Friday, October 18, 2013

Science Fiction and Fantasy Musicals

As well as loving the genre, I'm also a huge fan of musicals, so for me, there's little better than a genre musical!

I thought I'd share 15 rather notable ones.


There have been three musicals based on this Roald Dahl book.

The first, of course, was the brilliant Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film, starring the incomparable Gene Wilder. The film is over 40 years old, but the music still stands the tests of time.

Best song: So many great ones to choose from, but I'm going to settle for PURE IMAGINATION.

The second musical adaptation of the book kept the name of the book, and starred the equally-brilliant-but-very-different Johnny Depp. The film added some unusual (and unnecessary) backstory about Wonka's father, and although it generally stuck closer to the text (Verucca Salt's demise at the paws of the angry squirrels, and the Maharaja's chocolate palace being great examples), using the song lyrics as written in the book made for weaker musical interludes than in the first film, despite having Danny Elfman onboard to write the music.

Best song: AUGUSTUS GLOOP (though none of them are great)

The third (and latest) version opened in London's West End earlier this year (at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Again, named after the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stars Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, with Nigel Planer as Grampa Joe. The music is by Tony, Grammy and Emmy award-winner (and Oscar nominated) Marc Shaiman, who was responsible for the musical Hairspray, and much of the music in the (mainly excellent) TV series, Smash, and the show was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall).

This latest adaptation of the book is full of excellent songs, and some truly magical staging.The way the Oompa-Loomas are introduced is pure genius (no spoilers!). The inclusion of the Pure Imagination song near the end of the show is, however, a mistake. It's a brilliant song, but its inclusion undermines the great songs that precede it. It's as if the producers weren't confident enough in the rest of the music, and needed to bring in a fan-favourite.

Best song: WHEN VERUCA SAYS (with STRIKE THAT, REVERSE IT in close second place).

Sticking with Roald Dahl for the moment:


The book and movie are firm favourites in our house, and the stage musical doesn't disappoint. With music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and some of the best staging of any show currently running, this is a musical I'd be happy to watch time and time again. Indeed, the soundtrack is the most-listened album on my various devices. Currently playing at the Cambridge Theatre, London and the Shubert Theatre, New York.

Best songs: A toss-up between BRUCE (in which the whole school urges Bruce Bogtrotter to finish the giant cake he's being forced to consume) and WHEN I GROW UP (an enchanting peek into the minds of children as they describe what they think it'll be like when they're grown-ups).


Yes, there was a musical produced in early 1988 at Stratford Upon Avon (by the Royal Shakespeare Company) based on Stephen King's debut novel. The musical transferred to Broadway later in the season, to mainly poor reviews. In the original Stratford run, the actess playing Carrie (Linzi Hately) quit after opening night when she was nearly decapitated during the show. She agreed to stay on until a replacement was cast, but none was found, so she remained in the role for the show's entire 4 week run. The Broadway version closed after 5 performances, and was the most expensive flop in the history of Broadway musicals.

There have been several revivals of the show since, during which new songs have been added (and some removed). The show is currently running in San Francisco and Seattle, and a version is due in Los Angeles some time next year.



Based on the book by Gregory Maguire, Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz from her point of view. Hugely successful, and with a great plot (and plenty of heart), I found the non-musical sections to be the most interesting. Other than Popular and Defying Gravity, the I found the songs to be largely forgettable, though millions of people across the world will disagree with me. Great fun, despite the music (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz).

Best song: DEFYING GRAVITY, without a shadow of doubt.


Two hours of the most fun you will ever have at the theatre. Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and the 1950s movie Forbidden Planet, the show uses existing, well-known rock and roll songs (largely from the 1960s) and quotations from a whole host of Shakespeare's plays (though if you're not a Shakespeare nut you'll not be left scratching your head). And there's no orchestra - the cast play all the instruments!

A spaceship lands on a distant planet, having navigated a meteor shower, to discover a mad scientist, marooned on the planet with his daughter, Miranda and their robot, Ariel.

Best song: I'm Gonna Change the World (though full marks for using Great Balls of Fire during a meteor storm).


Based on a 1960 Roger Corman B-movie, the musical version is a pure delight. Seymour Krelborne is a loser, stuck in a job that's going nowhere, and living on Skid Row. He worships his co-worker Audrey from afar, but is too shy to ask her out, and anyway, she seems more interested in the masochistic dentist, Orin Scrivello (DDS). Seymour happens upon a tiny plant - it's like nothing he's ever seen before, and he waters it and nurtures it, but it simply wilts, until one day he accidentally pricks his finger and drips blood on the plant, which suddenly revives and starts to flourish - much like Seymour's prospects when people get wind of the phenomenal plant. Unfortunately, the plant turns out to be a carnivorous alien, intent on taking over the world. What's a guy to do ?

