Science fiction has a complicated history in musical theater. Much like the Academy Awards, which usually reward stories about “real people” over sci-fi and fantasy (with 2017's Best Oscar win for The Shape of Water being a notable exception), musical theater audiences tend to scoff at spacey sagas. However, some sci-fi musicals have managed to break through the snobbery and make a lasting impact. Some are brilliant, like The Rocky Horror Show. Others are about Thomas the Tank Engine in space. It’s a mixed bag.
With the news that Be More Chill—the viral musical sensation that grew in popularity thanks to teenage fans sharing tributes, songs, and fan art on Tumblr—is heading to Broadway, I thought I’d take a look back at the history of science fiction on the stage. We didn’t include fantasy, so no Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2, but we do go into comic book musicals. After all, there’s technically both science and fiction in them. Plus, I can’t not talk about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane... It’s Superman (1966)
The superhero musical genre might have died forever thanks to 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (more on that in a bit), but in 1966 it produced one of the year’s most popular musicals. Based on the original comic book series, It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane... It’s Superman predates Christopher Reeve’s big-screen debut by over a decade. It tells the story of a guy who plots to kill Superman because (get this) he was mad he didn’t win the Nobel Prize.
The soundtrack, which includes songs like “Pow! Bam! Zonk!”, is pretty average and very of its time—reminding me of other, much better works like My Fair Lady or Bye Bye Birdie. But it’s fun to hear how a 1960s musical handled Superman as a character. Most superhero films and shows of the time were quite campy, and this Superman saga was no exception, with lyrics like: “Every night when the job is through, I fold my tights—proud to know I’ve done all I could.” And, it’s clearly had staying power, with several versions over the decades—the most recent being a 2016 revival in Germany.
Side note, the original New York Times review called Superman “a bit of a boob.” That doesn’t add anything to the history. I just thought it was funny.
Via Galactica (1972)
One year before a certain picture show became the gold standard for classic science fiction musicals, there was Via Galactica. Originally titled Up! (it was changed after they discovered what it looked like on the marquee next to Uris Theatre), it was a story of social outcasts living on an asteroid in 2972. The best way I could describe it was Hair meets 2001: A Space Odyssey—though that’s based on impressions, as it’s hard to find the music in its original form. I did share a Rutgers University student project above, which attempted to recreate it.
The $1 million musical was an overly ambitious feat, featuring on-stage trampolines, actors in head-to-toe paint, and a convoluted sci-fi storyline about a group of individualists in 2972 who plan an escape to a new solar system to escape conformity. Sadly, it was a total disaster, thanks in no small part to a number of practical catastrophes—for instance, how the wireless microphones would pick up police scanners mid-show. It closed after just seven performances and hasn’t been shown since.
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
We all might recognize The Rocky Horror Show as the 1975 picture show starring Tim Curry as the delicious Dr. Frank-N-Furter, but its history is on the stage. The musical, which opened on the West End in 1973, is a tribute to the classics in sci-fi and horror B-movies. Of course, it ultimately became a classic itself, serving as one of the most famous sci-fi musicals to ever hit the stage. For those who haven’t graced a midnight screening or live performance, it tells the story of an innocent couple who find themselves trapped at a mad scientist’s home. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll ensue—followed by resurrection, cannibalism, and the aliens’ return to their home planet of Transsexual. Oh yeah...the mad scientist and his crew are aliens.
Rocky Horror has had dozens of revivals around the world, not to mention the hundreds (if not thousands) of local performances. If you haven’t seen a stage version of The Rocky Horror Show yet, I could not recommend it more. It could never take the place of Tim Curry, but it holds a specialness all its own. Just make sure you dress in costume—even if no one else does, it’ll be worth it.
Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
On the heels of The Rocky Horror Show came another musical celebration of classic sci-fi B-movies. Only instead of a musical inspiring a movie, it was the other way around. Little Shop of Horrors was a 1982 musical inspired by the 1960 dark comedy film of the same name. Writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken were a dynamic duo, creating a musical that was fun and noisy, with tributes to classic rock and roll of the 1950s. It tells the story of a flower shop worker and his singing plant named Audrey II, which craves human blood to thrive. The musical later got a movie of its own in 1986, starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene. However, it didn’t actually make it to Broadway until 2003.
Starlight Express (1984)
So this...is a thing. To be exact, it’s one of the biggest musicals of all time. And it’s based on Thomas the Tank Engine. Back in 1970s, Andrew Lloyd Webber pitched an animated series based on Thomas the Tank Engine, but it didn’t get picked up. So, he instead took the idea and transformed it into Starlight Express, a fantasy where a boy’s model trains come to life and undergo the most epic race of all time. That’s right, all of the characters are trains, and they perform the entire musical on roller skates.
