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12 Unexpected Subjects for Musicals

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Apparently, on Broadway and elsewhere, one can break out into song over any topic imaginable, no matter how odd. Here are a dozen real-life musicals covering such weird and improbable subjects as Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter, and public restrooms.

1. Octomom! The Musical (2009)


Photo courtesy Octomom! The Musical

Shamelessly satirical, this retelling of modern celebrity Nadya Suleman and her famed octuplets’ rise to fame debuted in Los Angeles. But was the real Suleman invited? “We have a whole row of seats—14 of them—reserved just for her,” said director Chris Voltaire. It's no longer playing, but you can see the whole show on YouTube.

2. Moby Dick (1992)

A musical adaptation of the classic novel? Not by a long shot. Instead, we get phallic puns. A handful of scantily-clad schoolgirls plan to rescue their struggling academy by staging the Herman Melville story in a local swimming pool. The title lends itself to plenty of unfortunate innuendos and this production left no double entendre unexplored.

3. Urinetown (2001)

Proof that a weird musical isn’t necessarily a bad one, Urinetown took home three Tony Awards. That’s quite impressive for a show about a city in which private toilets are outlawed and the citizenry is forced to utilize pay-toilets instead.

4. Ben Franklin in Paris (1964)


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Ben Franklin in Paris tracks the beloved founding father’s diplomatic efforts in Europe and includes such musical numbers as “I Invented Myself” and “God Bless the Human Elbow."

5. Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert (2001)

Think Benjamin Franklin’s an unorthodox subject for a musical? Try Charles Darwin. This one-man show features what star and lyricist Richard Milner (a singer/anthropologist) describes as “antiquarian rap.”

6. Carrie (1988)

Stephen King on Broadway? Based on the novel of the same name, Carrie herself is an awkward teenager with an abusive mother, telekinetic powers, and a violent menstruation phobia. Predictably, it didn’t fare well: The New Yorker even asked various playwrights if Carrie was “The Worst Musical of All Time.” Ouch! An Off-Broadway revival this year didn't fare much better.

7. Silence! The Musical (2005)

“Hello, Clarice!” This foul-mouthed off-Broadway farce bills itself as “the unauthorized parody of The Silence of the Lambs" and sports a biting sense of humor. Included are gratuitous violence, songs about nether-regions, and tap-dancing sheep.

8. Via Galactia (1972)

Via Galactia was intended to be a landmark in theatrical special effects and included UFOs and lasers with a plot set 1000 years in the future. Yet this strange show was the first Broadway production to lose over $1 million. In the words of one witness, “Via Galactica seemed plagued from the start. For a moment the show was to be called up, but when posted next to the Uris [the theater it debuted in] name on the marquee, it sent an unfortunate message.”

9. Hope! Das Obama Musical (2010)

It’s a German musical about the political rise of President Obama. Need I say more?

10. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane… It’s Superman! (1966)

Spider-Man wasn’t the first superhero to get the Broadway treatment. That honor goes to the man of steel himself, Superman. The show was adapted into a TV special in 1975 and the clip above has to be seen to be believed (“Oh, Superman, you’re WONDERFUL!” “Yeah, I know.”)

11. Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)

Despite the title, this show does include spoken dialogue. Unsurprisingly, however, it does not include any semblance of class. Even less startling was the inevitable controversy this musical caused when BBC opted to air a staging of it in 2005 (The Daily Mail newspaper counted “8,000 cases of swearing”).

12. Triassic Parq (2012)


A phony Morgan Freeman narrates the dramatic story of a Tyrannosaur sex-change. I am not kidding one bit about this. This parody of Jurassic Park is told from the perspective of some genetically-revived dinos dwelling on a tropical island who hail the local laboratory as their deity. Live actors in colorful clothing bring these singing saurians to life.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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