When the DC/CW TV universe fleshed out its roster with not one but two “Glee” alumni, the idea of a musical episode in the vein of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” beloved “Once More With Feeling” seemed inevitable. Yet, for a lot of us, it was hard to shake the sense that song and dance superheroes were unprecedented. Sure, musicals and comic books are both topping the box office of late, but could they really come together?
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Well, it turns out this is hardly the first time those boxes of word bubbles and Ben-Day dots swung from the comic book page to the Great White Way. Superheroes and comic strip characters have been singing on stage and screen for a full century now, a tradition that began when Herman Darewski brought Bruce Bairnsfather’s “Fragments From France” cartoon to the great British music halls of 1917. Not all of them had long runs or Oscar-winning scores, but they’re all a piece of history in this unique and often surprising genre.
15. POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN
Popeye had been seen on screen before in those classic Fleischer cartoons of yesteryear, but it wasn’t until 1980’s “Popeye” that he’d be given the live action film treatment, and in addition to eating his greens and fightin’ real mean, he’d also do a little soft shoe. That’s because superstar producer Robert Evans had wanted the rights to a different, iconic comic strip musical (more on that one later). When he couldn’t get them, he decided he’d simply craft his own, plucking “Popeye” out of thin air and hiring comic book legend Jules Pfeifer to helm the script.
It was poor choices past that point that doomed the musical adaptation, from selecting the slow-paced, introspective Robert Altman (“Nashville,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”) to direct the whimsical story, to hiring Harry Nilsson to compose a score that, at its most upbeat, still makes every track play like a funeral dirge. Indeed only one song from the film, Olive Oyl’s “He Needs Me,” is remotely memorable, and that’s only due to its later use in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002.
From card games to television to toys, it was impossible to escape the “Pokemon” craze of the late 90’s, yet its still shocking to imagine an oversized Bulbasaur treading the same stage as the Rockettes. Yet at Radio City Music Hall and across the USA (as well as Portugal and Dubai), a high-note hitting Ash hunted down the one-of-a-kind Diamond Badge, fought Team Rocket and their new MechaMew2, and found time to belt out the I-guess-they-count-as songs from the “2 Be A Master” tie-in album, accompanied by puppeteer Pokemon a la Broadway’s “The Lion King”.
With bland songs and humor both broad and on occasion painful (there’s a bizarre “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke that hasn’t aged terribly well), “Pokemon Live!” is largely forgotten in the franchise’s history, notable only for being the New York stage debut of Tony nominee and “Girls” star Andrew Rannells in a memorable turn as Team Rocket’s James.
Garry Trudeau is a genius of the comic strip medium. With his award-winning “Doonesbury”, he managed to make the “sunday funnies” feel not only subversive, but downright dangerous. That is why it’s so surprising that his Broadway debut, for which he took a two-year hiatus from the strip to craft, is so staggeringly bland.
True, the first time songs were heard in the Doonesbury world was in the 1977 Oscar nominated “A Doonesbury Special,” where Johnny Pudsucker crooned two tunes, but it was 1983 when the whole Walden college gang took to the stage. Gone was the satirical edge that laced most of the beloved college kids of Trudeau’s work, replaced instead with cliches spilled over from the ’70s “rock musical” boom. Only one number, “It’s a Good Time To Be Rich,” comes close to hitting the type of social indictment usually buried in “Doonesbury”’s humor, and when even the outrageous Uncle Duke can’t score some laughs, you know things aren’t quite working.
Perhaps the most infamous superpowered Broadway flop before a certain accident-prone web-slinger, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” survived only 4 months on Broadway, with ticket sales that made a battle with Doomsday feel enviable. Later revived and “revamped” for TV in 1975, the only existing footage of this curio reminds us how fortunate we were for Richard Donner’s “Superman” three years later.
Hoping for a heartfelt ballad from Lex Luthor? Sorry, Strouse & Adams inexplicably ignore Superman’s entire rogue’s gallery in favor of a groping and griping Daily Planet reporter named Max Mencken. The show mines all its humor from the very idea of Superman, lampooning every aspect of the world of Metropolis with broad vaudeville jokes that rarely land, and woefully misunderstanding its central characters. Trust us, after hearing the kind of smug doofus the show at times makes the last son of Krypton, you’ll be praying for him to destroy Metropolis Zack Snyder-style again.
Anyone whose high school theater program had a tiny budget and a director afraid to offend is familiar with this family-friendly musical adaptation of Charles Schultz’s iconic characters. “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” has actually seen a fair number of revivals, garnered a few Tonys, a Grammy nomination, and has boasted more than a few famous names in its cast, including Kristin Chenowith, Bob Balaban and B.D. Wong over the years.
