Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008

Still and all, I'd love to see Carrie on stage...

Music(als) of the Spheres

Mike Resnick

Illustrations by Kurt Erichsen

 

Guy Lillian tells me that the theme of this issue will be music. I don't know enough about music to set myself up as an authority, but if there's one thing I do know, it's the musical theatre -- and you'd be surprised at how many musical plays are, by definition, either fantasy or science fiction. (You'd be surprised at this instant; hopefully when you finish the article you won't be.)

The list of shows and thumbnail sketches doesn't purport to be all-inclusive; I mean, hell, there are a lot of flops that I never got to see, hear, or even know about. But I'd say, in all immodesty, that it's about as complete a list as you're likely to find until Laura Turtledove, my long-time musical video/audio/bootleg trading partner, sits down and adds to it.

There are certain shows I'm not going to include, because they're just a little too marginal to claim they are true-blue science fiction or fantasy. Examples would be Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off and Tommy. And there's another class of show I chose not to list, and those are musicals that accept the divinity of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Holy Bible, shows like Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; I'm going to proceed on the assumption that if you are a Christian you don't consider these shows to be fantasy, and to suggest otherwise would be offensive to your beliefs, a line of argument I'll leave to the Islamic Jihadists.

Okay, all that said, here is the list of musicals that can, by any reasonable definition, be considered fantasy or science fiction. I think you'll find some interesting surprises on it.

Aladdin. Hard to complain about a Cole Porter musical, especially with a libretto by S. J. Perleman. Originally produced for television, with a cast including Basil Rathbone, Cyril Ritchard, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and (oh well) Sal Mineo, it was later mounted on the British stage.

Amour. Michel Legrand has scored over 200 films, and won some Oscars. He's done a lot less musicals, and for his first in decades he chose Amour, a brilliant and charming fantasy based on the French fable about a man who walks through walls. It ran for years in Paris, and to New York's everlasting shame, it ran for only three weeks back in 2002, despite a cast that included Tony-nominated performances from Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico.

The Apple Tree, the first show written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick after their wildly-successful Fiddler on the Roof, this is actually three one-act musicals, the first ("The Apple Tree", from Mark Twain) and third ("Passionella" from Jules Feiffer) are fantasies. It made a star out of Barbara Harris in 1967, and reaffirmed star status for Kristen Chenoweth in a 2006 revival.

Bat Boy, a camp "sci-fi" piece of nonsense with songs by Laurence O'Keefe, is more bad parody than bad science fiction, but has just enough of the latter to qualify. And be instantly forgotten.

Beauty and the Beast. Unlike The Lion King, with its wildly creative costumes and sets, if you saw the Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast, there's no reason to spend your money on the Broadway version. The Howard Ashman/Alan Menken score is fine, the actors were excellent, the story is classic -- but the score was fine (and just about identical) in the movie, no one on stage was going to match the voice-overs of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach, and the story was the same.

Big, the musical version of the less-than-brilliant film about a 12-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself in an adult's body, has a score by Richard Maltby and David Shire, every bit as unmemorable as the plot, and is yet another of those endless musicalizations of mediocre movies that makes you wonder why anyone bothered in the first place.

Brigadoon. Lerner & Loewe's first hit, it's a pleasant fantasy about a Scotch town than comes into existence once every hundred years. The movie was turned into a Gene Kelly vehicle, but the play, though not among the top rank, still holds up.

The Bone Room. Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's artiest play, this is about a menage a trois at the Natural History Museum between a young girl, an old man, and Death. It was shown to invited audiences only, back in 1977.

Camelot. Anything that includes Excalibur and Modred has to qualify as a fantasy, including this Lerner & Loewe hit. Every scene was nice -- but there were so many of them. I felt like I'd read all 250,000 words of the book when the play finally let out.

Carousel. Rodgers & Hammerstein's second major hit (after Oklahoma!), part of it takes place in Heaven, and Billy Bigelow comes back to Earth after his death to advise and guide is daughter, so it's clearly a fantasy.