Starlight Express is considered to be a sci-fi musical, but the science fiction aspect is more in the visuals than the actual story, with an electro-pop soundtrack and heavily stylized backdrops that create a galaxy-esque view of America. But in the end, it’s a relatively simple story about racing trains that’s been given a flashy sci-fi-esque makeover. For example, here’s a description of one of the earliest commercials for the musical’s debut, as seen in the New York Times:
The 30-second commercial portrays a zooming cross-country journey with landmarks depicted in computer-generated images. The momentum is such that the train swoops off the track and is propelled into the heavens. Heading away from earth, the train explodes into a supernova, out of which emerges the show’s logo, a star shooting out from infinity to announce the title.
While this might sound like the silliest, most dated thing you’ve ever heard (and it certainly is), it’s also one of the most successful sci-fi musicals in history, if not the most successful—especially internationally. It clocked over 7,400 performances on London’s West End, and there’s an entire theater in Germany that was built specifically to host stage performances of the musical. And I’m going to be bold and just throw this out there: I don’t get it.
You could see this as a sci-fi musical riding the coattails of Starlight Express, but it was technically around first, debuting off-off-Broadway back in 1980. The quasi-spoof centers around a young woman named Eleanor who envisions herself as a superhero in her favorite sci-fi comic books. She’s transported into her own fantasy, where she’s the St. Joan-esque heroine caught in a conflict between Shak Graa and the Starmites, the guardian angels of Inner Space. It had a two-month run on Broadway, and it’s had selective performances, mostly on the high school level.
Metropolis (1989) and Return to the Forbidden Planet (1989)
In 1989, we got two relatively unknown musicals that played on classic sci-fi works. I’m not sure what led to this trend, though I’m sure it’s simply indicative of the public’s desire for more sci-fi in the years following the Star Wars trilogy (and the Spaceballs spoof).
Metropolis was a glorified Les Misérables clone, retelling the iconic 1927 silent film about beleaguered workers in the futuristic year of 2000 who rise up against a totalitarian government. It premiered in London and has had a few performances over the years.
Then there was Return to the Forbidden Planet, a jukebox musical in the style of Little Shop of Horrors based on the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It tells the story of a spaceship, helmed by Captain Tempest, landing on the uncharted planet D’Illyria, populated by mad scientist Doctor Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and their robot Ariel. It used classic songs from the 1950s and 1960s—in a way, it predicted the jukebox musical craze by a couple of decades, so that’s impressive at least.
After the sci-fi craze of the mid to late 1980s, there were several years where we didn’t get anything resembling science fiction on the stage. It was kind of a ghost town. Then, little over one week after September 11, Urinetown debuted. It was more dystopian than outer space, but it was still science fiction. It told the story of a totalitarian society where you had to pay money in order to go to the bathroom, spoofing political musicals like Les Misérables, as well as Broadway culture in general. It was very successful, and it resulted in a prequel called Yeast Nation, though it’s still being worked on.
I never saw Urinetown myself, but I remember a time around its debut when the commercials were everywhere. And it was annoying as hell, because every time they played, you had to go to the bathroom. Or at least, it made you think you had to. It’s like being told not to think about elephants. You’re going to do it as soon as someone tells you to. Likewise, if a musical is telling you about the characters’ need to piss every five seconds, are you just gonna spend the whole time thinking about whether you need to use the bathroom too? Seriously, did the theaters have to supply extra portable bathrooms whenever they hosted Urinetown? These are the important questions I’m asking.
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2002)
Pre-dating the “torture porn” horror genre by a few years, Repo! The Genetic Opera was an industrial rock opera set in a world where people rented replacement body parts, organs, and other necessary appendages. If you couldn’t pay, the Repo Man would take them back, as painfully as possible.
It had limited stage performances in the mid-2000s, but was mainly packaged to sell as a movie, released in 2008 starring Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hence why I couldn’t find any live performance recordings and used one from the movie. Repo! might be super violent and icky, meaning I can never watch it, but goddammit if I don’t still love the soundtrack.
We Will Rock You (2002)
The 1999 Mamma Mia! jukebox musical—which amazingly took ABBA’s songs and made a cohesive plot out of them (and a fantastic movie musical sequel, don’t question me)—single-handedly changed musical theater for years. Possibly forever. Jukebox musicals ran rampant, with every notable band or artist of the 1970s and 1980s getting musicals using their discography. One of the most infamous (and surprisingly long-lasting) was We Will Rock You, based on the works of Queen.
Much like Urinetown, We Will Rock You draws on the “dystopian future where people can’t do what they want” trend. Only here, 300 years in the future, it’s total apocalypse of the heart. Total conformity, dudes! Everyone looks, acts, and thinks the same; rock music is forbidden; and only the Bohemians (presumably with a rhapsody of some kind) are able to defy the Globalsoft Corporation and bring freedom to iPlanet. With, what else, rock music.