With a score by Clark Gesner, “You’re A Good Man…” is less a tight narrative and more an assemblage of musical numbers reminding you of your favorite characters and their most memorable antics, from Snoopy’s daring adventures as the Red Baron to Lucy’s perpetual pining for Schroeder. A few of the numbers, such as the finale “Happiness,” have found a life outside the show. We guarantee, as you’re reading this, that some community theater performer somewhere is donning the iconic yellow shirt with the black zig-zag stripe.
10. THE ADDAMS FAMILY
If you grew up on the iconic TV show or the ’90s films based on the Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons of the macabre clan, this Tony-nominated show may throw you for a loop. The first scene involves Wednesday Addams announcing she’s engaged, a jarring idea for those of us who think of the morbid prepubescent girl in the striped stockings.
From there, the show essentially becomes “The Addams Family” does “The Birdcage” (the similarities even more noticeable due to Nathan Lane’s originating the role of Gomez) as the family attempts to be “normal” to appeal to Wednesday’s fiancé’s parents. While most of the characters, including a show-stealing Uncle Fester, stay true to their classic depictions, it’s frustrating to see the beloved Wednesday Addams demanding normalcy from her kin. Still, with entertaining tunes and more hit than miss humor, it’s worthwhile to pay a call on “The Addams Family” ::snap snap::
9. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Yes, we’ve touched on the Poke-mania of the late ’90s, but that pales in comparison to the mass outbreak of Turtle-mania that began the decade prior. Based on a gritty satirical book by Eastman & Laird, the Turtles franchise included several live actions films, a handful of TV shows, countless pieces of merchandise and tie-ins with everyone from Chef Boyardee to Pizza Hut.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that surely it wasn’t the “Ninja” part of the title that appealed to kids, and for a brief period, the turtles laid down their weapons, took up instruments, and embarked on a nationwide musical stage show entitled “Coming Out of Their Shells,” whose Radio City debut was broadcast on Pay-Per-View. Sure, the show’s “plot” is a mess, and the rubber Turtle suits will never not be terrifying, but some of the songs are legitimately good power ballads (“Count On Us” is a political campaign song waiting to happen), and the show gave us one of the most bizarre Oprah interviews of all time, so it’s well worth tracking down a copy just to wrap your head around.
We all knew this was coming, right? The “Battlefield Earth” of Broadway, “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” is synonymous with disaster now, and its injury-riddled history is spoofed by everyone everywhere, from the Tony Awards to South Park. But what if we were to tell you it’s not THAT bad?
Sure, “The Lion King” and “Across The Universe” director Julie Taymour was an odd choice to bring Peter Parker to the stage. And picking U2’s Bono and The Edge to pen the score is weird when you consider a different rock icon, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, is such a devoted “Spider-Man” fan, he wrote the theme to the ’90s cartoon. But while it lived, “Turn Off the Dark” was a real spectacle to behold. When done right, the stunts were downright dazzling, some of the numbers, like “Boy Falls From the Sky” and “Rise Above,” made for some truly engrossing moments, and “Penny Dreadful”’s Reeve Carney brought a real pathos to the role of Peter Parker missing even from some of the film adaptations.
7. DEATH NOTE
Yes. You read that right. The hugely popular Japanese manga about a schoolboy armed with a book that can kill anyone whose name he writes in it was given a musical adaptation. And while you’d think it must be some absurd spoof, we assure you, it’s an official adaptation, and surprisingly really good.
Sure, you go into “Death Note The Musical” unable to understand how anybody thought to put songs to the grim storyline, but within minutes it feels like the most obvious choice in the world. Playing like “Spring Awakening” with Shinigami, the adaptation reinforces the themes of isolation and comparative justice within the original work while extrapolating upon the saga’s operatic qualities. Everything about it works, even bringing the large, lumbering Shinigami to life on the stage by way of what appears to be a costume leftover from “Cats.” The music and stage are so engrossing, your suspension of disbelief is in full swing. It’s tragically unlikely to come stateside anytime soon, but then again, in a post-“Hamilton” Broadway, anything’s possible.
6. DICK TRACY
When Warren Beatty decided to bring the hardboiled detective to the cinema, it seems the motto “Go big or go home” pervaded every aspect of the adaptation process. He’d get the biggest names in Hollywood to play the bad guys, including an Oscar-nominated turn for Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice. He’d get the brightest colors to splash across the screen. And when it came to the music, he reached out to Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim to provide it.
