many people, with Christian groups boycotting it and British politicians discussing its merits in Parliament. To this day, the show still inspires fury in some, especially moments where Jesus describes himself as “a little bit gay.” Blasphemy is always best when set to a good beat.