Where are all the Sci-Fi Shows?
With all of the great science fiction out there, from literature, to film, to television, why hasn’t this awesome genre made its mark on Broadway? Or even Off-Broadway, for that matter? They come around every once in awhile, as farce or some ridiculous comedy (and those are delightful, don’t get me wrong), but there hasn’t been a great science fiction musical. It’s very telling that mild research for this post took me, first, to the book Not Since Carrie, Ken Mandelbaum’s survey of shows that flopped on Broadway. Is sci-fi just inherently bad on stage?
Sci-Fi lends itself to epic-ness. Star Trek, Hitchhikers Guide, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Dune, et al. are all enormous in scope. Entire universes are created. We come to expect the enormity of this kind of story within these forms. Novels and silver screens can carry infinitely huge landscapes. Why can’t the stage?
There are a few musicals that almost get us there. But none of them have become the elusive non-existent sci-fi musical hit.
Via Galactica (Book by Christopher Gore and Judith Ross, and music by Galt MacDermot) went up and came down in 1972 after 15 previews and 7 performances. It took place on a colonized asteroid in 2972. The show was so difficult to follow that producers put an insert in the Playbill detailing what was happening on stage. Science Fiction plots are notoriously convoluted. Try keeping up with every detail of a Doctor Who episode and you end up cross-eyed. But why is it that it works on TV, and just about everywhere else, but not on stage? Is it because of audience’s attention spans? Are theatre audiences more likely to give up on trying to figure out what is happening?
We also have the brilliant (and one of my favorite shows of all time) Little Shop of Horrors (Alan Menken and Howard Ashman). We are, again, introduced to a menacing foreign creature from space intending to take over the world. That’s the science fiction part in a tiny little detail. The rest is a pretty straight-forward romantic comedy with the benefit of a man eating plant from space. Not quite the sci-fi we know and love in television and film, but almost.
Here’s an almost sci-fi story that is a huge worldwide phenomenon. The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show (by Richard O’Brien) is a mash-up of about 20 different genres, one of which more or less derives from early science fiction. The action essentially surrounds an evening of ridiculous partying with aliens from Transsexual (planet) Transylvania (galaxy). It’s less science fiction, though, than it is a tribute film, paying homage to many iconic early genres of film and music.
Recently, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 author Dave Malloy starred in his musical Blue Wizard/Black Wizard (with writer Eliza Bent) at Incubator Arts (a stunningly bizarre piece), which essentially gave us a glimpse into the minds of LARPers, but with a general basis in reality where the drama of the piece actually exists. There is also currently a production of a new Ayn Rand inspired musical, The Anthem (Music by Jonnie Rockwell, Lyrics by Erik Ransom, and Book by Gary Morgenstein), set in a dystopian future, which, again, plays into the ridiculousness of sci-fi on stage. We have Darren Criss’ musical Starship (with Matt Lang, Nick Lang, Brian Holden, and Joe Walker, all of A Very Potter Musical fame), the recording of which was a pretty big hit for a relatively small cast album, but it’s still mostly unheard of and unperformed, to my knowledge, in NYC.
The operas of Wagner, particularly the 4 of Der Ring des Nibelungen, are so telling of how this kind of genre can exist on stage. They are huge, full of newly imagined creatures, new sounds, enormous battles and adventures. The Star Wars films are often compared and contrasted with Der Ring des Nibelungen, not only in the epic storytelling, romance, violence, and tragedy, but also in how composer John Williams (a modern Wagnerian) constructed the legendary score.
I’d love to see the next great sci-fi work to be a musical theatre masterpiece, something that gets to the heart of this nerdy genre without the shtick. Can it be done? Can we ever take a piece like that seriously? The characters in a science fiction story all have something to sing about. They have huge dramatic purpose and exist in worlds that can be so incredibly imaginative, and that just screams musical theatre to me.