One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: The Musical & 10 Other Improbable Adaptations

A few nights ago, I went to see Insane in the Brain, a stage production that bills itself as a "street dance" interpretation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. No, really, I did.

At first blush, the premise sounds absolutely bizarre and not just because it takes its title from a Cypress Hill song. But the show itself was certainly fascinating: When it was good, it was very good—one patient's OCD tics become a choreography of their own, the scenes of electro-shock therapy were an electric midair acrobatic dance. When it wasn't good, it was simply a bit disappointing—most dancers are not actors and some of the choices they made were a bit odd.

In any case, it got me thinking—in this era of mash-ups, what are some of the most interesting, most bizarre, most fascinating adaptations that have graced the stage? Here are ten more examples.

1. Carrie: The Musical

If you've ever read Stephen King's novel about a sheltered girl with astounding telekinetic powers and a religious nut for a mother who ends up doused in pig's blood and slaughtering her classmates, and thought, "You know, there's a musical in there"—well, you aren't alone.


In the mid-1980s, after the book had been made into a very successful movie starring Sissy Spacek as the titular Carrie, some major Broadway talent came together to adapt the novel into a musical. In 1988, the show made it to Broadway, at a cost of $8 million and with veteran stage actress Betty Buckley.

But despite all that seemed to be going for it—a good cast, choreography by Debbie Allen, lyrics by an award-winning songwriter—the musical has become the granddaddy of all Broadway flops. While audience reaction to the show was mixed, the reviews were not. Overwhelmingly negative, they scared off the show's investors, who pulled the plug after only five performances.

If you visit, you can even watch the performance, although the video quality is rather poor. The opening number includes a kick-line and it all goes downhill from there. Carrie even does a dance number with her telekinetically animated prom dress.

2. Jane Eyre: The Musical

Again, if you've ever read Jane Eyre and thought Charlotte Bronte's gothic romance featuring scenes of draconian punishment, a madwoman in the attic, and a mysterious, sometimes cruel and yet somehow still lovable employer, and thought, "Musical!"—you've been beaten to the punch. In 1995, a musical drama version of the book premiered in Wichita, Kansas, received good reviews, and ultimately made its way to Broadway in 2000. There, it did pretty well—the show received a Tony nomination for Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical, among several other nominations.

3. High Fidelity: The Musical

Even though the 1995 Nick Hornby book and the 2000 film starring John Cusack and Jack Black were ostensibly about music, this does not necessarily mean the story should be set to music. While it was probably damned from the start, the 2006 musical version of High Fidelity suffered from a bland script featuring indistinct shaggy hipster-type characters, incidental dancing, and the difficult task of writing songs that would fit a cult hit about being snobbish about music. The Broadway show opened to largely negative reviews and closed after 14 performances.

4. Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical

In 2001, Debbie did something that she certainly hadn't done in the seminal (sorry) 1978 porno movie about a small-town cheerleader trying to earn enough money to get to Dallas in order to try out for the fictional "Texas Cowgirls" cheerleading team—she sang. The show, created for the New York International Fringe Festival, doesn't actually contain a ton of nudity or sexual acts (prompting some audiences to decry it as a tease), but it does follow the essential plot of the original film, with songs, dances, and a lot of innuendo filling in the sexy bits.

5. Lizzie Borden: The Rock Musical

Musicals have been made from stranger stuff—think on the premise of Cats—in the past, but murder isn't usually a place they go (well, except Carrie). But for roughly 20 years, a show has been floating around that does just that—Lizzie Borden, the rock musical.

Opening to good reviews in New York this week, Lizzie Borden assumes that Borden, who was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, was actually guilty and, armed with that, goes on to develop other, possibly more apocryphal plotlines: Lesbianism, incest, and decapitated pigeons all make an appearance.

6. Lord of the Rings: The Musical


Despite the magnificent treatment given to the trilogy by Peter Jackson, someone still thought more could be done to mine this particular treasure trove, and decided a musical was clearly in order. In 2006, an incredibly long musical version of the beloved story was produced at immense cost at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, before going on to open in 2007 on the London stage. Reviews were mixed—some found the epic production enchanting, its stage direction enlightened, and others, like the reviewer from The New York Times, found it a muddled mess of twee hobbits, amateur acting, and affected D&D dialogue. The show closed in July 2008.

