How Science Fiction Musicals Work

Dad's Garage Rocky Horror cast
Photo by Linnea Frye, courtesy Dad's Garage
The 2005 cast of "The Rocky Horror Show" at Dad's Garage Theater in Atlanta, Ga.

At first glance, science fiction and musical theater seem dissimilar. A sci-fi epic like "Babylon 5," for example, resists comparison to a musical like "Oklahoma!" In space, there is no wind to come sweeping down the plain, and hardly anyone bursts into song.

The two genres have a few things in common, though. Both are elaborate and expensive. While a stage play or sitcom can get by with a few actors and a minimal or recycled set, musicals and sci-fi shows require sets, costumes and make-up that are intricate and unique. They also present something unusual (spontaneous singing, encounters with alien races) as though it were ordinary. Neither tends to inspire ambivalence -- people tend to either love them or hate them.

When the "Lord of the Rings" musical opened in Toronto, the HowStuffWorks staff started thinking about what happens when musicals mesh with science fiction and fantasy. In the process, we came up with a couple of rules for what can make such a project work. In this article, you'll learn what we discovered about real and theoretical sci-fi musicals.

Musicals and science fiction are both a little removed from reality, sometimes to the point of being silly. But rather than trying to shrug off the silliness, the most successful original productions dive right into it.

The most well-known sci-fi musical is Richard O'Brien's "The Rocky Horror Show". In it, ostensibly clean-cut Brad Majors and Janet Weiss wind up stranded at a castle. They initially believe it to be "some kind of hunting lodge for rich weirdos," but it turns out to be the home of transvestite Transylvanian Frank-N-Furter. Hijacks or horrors ensue, depending on your point of view. The resulting musical involves nearly nonstop music, lasers, lots of underwear, the Time Warp and an audio-vibratory-physio-molecular transport device.

The film adaptation "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," in which O'Brien played Riff Raff, has somewhat overshadowed the original stage play, although groups still perform and tour with it. At theatrical showings of the film, which usually play at midnight, fans dress up, shout at the screen and throw things like rice, toast and toilet paper. A cast of actors often acts out the movie in a shadow play in front of the screen.

The runner up for the most famous (or infamous) original sci-fi musical is "Little Shop of Horrors." This musical bends the "original" rule a little, since it's based on a 1960s Roger Corman film. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who worked on Disney musicals like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," adapted the movie into a musical. The musical was then adapted into another film in 1986.

It doesn't have the midnight showing notoriety of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," but "Little Shop of Horrors" does have a devoted fan base. The two shows are also on equal footing in terms of absurdity. In the place of a floor show and laser guns, "Little Shop of Horrors" has a trio of do-wop girls and a man-eating plant. And as with "The Rocky Horror Show," theater groups still perform and tour with the show.

These musicals are both wacky. They follow our first rule of sci-fi musicals -- embrace the absurdity. Rather than trying to make an inherently goofy idea seem serious or legitimate, they cross the line into the weird and silly in a way that works.

Musicals based on existing sci-fi works have to do this, too. We'll look at a few in the next section.

"Once More, With Feeling"

Image courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper
The musical episode of "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" resists easy classification. It's a derivative work, since it took place in the sixth season of the TV show. But it's also original -- the episode tells a new story rather than re-telling an existing one.

Derivatives and the Future

Photo by Jax Kirtley, courtesy MIT Musical Theater Guild Archivist
From MIT's "Star Wars Trilogy: Musical Edition": Admiral Ackbar celebrates with Mon Mothma as the Death Star's shield goes down and the fighters are free to attack.

The "Lord of the Rings" musical that premiered in Toronto in March of 2006 is a three and a half hour show with two intermissions. The high-tech production includes a 40-ton revolving stage complete with elevators and moving platforms. While some critics have praised its spectacle, others have called it confusing, boring and overlong. Fans have traveled from around the world to see the show, athough Tolkien purists argue that it shouldn't even exist.

