Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008


Music(als) of the Spheres (Part 2)

Mike Resnick

Illustrations by Kurt Erichsen

(Part 1)

The Frogs. Stephen Sondheim's musical based on the play by Aristophanes, this one's lasting fame comes, alas, not from its quality (it hasn't got much), but because it was first performed in the swimming pool at Yale, with Meryl Streep and a couple of other future superstars in the chorus. It has singing, dancing frogs, it borrows characters from all over history, and is unquestionably a fantasy. Nathan Lane rewrote the libretto and starred in a Broadway revival; it didn't fare any better than the original.

Goblin Market was an avant-garde off-Broadway two-woman show, as strange as a musical version of Waiting For Godot would have been. It's based on a fairy tale in verse, more about sex and fear than fantasy, and it sank pretty quickly. I don't believe it's ever been revived, and I'm not surprised.

The Golden Apple, a lost classic (i.e., critics love it, audiences don't), this musical is based on The Illiad and The Oddysey, as is another further down the list. This one's by far the superior show, but it's pretty antiquated.

Greenwillow. The lovely fantasy novel by B. J. Chute was Frank Loesser's only flop, but it was the book that was weak, not the score. Tony Perkins starred as Gideon Briggs, the young man cursed with wanderlust, and while his voice wasn't much, he was well-trained and managed to hit all the right notes in a score that was written for a much better singer.

Grover's Corners. Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Probably their most brilliant work -- and since everyone in Act 3 is dead, it certainly qualifies as fantasy.

High Spirits, a musical version of Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit, with songs by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, was everything it was supposed to be: funny, witty, irreverent, sophisticated...and one thing it wasn't supposed to be: forgettable.

Into the Woods. Broadway's reigning genius, Stephen Sondheim, turns a bunch of fairy tales into a dark, grim, adult entertainment. Far from his best score, but so far above average as to put you in awe of what he can do when he's not at his sharpest.

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman! Pay no attention to the horrible, emasculated version of this that played on late-night TV a couple of decades ago. The Broadway show was a delight, with a wonderful Strousse and Adams score, a pair of hilarious star turns by Jack Cassidy and Michael O'Sullivan, a proper Superman in Bob Holliday, and sets that looked like they were comic book panels.

Jekyll and Hyde -- The Musical. Broadway just seems to love mounting big-budget turkeys based on great horror novels. This one was better than Frankenstein and Dracula, actually ran for over a year, was well-acted and well-sung, had gorgeous sets and costumes -- but it had the usual problem: mediocre, unmemorable music and lyrics.

Kiss of the Spider Woman. Based on the straight play (and movie) of the same name, starring Chita Rivera, this qualifies as a fantasy simply because the prisoner spends half the play fantasizing about Rivera's singing and dancing Spider Woman.

The Lion King. Silly story, good but not outstanding music -- but it also has the most imaginative costumes and sets ever seen on Broadway, and some wildly creative choreography.

Li'l Abner, the hit musical based on Al Capp's classic comic strip, isn't on this list because it's a comic strip. (Annie, you'll note, isn't here.) Nope, it's because at one point the women of Dogpatch pay some scientists to turn their men into gorgeous beach bums...but then the men just lay there, admiring their muscles, and the women have to come up with the money to put 'em back the way they wuz (to quote one of the songs).

Little Shop of Horrors may be the only science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) musical that was a bonafide hit. (Of course, playing in a very small off-Broadway house with a low overhead didn't hurt.) There's no getting away from its charm, most of which was supplied by the magnificent Ellen Greene, who reprised her role in the watered-down budgeted-up movie. Very witty score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

Lord of the Rings. I haven't seen or heard it -- it's still on its tryout tour somewhere up in Canada as I write these words -- but it's clearly a fantasy, and given the popularity of the books and films, I'd have to say it's a cinch to hit Broadway sooner or later no matter how inept it is. Since we're going to be stuck with it regardless, let's hope it's a good one.

Mary Poppins. Another Disney movie turned into a Broadway musical -- and as with most of them, if you saw the film, you already know the story and songs, and no one's going to perform them better than Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, so why was this trip necessary?

Merlin was an interesting conceit. Veteran film scorer Elmer Bernstein moved to Broadway to create a musical about Merlin the magician. It starred (read: wasted) Chita Rivera and Nathan Lane, and existed only to let magician Doug Henning, who could neither act, sing nor dance, dazzle the audience with his tricks as Merlin. A two-hour magic show would have had a much longer run and more appreciative audience.

Metropolis. This travesty was based on the creaky old Fritz Lang silent movie, and starred Brian Blessed, who should have known better. We saw it during previews in London, and thought it surprising that 5th row orchestra seats were still available. It became a lot less surprising ten minutes into the play, when, to show the working conditions for the oppressed underground, the stage was flooded with smoke -- which immediately turned left and spread out over the first dozen rows of the audience, choking and blinding us. And it did the same thing four times during the performance. So we had to rely on our ears, but the audience (those not yet overcome by smoke) was so busy laughing and snickering at all the tragic scenes that we never did find out exactly what anyone was saying. Probably just as well.

The Odyssey was the first musical by Mitch Leigh after he wrote Man of La Mancha. He should have rested on his laurels. Based on The Illiad and The Odyssey, it starred Yul Brynner and Joan Diener, and it was awful. They re-wrote songs, they rewrote the libretto, they re-cast everything but the two leads -- and it was still awful. And then one of the producers got a brilliant idea: okay, the play stinks, it'll never go in New York -- but most of the people out there in Hicksville have never see Yul Brynner, so why don't we lengthen the pre-Broadway tour from six weeks to eighteen months? And they did, and they played to packed houses (and bad reviews) everywhere, and by the time they opened in New York under a brand-new name, Home Sweet Homer, they'd made their expenses. The play ran for a single performance -- most Manhattan critics argued that it should have folded by the middle of Scene 3 -- and was never heard from again. But because there were Greek gods, at least when I saw it during its pre-Broadway run in Chicago -- it's a fantasy.