The film version (starring Rick Moranis as Seymour and Ellen Greene as the object of his affection, Audrey) is superb, though see the stage show if you can - there are more songs, and they're all worthwhile. The best song was written for the film, and has since made it's way back into the stage show. The stage show's ending is very different to that of the film, which was changed as it didn't play well with test audiences (who wanted their musicals to end on a more positive note rather than the wanton destruction of the original film ending).



There have been a number of attempts to reimagine this classic story, but even after nearly 75 years, none have managed to capture the innocence and wonder of the original.

The stage version of this has a number of songs not in the film, and they're pretty much all worthwhile, too.

Best song: If I don't say OVER THE RAINBOW I'll get lynched. So, I'm going to choose THE LOLLIPOP GUILD, just to be awkward.


Basically, Sesame Street for adults. As with Sesame Street there are humans (playing humans), there are humans (as puppets) and there are monsters (puppets). The puppets are all played by actors who carry the puppets around, and who are in full view of the audience. It shouldn't work, but it does. Avenue Q is the story of Princeton - a young lad, recently graduated with a BA in English, trying to find his way in the world. He winds up on Avenue Q - a run-down area of town, populated by the na ve Kate Monster, the internet porn-addicted Trekkie Monster, failed stand-up comedian Brian and Gary Coleman (from TV's Different Strokes, though he's now working as the superintendent/handyman of the street), among others. If you enjoyed Sesame Street when you were a kid, and if you're curious about full-on puppet sex, this is the show for you! Brilliant from start to finish.



One of my all-time favourite musicals, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The lead characters of all your favourite fairy stories together in one show. The Baker and his wife are sent on a quest by the wicket witch who lives next door. If they can find various items in time she will reverse the curse placed on their family, and they will be able to conceive a child. This means grabbing Red Riding Hood's cape, Jack's cow and Cinderella's slipper.

The show has all the humour we've come to expect from Sondheim, with the lyrical trickery of a master at the top of his game. If you like Bill Willingham's Fables comic, you'll love this. A star-studded film version is in production for release in December 2014.

Best song: AGONY (two Handsome Princes compare their failures) or HELLO, LITTLE GIRL/I KNOW THINGS NOW (in which the big bad wolf tempts Red Riding Hood to stray from the path of innocence).


Filmed as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's a brilliant rock musical tribute to the science fiction B-movie. Brad and Janet's car breaks down and they walk through the rain to an old castle in the distance where they stop to ask for the use of their telephone. From there, they meet aliens, a revived corpse and a newly-created hunk (the Rocky Horror of the title), and discover a whole world of sexual pleasure they never knew existed.

Best song: DON'T DREAM IT, BE IT (though THE TIME WARP comes close due to its ability to get folk onto the dance floor).

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of

The War of the Worlds

This tells the classic Wells story of the Martian invasion of Earth. There is very little dialogue, the story being told mainly through music and songs. A recent stage tour sold out, though the CD/mp3 set remains the definitive version. The tale is narrated by Richard Burton, whose dulcet tones almost make you forget that the character he plays is one of the least effective protagonists in literary history. At no point does he actually do anything, except get swept along by events, and report on them to the listener (the character is a journalist by trade, so this isn't entirely surprising).



The classic tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as seen through a Monty Python filter. If you're a huge fan of Monty Python and would quite like to see someone onstage recreating their most famous sketches, loosely tied together in a narrative based on their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail then this is for you. Personally (and I love Python) I found it lacking.



A truly awful musical, which nevertheless became the longest-running musical at London's Dominion Theatre. The show is by Ben Elton, with music by Queen. Set 300 years in the future, Earth (now called iPlanet) is controlled by Globalsoft Corporation. Confirmity is king - everyone watches the same movies, listens to the same computer-generated music and everyone thinks the same. A group of kids start to rebel against the Corporation, and rediscover music and freedom. Utter tosh from start to finish, and an insult to Queen's legacy.

Best song: It's a Best-Of compilation, so too many from which to choose. Let's go with THESE ARE THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES or PLAY THE GAME, but really you could put a pin in the song-list and I probably wouldn't argue with the result.

Have you seen any of these shows?

What did you think?

What about the genre musicals I've left out?
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