If hard-core "Lord of the Rings" fans are the only people who end up seeing and enjoying the show, the musical may never repay its $28 million price tag. This is one of the perils of a derivative musical, one that grows from an existing body of work. The revenue from ticket and merchandise sales may never outweigh the amount of money required to create a show that lives up to the existing work's precedent. On top of that, to be successful, a derivative musical has to serve two masters -- the hardcore fans and average theater goers.

This is one of the reasons why the derivative musicals that make the news are usually fan productions rather than full-scale professional performances. A group of fans can come up with creative ideas on how to approach a musical, write it, stage it, perform it and record it with relatively little expense. When shows like these premiere, usually in a school auditorium or ballrooms at a conventions, it's often to packed houses and standing ovations.

Here are a few examples of low-budget, derivative musicals:

"Shoggoth on the Roof" is a musical that combines the work of H.P. Lovecraft with the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." An unnamed author penned the libretto, and Sean Branney and Andrew Leman restored it, much the way William Goldman "edited" "The Princess Bride." (In case you're wondering, a musical version of "The Princess Bride" is in the works, too. It's a collaboration between Goldman and composer Adam Guttel.) You can watch the entirety of "Shoggoth on the Roof" at Cthulhu Lives.

In addition to a one-man show, "Star Wars" has spawned at least three musicals in the last few years:

  • Students and alumni from MIT wrote and performed "Star Wars Trilogy: Musical Edition", including a performance at "Star Wars" fan festival Celebration III. This musical combines the plot of "Star Wars" with music from well-known Broadway plays.
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  • "Star Wars: The Musical" existed only as a concept album from 1999 until December of 2005, when an ensemble performed it at the Florida District III Thespian Festival. Unlike "Shoggoth on the Roof" or "Star Wars: Musical Edition," "Star Wars: The Musical" uses entirely original music and lyrics.
  • ­Kevin Bayuk, Garrin Hajeian and John Zuckerman created another "Star Wars: The Musical". This show had two performances on May 24 and 25, 1996 at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Peforming Arts Center in Rolling Hills, California.

Image courtesy Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Performing Arts Center

Each of these musicals embraces the absurdity of the idea, just like "The Rocky Horror Show" or "Little Shop of Horrors." They also have another important thing in common -- they use a little to do a lot. A low-budget fan musical can have more heart and more success with fans than a big-budget extravaganza.

We'd Like to See...
Some works of science fiction lend themselves more easily to musical adaptation than others. Here are some of our ideas:

  • "Tell Me Of the Musicals of your Homeworld, Usul": The sometimes understated score in David Lynch's 1984 version of "Dune" doesn't generally inspire thoughts of a Broadway musical. The big exception is the sudden guitar riff when Paul Muad'Dib rides the sandworm. "Dune" would be best suited to a rock musical, and choreographers and costumers alike could have a field day with the Fremen in their stillsuits.

  • "Do Androids Dream of Broadway Lights?": "Blade Runner"'s score has some musical similarities to "Dune"'s -- the two would make a good double feature. A derivative adaptation would probably have to feature Pris in an extended dance number. An original work could pit the humans against the replicants in a manner similar to "West Side Story."

  • "Where No Libretto has Gone Before": The many iterations of "Star Trek" (and their many seasons) have generated lots of material for musical parody. But the show also lends itself to something a little nobler -- a musical drama of the two-part episode "Chain of Command." The show would include a musical soliloquy, sung by Captain Picard at the hands of the Cardassians, called "There Are Four Lights."

  • "The Companion and I": No sci-fi list is complete without "Doctor Who," and no "Doctor Who" musical would be complete without a chorus line of eerily dancing Daleks.

For lots more information on sci-fi musicals and related information, check out the links on the next page.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" isn't exactly science fiction, but "Spamalot" is a wildly successful musical that builds on that material. On top of its critical acclaim, the show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Director and Best Featured Actress.


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