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

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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.

carrie

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 carriethemusical.com, 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

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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)
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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?

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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