But fear not for the denizens of Middle Earth: The show is now going on the road and could soon be rolling into a civic center near you, Ents, Elves, and elevenses and all, if you live in Europe or Australia.

7. Ben Hur Live

For months, I've been seeing ads for a live production of Ben Hur, the story of a first century Jewish slave who becomes king of the Roman chariot races, and I have to admit, it looks kind of awesome. Not because I'm an especial fan of the story, which was first penned in 1880 by Lew Wallace and later made into a blockbuster film starring Charlton Heston in 1959, but because the show stars 46 horses, 120 doves and two eagles, features a sea battle and a gladiator fight, in addition to the famous chariot race, and it's all done in Latin and Aramic. It's like a monster truck rally, only way, way, way more epic. And way, way, way more expensive: It's going to cost £19 million to keep the show running through Christmas.

The show premiered in London's O2 Arena on September 17 and unfortunately, I don't have tickets as yet. Equally as unfortunate, reviews haven't been good so far, so maybe I'll pass.

However, what is also interesting to note is that this isn't the only stage adaptation of the multi-part biblical-historical fiction novel: When Ben Hur premiered on a West End stage in 1902, the climactic chariot scene involved four teams of horses galloping full-tilt on a giant treadmill, which in turn powered the revolving scenery panel behind them, and dragging the chariots on railroad tracks behind them.

8. Dance of the Vampire (it's huge in Germany)

Dance of the Vampire is a 1997 German-language remake of a Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers, set to music. Tanz Der Vampire, as it's called in its native Germany, has been pretty successful there and throughout Eastern Europe, although the Broadway version, which suffered from substantial rewrites, was not well received, closing after only 56 performances and losing around $12 million.

But aside from being one of Broadway's biggest flops, Tans Der Vampire is significant for its soundtrack, which broadly recycled '80s hits and tunes from the composer's lesser known projects. For example, Bonnie Tyler's classic torch-song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is refashioned here into "Totale Finsternis," and that unforgettable track from Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell II, "Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are," becomes the melody for "Die Unstillbare Gier".

Notably, the original Polanski film starred the ill-fated Sharon Tate, who would later be murdered by the deranged Manson clan.

9. Anna Karenina, The Musical

Tales of thwarted love, all fraught with high emotion, tinged with melodrama, and rife with songs just about to be sung are excellent vehicles for musicals—just not all tales of thwarted love. In 1992, the producers of Anna Karenina, The Musical learned that the hard way. The reinvention of the tragic story of the married Anna, her affair with the charming Count Vronsky, and her ultimate suicide was a resounding flop.

The New York Times, reviewing it after opening night, said, "Every unhappy musical is unhappy in its own way, but no musical is more unfortunate than Anna Karenina, the travesty of Tolstoy's novel that opened last night at Circle in the Square Theater." Ouch. The show ran for 46 performances and, despite the poor reviews, was actually nominated for several Tony Awards.

10. Edward Scissorhands

ed-200And why not, really? The movie that solidified director Tim Burton's reputation for dark, fairytale worlds of saturated color, wonderfully kitschy 1950s aesthetics, and deliciously twisted fantasy has been lovingly and successfully recreated for the stage. But not just any kind of stage. Directed by Matthew Bourne, whose other works include a dance version of Dorian Gray set in the modern world of fashion, Edward Scissorhands is a dance-heavy, dialogue-free musical that recreates the splendor and the subtle horror of the original film through movement and set design. As one commentator wrote, "the musical features everything you want in a show: Leather costumes, fake snow, and a man who has scissors for hands."

(Image credit: Bill Cooper/Golden Gate [X]Press)
* * * * *
By now you may have noticed a pattern: Tack "the musical" onto any classic original or weird story and you've got (generally unintended) comedy gold. Are there are any musicals or stage adaptations that strike you as silly? Any musicals you'd like to see? Thundercats: The Musical, perhaps?

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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