31 March 2009

From Spidey to Thriller: Innovative New Musicals Receive Approval for 2009-2010 Season

As I have previously discussed, the world of theatre was recently introduced to a new genre: musical political productions. The stories surrounding both ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and President Obama inspired the creation of theatrical performances around the world. Now, the music industry and comic book world are working to find their way into the theatrical stage in the coming year. With the help of Bono and the Edge of U2, the punk band Green Day, and the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, three new musicals have been announced for the upcoming season. All three plays will tackle extremely different themes, characters, and plot lines because of the varied backgrounds, musically and production-wise. Along with these differences, I believe that each will aid in genre innovation and the evolution of the musical. On the contrast, I am unsure if these upcoming unique performances will be successful in the current theatrical world both economically and thematically.

According to the New York Times, The Nederlander Organization made a statement in mid-January announcing “that it had acquired the rights to produce a musical based on the Michael Jackson album Thriller and its groundbreaking video, in which the King of Pop transforms into a werewolf while he’s on a date.” While a similar show celebrating Jackson’s career is currently running in London’s West End, its US counterpart will instead focus specifically on the plot of the famous music video, which is said to be “horror film spoof in which a young couple are out on a date on a beautiful full moon evening, when suddenly the young man, played by Jackson, turns into a werewolf.” Though a creative team, Jackson’s participation, and theatre have not been officially announced, those already involved are excited about the performance. Unlike American Idiot with its politically driven message, Thriller will attempt to bank on the popular culture reference. As the producers focus on ideas to draw in crowds, fans will be happy to know that the “Thriller” album will not be the only one used in the production. The musical will also include songs from “Off the Wall”, including “Billie Jean” and its infamous sidewalk. Extremely intrigued by the idea of a music video musical, I wonder if fan support alone will be enough to keep this idea afloat. Similarly to the Obama musicals, I think that plays heavy in popular cultural references are attempting to latch on to the coattails of, and profit from, someone who already successful on their own.

Broadway is also gearing up for a musical about one of its most famous fictional residents: Spider Man. Though rumors circulated for a while, the official word on the production was finalized at the end of February. This is the first time a comic book character has found its way to a potentially successful run on the Broadway stage, though many have found their way to both the silver and television screens over the years. Because the show is still in much of the working creative stages, like American Idiot, many of the specific details about the superhero’s musical are still unknown. However, it has been announced that Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, will direct as U2’s Bono (see right) and The Edge write the music and lyrics. The performance, titled Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, will “retell the superhero’s origin story, about a nerdy teen bitten by a radioactive spider… [and] include mythical elements not seen in the Sam Raimi pics” according to Variety. Though still officially un-cast and in the process of open audtions, rumors say that Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess will come together again to play Peter Parker and his love interest, Mary Jane Watson. The pair previously worked together, as well as with Taymor, in the 2007 film Across the Universe. While the idea of an action-driven superhero musical could open up a new genre of “guy musicals” to the theatrical community, I believe the innovation may not be enough to save the production financially. With the current economic situation being what it is, many of the larger, classic shows in production, such as Gypsy, have found themselves facing final curtains already. New productions are also suffering, many offering discounts before the show even opens. Because of these financial factors, I believe that the tentative $35 million dollar budget for the web-slinging superhero may cause more problems at the box office when the show finally opens in February of 2010.

On the other side of the country however, yet another musical phenomenon has found its way to the theatrical stage. The New York Times recently announced plans for Green Day to team up with Berkeley Repertory Theater in California to create a musical, which will open the company's 2009-2010 season. Based on the band’s 2004 Grammy-winning album American Idiot(see left), the musical will also include songs from their upcoming album 21st Century Breakdown. Titled American Idiot, it will tell the nihilistic coming-of-age story of two teenagers. Specifically Variety announced that the show will follow “disaffected contemporary American Everykid Jesus of Suburbia as he morphs into violent, drug-dealing alter-ego St. Jimmy and falls for anarchist girlfriend Whatsername.” While the creative team, which includes Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer, is extremely quiet about the exact plot, Billie Joe Armstrong has said that the narrative is “not the most linear story in the world.” This musical is viewed by much of the dramatic world, including myself, as a new innovation to the theatrical community, combining popular music with political themes. Many articles on the production, such as the one written by Daniel Krips of Rolling Stone, cite “the Tony Award-winning success of the rocking Spring Awakening — and the past triumphs of the Who’s Tommy musical” as the reason behind the opportunity being available to the California-based band. Personally, I believe that the success of the play will rely on many factors. The popularity of 2004 album will be a factor in selling tickets, however I also believe the "politically charged eipc" may outdate itself considering the recent presidential cabinet change. The decision to open the play in a smaller venue will also be a driving factor in the popularity of the musical, perhaps pushing it to Broadway. Though there are no definite plans for such a move to the New York stage yet, the creative team has not nixed the option, instead focusing on the west coast this fall.

Despite the innovative creativity surrounding all three musicals, the biggest aspect of all is the relevance of their underlying themes. I agree that it would be interesting to see a revision of the infamous music video, to see Spider Man sling his way around a Broadway theatre, or to be able to put faces to characters mentioned on the Grammy-winning album. However, the various innovations each new production is attempting to bring to the stage may not be enough to keep them afloat long. If the economic crisis is closing famous classics, hurting extremely popular shows, and devistating the lesser-known new shows, where will these creative musicals fit? When the curtain goes up and the performances begin, will entertainment value alone be able to save all three of these endeavors?


  1. As always, it was a pleasure reading your post. I found it highly engaging and I’m not saying that just because I love theater too. The three different musicals that you mention on your post will catch the reader’s attention as they are based on icons in popular culture and many would probably be surprised with the idea of seeing them on Broadway. Your description of each one of the shows, the background information provided and the support you give the article with the different sources all help make your argument and post stronger, or in Broadway terms, more “legit.” The paragraphs seem to flow effortlessly, with the use of transitional phrases such as “On the other side of the country however, Green Day is not the only musical phenomenon to find its way to the New York stage.” The images you chose not only embellish your post but are significant to it. The second more so than the first one.

    While overall your post has almost nothing to criticize, I would have like to see you mention some of the musicals that despite the crisis, are still well afloat, and seem to not have been touched by the hard economic times. A discussion of how and why these musicals (e.g. Wicked, Mamma Mia) are still popular among audiences would make your post even more interesting. Another information that would make your post more interesting is the crisis that Broadway went through half a century ago, when rock and roll musicals started to emerge, as a way to attract younger audiences, something similar to what seems to be happening today. In terms of the images, I would maybe reconsider the first one (American Idiot cover). Although it is relevant, it is not making the connection between the band and the stage as the second one does.

    I am happy to see someone that passionately talks both about theater, the arts and how it relates to other issues like politics and the economy. Also enjoyable is your eloquent writing and your engagement with current events. I look forward to your next post, and hope it is as enjoyable as this one. ENB

  2. Thank you for informative post on the current movement towards pop culture musicals going on in theatre today. You demonstrate a solid knowledge of the state of your craft, yet I feel this post reads more as a news article than a persuasive argument. After the first body paragraph, I thought you were arguing that the sales of the American Idiot album would drive ticket sales for the musical of the same title, and then in the next two body paragraphs you seem to contradict yourself slightly as you express your doubts about fan support alone leading to success. Either way, your voice does not shine through as strongly as I think it could. One way to make a more definitive argument would be to examine past pop culture musicals and determine what makes them a success or failure. What makes Mamma Mia so popular and We Will Rock You so abysmal? I think you are well-spoken and have given a lot of interesting information, though a slightly stronger stance would benefit this post.


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