Carrie. This is generally considered the single worst big-budget musical ever produced. Based on Stephen King's bestselling novel, it is so notorious that a book cataloguing the Broadway Musical Flop from the 1940s to the present is titled Not Since Carrie, because whenever a new turkey opens, the reviews tend to begin with "Not since Carrie (has there been such an abomination)". The wild part is two of Broadway's great divas agreed to play Carrie's mother. Barbara Cook created the part, realized just what she'd stepped in, quit, and they then hired Betty Buckley, who got to sing an aria and two reprises to snickering audiences while being drenched with blood from a severed carotid artery.

Cats. Every character is a cat, and one of them ascends to Heaven while onstage, so it's clearly a fantasy. Brilliant dancing, totally without any meaning. (What do I mean? Every dance in West Side Story furthers the plot. Every dance in Cats serves no purpose except to show you that the performers can dance.) Pedestrian score, mediocre lyrics.

Celebration, by the brilliant team of Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt, is an allegory about the Winter Equinox, and about youth and age. It should have been performed on a small off-Broadway stage like the same team's The Fantasticks, rather than in a huge Broadway theater where it lost all its intimacy and charm. The play flopped -- I blame the theater, not the cast or material -- but all small-theater revivals have been successful.

Charly and Algernon. It's an easy argument to make that "Flowers for Algernon" is, if not the single greatest novella ever to grace the field of science fiction, surely one of the half-dozen best. But absolutely nothing about it lends itself to becoming a musical, even with that old Phantom of the Opera, Michael Crawford, playing Charly Gordon. It opened in London, flopped, got rewritten/revamped, came to the States, substituted P. J. Benjamin for Crawford, and flopped again.

Cinderella. Rodgers & Hammerstein created this for Julie Andrews as a television original, but because they were savvy marketers it didn't end there, and the play (without Andrews) eventually hit the New York and London stage, complete with fairy godmother.

City of Angels. A brilliant conceit, with libretto by Larry Gelbart and featuring Cy Coleman's finest score. This is the story of a mystery writer who is selling out to Hollywood, and it is also the story he's busily emasculating, told on one half of the stage in black and white, while his own story is told, in color, on the other half. It qualifies as fantasy, because at one point the private eye steps out of his own story to confront the author and castigate him for selling out.

A Connecticut Yankee is a 1927 play with a score by Rodgers & Hart, based on a 19th Century Mark Twain tale about a modern man who winds up in King Arthur's court, and proves that when you're good, it doesn't matter how old you are.

Damn Yankees. Pleasant show, pleasant score. History has come full cycle. This play, about a ballplayer on the Washington Senators making a deal with the devil, only works when you can hate the New York Yankees, so no one performed it in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Then George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees and pours hundreds of millions into them, and it's been popular ever since.

Dandelion Wine. At least most of the flops listed here made it to New York, or at least into production somewhere. Not Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, surely one of the most beautiful books to appear in the 20th Century. I have the studio demo tape, and there's a reason: not only are the songs completely unmemorable, but no boy whose voice is still a falsetto can carry a musical play for two hours.

Dracula -- The Musical. About what you'd expect. Big budget, fancy costumes, unexceptional music, totally uninspired lyrics. Big yawn.

Evening Primrose. Not really a Broadway play at all, but a written-for-TV musical that was performed only once, back in 1967. By the brilliant team of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman, it's based on John Collier's horror fantasy about people passing themselves off as manikins in a department store, then moving about at night. Fine songs, but totally unnecessary to the story. I include it because, despite its history, there are two different cast recordings.

The Fantasticks. A charming fantasy by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt, it plays games with time and with reality, it pulls actors it needs out of a stage trunk, it has a wall that looks and feels exactly like a yardstick -- any way you analyze it, it's a fantasy. And since it's the longest-running play in the history of the musical theatre -- 42 years! -- I'll be damned if I'm going to be the one to criticize it. (Besides, I love it.)

Finian's Rainbow. Burton Lane has some classics in this score, such as "Old Devil Moon", but the play and the score are pretty antiquated. Still, there's a leprechaun's role that actors from David Wayne to Fred Astaire to Malcolm Gets kill for, so I guess it'll keep getting revived, antique or not. And, thanks to the leprechaun and his magic, it's a fantasy.

Frankenstein -- The Musical. This one had some promise, primarily because it followed the book and not the movie, and hence presented the monster as an object of sympathy -- but the score and libretto just weren't good enough.

MoRe MusiCaLs

 

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