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Let’s face it: not everyone is into musicals.
I, myself, only really came around to them within the last few years. I didn’t hate them before, but I mostly ignored anything labeled “musical.”
These days, I know several people who have opened me up to the larger world of musicals. This is mostly because of the myriad of newer, more interesting, musicals that have come out within recent years, Like Dear Evan Hanson, Hadestown, and Hamilton. I mean, I’ve warmed up to some of the older ones, but things like Grease have not aged well enough for me to embrace them.
This change in how I viewed musicals was not sudden. It was slow, laborious, and multi-layered. It wasn’t that someone showed me Hamilton, and it blew my mind. Nor did any of the speeches people gave saying “but musicals are just as good as other movies” have much effect.
No, what finally brought me round was watching some select musicals that were not exactly traditional. They were musicals that were intriguing because of their inherent genre, or story, and which seemed an odd choice to make into musicals in the first place.
So, for anyone who’s not really into the idea of musicals, I offer this list of five musicals—that aren’t from Disney—that helped me better understand the breadth and scope of what musicals could accomplish.
Anna and the Apocalypse
This one is the trifecta. It is a musical, a zombie apocalypse movie, and a christmas movie all rolled into one.
The movie focuses, of course, on Anna Shepherd, a young woman who is about to finish high school and is considering taking a year to travel before she goes off to college. On the night of the school’s big Christmas show, a zombie virus sweeps through the town. The next morning, Anna heads off to school to find that her town is overrun with the living dead.
What I find so compelling about this movie is that they were brave enough to try three different things at the same time. A zombie musical would have been enough, but nay, they decided to add in the Christmas thing just for kicks. Granted, the Christmas part is more incidental than the other two, so very little of the music focuses on the fact that it’s around Christmas. It’s mostly the backdrop for this brazen genre mashup.
It’s also a movie that manages to be funny while still taking the zombie apocalypse pretty seriously from time to time.
Stage Fright feels a bit like an experimental film. It’s basically an 80’s slasher movie smooshed together with a musical.
The story begins with Broadway sensation Kylie Swanson being murdered by a man in a phantom mask during her production of “The Haunting of the Opera.” It then jumps to ten years in the future where her children, Camilla and Buddy, are being raised by Roger McCall, Kylie’s former lover and the owner of a struggling musical-theatre-based summer camp.
When the camp decides to put on a rendition of “The Haunting of the Opera,” Camilla decides that she wants to throw her hat in the ring and audition for the part. When the stage director offers her the part in exchange for some “favors,” Camilla is torn between her love of theatre and her moral compass. However, before she can make a decision, the stage director is brutally murdered by an assailant in a “Haunting of the Opera” mask.
What follows is your basic slasher movie, interspersed with musical numbers.
While it never really wowed me, the idea of a musical slasher was just too novel to pass up. So, if you’re a big fan of slasher films, this is a good way to dip your toe into the proverbial waters of musicals.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd got its start in the penny dreadful’s of the mid-to-late 1840’s. Over a hundred years later, the titular barber received the stage treatment, and became a Tony award winning musical. However, the version I’m writing about is the 2007 version directed by Tim Burton and starring who else but Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a barber who was wrongfully convinced of a crime by a corrupt judge who only wanted Barker’s wife for himself. Upon returning from his exile fifteen years later, Barker seeks revenge on those who wronged him. So, he takes up the alias “Sweeney Todd” and lures the unsuspecting marks into his barber shop where he slits their throats and has his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, turn them into meat pies.
While it can get pretty gory, the dark aesthetic of Tim Burton, and the insane acting (I’ll let you decide if that means it’s really good, or really crazy) of Johnny Depp really help to make this movie shine.
Also, the music isn’t half bad.
Little Shop of Horrors
Another title that’s life started well before the musical in question, Little Shop of Horrors is the charming tale of a young man who works at a florist shop, and the man-eating plant that tries to convince him to murder people.
Rick Moranis (from Honey, I shrunk the Kids) plays Seymour, a down-on-his-luck florist’s assistant who is in love with his co-worker. When he inadvertently stumbles upon a bizarre plant that only seems interested in drinking human blood, he puts his florist shop on the map. Unfortunately for Seymour, as the plant begins to grow, it demands more and more blood. Eventually, Seymour can no longer sustain the plant himself, so the plant suggests he murder someone to feed it.
What I love about this movie is how dark and funny it is in equal measure. Watching Rick Moranis bumble his way through murder and dismemberment is as unsettling as it is hilarious. I mean, it also helps that Steve Martin is there to spice things up as a dentist that will give you second thoughts about going to your bi-annual checkup.
Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
This is most definitely a case of saving the best for last. Not only does this musical star Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion, three of my all-time favorite actors, but it is also a superhero movie to boot.
NPH stars as an aspiring supervillain who goes by the name Dr. Horrible. However, he is constantly stymied by his arch nemesis, Captain Hammer. Luckily for Dr. Horrible, the Evil League of Evil is giving him one last chance to prove how evil he is. While attempting to fulfill his objective of joining the League, he also tries to woo Penny, an activist who frequents the same laundromat as Horrible’s alter ego, Billy.
That description, unfortunately, does the movie no justice. NPH is hilarious as the protagonist, and Nathan Fillion’s Captain Hammer is the worst/best example of an arrogant hero. The movie is only 42 minutes long, so it’s really more of a short film, but an awful lot is crammed into this lovingly crafted musical.
So, that’s it. Those are the five I would recommend if you are curious about what the world of musicals has to offer. They show that musicals are more than just My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music. There are a myriad of other genres and stories to be told… just in song.