Though Tracy never gets any musical moments himself, and we’d have to wait until 1998’s “Bulworth” to witness Beatty’s musical flare, Sondheim made magic onscreen utilizing Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney and Mandy Patinkin’s 88 Keys to guide the tone of the film with memorable numbers like “What Can You Lose?” and the Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later.” In part due to its Busby Berkeley feel, both in song and style, “Dick Tracy” would go on to win a total of three Oscars, the most for any comic book adaptation to date.
5. LI’L ABNER
Though tragically almost forgotten now, Al Capp’s seemingly simple comic strip about life in Dogpatch U.S.A. was actually a great work of biting satire, whose targets are still worthy of the same jabs today. That aw shucks subversiveness carried over flawlessly to the stage with the successful Broadway adaptation, and later into a technicolor film musical featuring “Star Trek” alumni Leslie Parrish and Julie Newmar.
Using its musical numbers to skewer everything from the South’s fawning over failed confederate generals (“Jubilation T. Cornpone”) to blind patriotism allowing people to swallow the worst of spin as gospel (“The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”), this late ’50s musical still feels surprisingly edgy, with bawdy characters like Appassionata von Climax and mocking numbers like “I’m Past My Prime” still earning the same collar pulls today as it did when it first ran. Indeed, the “real America” mythos it attempted to dispel is still thriving today, and “Li’l Abner” still holds up to hold a mirror to it.
4. SAILOR MOON
Most entries on this list have one, maybe two brushes with song and dance. The iconic manga “Sailor Moon”, however, has a whole series, with more than 30 stage shows and 800 performances to its name since they began in 1993. Scheduled to correspond with Japanese school holidays, these adaptations of the beloved franchise have become something of a tradition, with an actress holding the role of Sailor Moon for sometimes as long as five years before “graduating” and passing it down to another.
Spawning albums, DVDs and international productions, several of the shows have been personally supervised by creator Naoko Takeuchi himself and have even introduced new characters to the “Sailor Moon” canon. Speaking of introductions, it was a Canadian production of one of the “Sailor Moon” musicals, wherein “Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee, playing the titular role, met her future husband and “Daily Show” co-star, Jason Jones.
3. FUN HOME: A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC
Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her self-discovery prior to and in the wake of her closeted father’s suicide made for one of the most critically-acclaimed graphic novels of the 21st century. At the same time, its time-jumping narrative and reserved, somber tone seemed a poor fit for the bright lights and big spectacles of Broadway.
However, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori made magic in the historic Circle in the Square Theatre, with a beautiful and evocative musical that took audience members on a journey through the human spirit with powerful and moving numbers like “Ring of Keys” and “Telephone Wire.” An unlikely success from the start, “Fun Home” was the little musical that could, making history by beating the juggernaut “An American In Paris” for Best Musical, being the first show with a lesbian lead character to win the top prize, and the first all-female creative team to win best Book and Score. Just a few short years after “Spider-Man” made comic books on Broadway into a punchline, “Fun Home” changed the conversation.
2. JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS
For all the unlikely adaptations on this list, there’s never been a more obvious comic to set songs to than the beloved band from Riverdale, “Josie & the Pussycats.” Beginning with a Saturday morning cartoon in 1970 — historic for being the first Saturday morning cartoon with a recurring black female character — the swinging tunes proved popular enough to earn a full record album, including the insanely catchy theme song. A second musical cartoon was commissioned entitled “Josie and the Pussycats in Space,” which received less acclaim.
The trio would later be brought to the big screen in a criminally misunderstood musical movie starring Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson (in her first of many comic book movie roles). Spoofing the commercialization of music in the early 2000s, the Pussycats were now given a punk-rock vibe, with Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley providing lead vocals. The film itself was a bomb, but the soundtrack went on to receive gold album certification. And with Josie and the gang looking likely to don the long tails and ears for hats one more time on the hit “Riverdale”, it looks like this won’t be the last time the trio is getting the musical treatment.
1. LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE
Was there any chance this wasn’t going to be #1? It’s no hyperbole to call the curly-haired kid iconic when it comes to her Broadway hit “Annie” by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. Heck, most theater-goers don’t know she first came from the pen of comic strip author Harold Gray.
Retelling the story of how the plucky orphan made her way from the wicked Miss Hannigan’s office into the loving embrace of benevolent billionaire (and ruthless war profiteer, but we’ll ignore that) Daddy Warbucks, “Annie” features some of the most well-known songs of any Broadway show, including “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” The gold standard of dream roles for any little girl who can carry a tune, the show has enjoyed several revivals on Broadway, a number of film adaptations, and countless regional theatre productions. In addition, the iconic show also had a Broadway sequel entitled “Annie Warbucks” and a “modernization” in 2014 starring Jamie Foxx, but the less said about those the better.
Which comics-to-musical adaptations were your favorite? Hum a few bars in the comments!
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