of the Spheres
Illustrations by Kurt Erichsen
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
-- 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.