In honor of the upcoming musical episodes of Fringe, House, Bones, The Simpsons, and The Family Guy, I have compiled a list of the top ten best genre musicals. By “genre” I mean science fiction (defined very broadly), fantasy, and horror. These could be stage shows, movies, or TV shows. My definition of “musical” includes operas as well as the more “traditional” (if such a term can be used for some of these movies) musical form. For the purposes of this list, I excluded anything that I couldn’t find a video for (such as the various Star Wars musicals and the Lord of the Rings musical). Even with these restrictions, I found a surprising number of videos that fit the bill.
Here, then, is my list of the ten best genre musicals. Wondering why your favorite isn’t on the list (or why it’s so low)? Feel free to flame me in the comments section!
10. The Apple
I first became aware of this one when listening to a list of worst musicals of all time on NPR. This one won. So why is it on my list? Because it’s in the “so bad it’s good” category. Just when you think this movie about a pair of wide-eyed innocent singers who are seduced by fame and fortune (and therefore evil) can’t get any worse, it does! It’s like watching a train wreck — if the wreck lasted for an hour and a half and the train had a disco car. Words cannot begin to describe how bad it is — you’ll just have to enjoy it for yourself!
9. The Return of Captain Invincible
Alan Arkin plays Captain Invincible, a washed-up, black-listed Superman-type, and Christopher Lee plays his enemy, Mr. Midnight. And both of them sing. How could that not lead to greatness? It’s a bit too aware of its own campiness, however, and there are quite a few really random background events (and some in the foreground as well), but it’s still generally worth watching. The final showdown in which Mr. Midnight tries to defeat Captain Invincible by tempting him back into his alcoholism by singing a song called “Name Your Poison” is certainly one of the more bizarre super-villain plans I’ve ever seen.
8. Phantom of the Paradise
Paul Williams wrote the music for this, and he can actually sing. So why in the world this movie uses actors who mostly can’t is beyond me. The movie is basically a story about a musician, Winslow Leach, who wrote a cantata about a musician who makes a Faustian bargain to get his music produced. Of course Winslow ends up making his own Faustian bargain, but not before he becomes the Phantom of the Paradise (a new nightclub) after initially being rejected by Swan, the actual music producer that he later makes a deal with (who, it turns out, made his own deal with the devil à la Dorian Gray). Yeah, it’s very meta. This movie would actually be a heck of a lot better if the singers could actually sing, although it would still fall into the campy category.
7. Little Shop of Horrors
I hadn’t watched this one in years, and I have to say I think I appreciated it more today than when I was a kid. It’s clearly an adaptation of a stage production, and it’s probably the most “traditional” musical on this list, with 1950s- and ’60s-style music and big dance numbers as well. It is, however, definitely sci-fi — I think a singing, talking plant from another planet certainly counts.
6. A Very Potter Musical
A group of University of Michigan students put on a one night only production of a musical Harry Potter parody. Fortunately for those of us who weren’t there, they put it up online on YouTube. And it’s totally awesome! It combines elements of all seven books, though the main plot is a combination of books one (the return of Voldemort through Professor Quirrel) and four (the tri-wizard tournament which is turned into the four Hogwarts houses competing instead of the three wizarding schools). The music is great, as is the acting, and whoever wrote it has a great sense of humor as well as a clear love of the books. It’s one I’d definitely pay to own if it were out on DVD, though that might be problematic for copyright reasons, of course.
5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
You knew this one had to be on the list. Okay, confession time — I’ve only actually seen it once with full audience participation. And yet I own it on DVD. I actually enjoy the movie on its own. Yeah, I know, crazy, right? I think we’ve seen that I have a masochistic streak somewhere in me based on my previous entries on the list. And I truly love the soundtrack for this movie. The story is there almost fully if you just listen to the music, and that’s perfect for a musical.
4. Repo! The Genetic Opera
This one almost belongs in the “so bad, it’s good” category. I say almost because of the participation of the Razzie-winning Paris Hilton. Honestly, though, I’m not so sure she deserved it — she pretty much plays herself: a spoiled, rich daddy’s girl who thinks the world revolves around her. Wait, maybe that’s exactly why she deserved the Razzie — she wasn’t acting. I get it now! Anyway, the participation of Paul Sorvino (who knew he could sing opera?), Ogre from Skinny Puppy, and Sarah Brightman certainly more than make up for Ms. Hilton. Throw in Anthony Stewart Head and you’ve got some pretty great music to accompany a really cool plot — how can you not love seeing Rupert Giles as both a good guy and a bad guy in the same movie?
3. Stingray Sam
2. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
I wear my “Joss Whedon is my master now” t-shirt often. I love to sing along with the bad doctor when I listen to the soundtrack. Chances are if you’re reading this list you know just how awesome it is. Okay, maybe the ending should have been more predictable given that it’s Joss, but I was truly surprised by it when I first saw it. And I view it as more of an origin story of how the Doctor became truly Horrible. Up to that point he was simply a wannabe, but the death of everything he loved was a tipping point for him. His change to the new red outfit was a symbol of a new beginning, this one covered in blood. It was really the only way it could have ended for that transformation to occur. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Once More With Feeling”
Okay, maybe it was inevitable that I chose this as number one — I’ve already mentioned my devotion to all things Joss, and the play count for the soundtrack to this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is well into the high double digits in my iTunes library (and that doesn’t include the times I’ve listened to the actual CD!). I can, however, completely justify putting this as number one.
First, there is a plausible reason for the singing, unlike many musicals which leave you wondering why the characters are singing rather than just saying what they want to say. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but if there’s a reason for the singing, so much the better. Next, the singing not only furthers the story of the episode, but actually furthers the entire arc of the season. Much of what is revealed in the songs could not have been revealed in any other way that seemed natural, nor could it have been done so quickly. And the revelations have repercussions throughout the rest of the series. Okay, maybe it’s unfair to use that as a criteria when there’s no possibility of the others on this list fulfilling this criteria, but there’s more as well. The episode stands up quite well on its own.
I have actually shown the episode to some of my high school classes (most of whom have never seen Buffy before) and most of them have loved it. Finally, the soundtrack is, as hinted above, eminently singable and bears up well to multiple listening. Joss clearly understood the structure of musicals as well as the styles and pulled together an absolutely amazing episode.
“The Bitter Suite,” the Xena musical episode – not being a Xena fan, I can’t really fully judge this episode. I could pretty well follow the basic plot with a little help from Wikipedia, and the music was certainly well done (being written by Joseph LoDuca, of course it would be). I didn’t quite feel like there was a reason for the singing story-wise, but that’s certainly not an absolute necessity. I can see the appeal for those who enjoy the show, but it’s not quite my cup of tea.
The American Astronaut – Cory McAbee’s previous full length musical before Stingray Sam doesn’t quite work as well to me. It’s not nearly as charming or fun, although it’s certainly worth watching if you can track down a copy (actually, it was hard to find at one point, but was recently rereleased on McAbee’s store).
Evil Dead: The Musical – Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi gave permission for this stage adaptation of the first two movies, and it’s clear to see why. It’s cheesy, it’s gory, and it’s fun. I didn’t think the songs were all that great, however, which is why it got only an honorable mention.