Olympus on my Mind is a musical based on Amphitryon, or, to put it in more palatable terms (and I wish the librettist had), it's kind of a song-and-dance version of Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods, but with maybe a tenth of the wit. Still, any play that's got Jupiter coming down from the mountain cruising for chicks has to qualify as a legitimate fantasy.

One Touch of Venus is the great Kurt Weill's one musical fantasy, with lyrics by Ogden Nash, about what happens when the statue of Venus comes to life. It was made into a rather dull film with Ava Gardner, but the play is actually quite a funny low comedy.

Out of this World, one of Cole Porter's few flops. This, like Olympus on my Mind, is based on Amphitryon. Didn't fare any better, though of course it has a far superior score.

Peter Pan. Everyone remembers Mary Martin "flying" on very visible strings in one of the many TV versions of this hit Broadway musical, but the play had a lot more to it than her Pan and Cyril Ritchard's Hook. For one thing, it had fine lyrics by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolf Greene, and excellent direction/choreography by Jerome Robbins. (Almost forgotten now is that Mary Martin didn't originate the part; the first, and longest-running, Peter Pan was Maude Adams.) (And another side note: the name "Wendy" didn't exist until James Barrie created it for the original play.)

Portrait of Jennie. This musical adaptation of Robert Nathan's fantasy novel, maybe the first and surely the most moving time-dilation romance, won the Richard Rodgers Award for best off-Broadway musical about a quarter of a century ago. The brilliant score consists of music by Howard Marren and lyrics by Enid Futterman.

Return to the Forbidden Planet. A totally unmemorable British musical (I don't believe it ever made it to America), it's got a derivative score and a silly script and, alas (or given its quality, maybe not so alas) has nothing to do with the classic movie, Forbidden Planet.

The Rocky Horror Show. It's a pretty silly play, with totally forgettable music, but there are enough references to science fiction, and enough out-and-out weirdness, that it qualifies. Too bad; I wish it didn't.

Seussical. Nice enough score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, but that was close to the only nice thing about this fantasy musical based on the poems and stories of Dr. Seuss. Even Rosie O'Donnell's joining the cast couldn't save it; in fact, a considerable body of opinion feels that her performance hastened its death.

Shinbone Alley. Originally just a record featuring Carol Channing and Eddie Bracken, they finally turned it until a charming full-fledged musical play. It's based on Don Marquis' "archy and mehitibel" story-poems, and every character in it is a cat or a cockroach.

Spamalot, the Eric Idle-scripted musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The music is totally unmemorable, and the play is totally uncreative -- by which I mean, the audience continually laughed before the punch lines. It was written for Python-worshippers, and while there were enough of them to put the show into profit, I don't think it's going to be revived very often, nor should it be.

Starlight Express, another of Andrew Lloyd Webber's mystifying hits (in England; he's only had three major hits here), every cast member in this one is a train engine or train car, and each of them is on roller skates for the entire show. A major race between Steam and Diesel takes place through the entire theater, with the performers skating on ramps just a few feet above the audience's heads. There was a certain charm to parts of it, but the overall impression you come away with is Silly.

Starmites. This one's almost forgotten today, though it got six Tony nominations just a few years ago. With a score by Barry Keating, it's a musical about a teenaged girl who builds a fantasy world populated by her favorite comic book characters.

Tarzan. It probably seemed a good idea. Disney created musical plays that were wildly creative, as well as a shade above mediocre in quality, with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and came away with two long-running megahits. So why not do the same with Tarzan? Well, singing dancing apes, and a star fresh off American Idol, were two pretty good reasons why not.

Two by Two, written especially for Danny Kaye's return to Broadway, was the musical version of Noah (hence the title). Unfortunately, despite a score by Richard Rodgers, it didn't have a single memorable song or scene in it, and Kaye so offended the rest of the cast that no one worked very hard to keep the crippled ark afloat.

Urinetown. The play's an allegory, but since it's about a future in which an Evil Corporation controls every restroom in town, it qualifies as science fiction. And very witty science fiction, too, with a score by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis that's almost too clever.

Via Galactia. Unquestionably the worst science fiction musical ever to make it to Broadway (Carrie was a fantasy), this hodgepodge was so confused and confusing that the producers attempted a never-before-tried innovation: they handed out a synopsis along with the Playbill, so the audience would have some slight notion of what was going on. It didn't help.

Weird Romance should be of special interest to science fiction fans, and I'll bet 99% of them have never heard of it. The score is by Alan Menken, and it consists of two one-act musical plays. One was adapted of a Twilight Zone episode; the other is a musical version of James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In."

Wicked. A delightful, charming musical based on the bestseller about Oz's Good Witch and Bad Witch when they were friends back in school. Idena Menzel won the Tony as the Bad Witch, but it was Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, the Good Witch, who charmed the sellout crowds and came away a superstar.

The Wiz. A hit all-black musical based on The Wizard of Oz, with songs by Charlie Smalls. Geoffrey Holder's direction, choreography and costumes (he's a man of many talents) helped audiences forget that they knew the story inside-out and that the songs in the MGM movie were better.

Zombie Prom. The title, alas, says it all. Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey created a score that was too good for the plot, which is about a high school zombie who wants to attend the prom and reclaim the love of his popular girlfriend. Honest. So don't ever come up to me and tell me an idea is too dumb to make into an expensive musical flop.

One Month Later


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