Even though the musical was widely panned by critics for being nonsensical and stupid, it’s beloved with audiences. It was the longest-running show at London’s Dominion Theatre, and there are still performances around the world.
Barbarella (2004) and The Last Starfighter (2004)
This was another year where we got not one, but two musical remakes of classic sci-fi films. There was Barbarella, based on the Jane Fonda film that itself was based on a French sci-fi comic book, which centered around a young woman’s sexy adventures in outer space. Then there was a musical version of the 1984 film The Last Starfighter, about a teenager recruited by an alien defense force to fight a major war. Both of these musicals got a single run and haven’t done much since.
The Toxic Avenger (2008)
The same year that Iron Man brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe to theaters, we got another superhero musical. Only this time, it was a superhero parody—because parodying things in popular culture was really popular in the early 2000s. The Toxic Avenger, based on the 1984 movie of the same name, was the story of an environmental scientist who was transformed into the Toxic Avenger—a gross mutated creature with an eyeball popping out of face, who dedicates himself to fighting environmental crimes.
Much like It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane... It’s Superman, the music is fine but also of its time. But, it’s definitely more violent than its cookie-cutter predecessor! This musical didn’t exactly change the theater landscape as we know it, but it’s a fun, entertaining, and harmless show. It’s gotten several performances over the years, the last one being on London’s West End in 2017, so it has staying power.
Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (2010)
Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark asks one of the most important questions in human history: Is it better to be good or remembered? Because this musical is considered the biggest Broadway flop of all time, but people will never forget it.
This $75 million collaboration from Across the Universe’s Julie Taymor and U2's Edge and Bono was an absolute catastrophe (with one exception, that being the Green Goblin song, which I shared above because it’s so deliciously weird). The sets were laughable, the music unbearable, and the stunts highly dangerous—including a near-death experience where the superhero’s stunt double fell nearly 30 feet after his tether supposedly broke.
That’s not even getting into the disastrous storyline. It started out so bad that Marvel rejected it outright, thanks in no small part to the villain being the Greek mythological figure Arachne, who was considered a stand-in for Taymor’s unappreciated genius. Taymor was eventually canned, and the musical was given a month off for revisions—we even released a list of recommended changes at the time. It reopened in mid-2011, but the fixes weren’t enough. Spider-Man didn’t last much longer, closing its doors in 2014, and hasn’t been performed since.
You can’t really talk about sci-fi musicals without talking about fan works. When online video first came into popularity, fan musicals became easier to produce and distribute. This really blew up with Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Released in 2008 during the Writers Strike, Dr. Horrible is an online video series (hence why it didn’t get its own mention here), but it did inspire others to make their own independent productions.
One of the biggest groups to come out of this has been StarKid Productions. It started as a group of college students in 2009 with A Very Potter Musical, a parody based on Harry Potter starring Glee’s Darren Criss. The group later founded StarKid and produced Starship, an original sci-fi musical about an alien named Bug who wants to be a Starship Ranger, saving the universe along the way. It was only performed for one season, but it’s available to watch online. StarKid continues to create new musicals to this day, the latest being The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals!, a horror parody where the pandemic is song and dance.
This is just as much a tribute to a man as it is a work of art. Lazarus was David Bowie’s final project before passing away in 2016. It’s technically a jukebox musical based on the works of Bowie, but he’s a transcendent figure whose songs permeated time and space, so it’s definitely more than that. The musical is inspired by the book The Man Who Fell to Earth, centering around Thomas Newton, a lost soul on Earth who may find salvation with a kindred spirit. It’s had a few limited performances, and there are more in the works.
Be More Chill (2015)
From the fan-made musical to the fan-grown musical, Be More Chill is a theater success story that can only come from the internet. Based on the 2004 young adult novel of the same name, Be More Chill debuted in 2015 in New Jersey to little fanfare. However, by 2017 it had become a sensation on Tumblr and Spotify, leading to an off-Broadway revival that’s now actually heading to Broadway. All because a bunch of kids liked it online.
Be More Chill tells the story of a teenager named Jeremy who swallows a pill called Squip, containing a supercomputer telling him how to be cool. It works, but it not only makes him lose sight of the people he loves, it also encourages him to feel shitty about who he really is. The musical works because teenagers have fallen in love with the story and its message, creating an intense fan community with art, cosplay, and tributes. They’re even encouraged to share their own Squips, or destructive internal monologues that make them feel less confident about themselves.
It’s hard to say what kind of legacy Be More Chill will have in the future—the story is straightforward and the music is pretty good, but none of it is particularly game-changing. That is, of course, if you’re not a teenager. This is a show that isn’t for me, and that’s okay. Frankly, I’m happy a non-Hamilton Tumblr-friendly musical exists. It’s introduced a new audience to musical theater in a way they can identify with, using science fiction to tell an interesting and connective human story. So, in my mind, that’s a win all around. Be More Chill opens on Broadway in February 2019.