When you really think about it, musicals are actually quite a nerdy genre:
Not only do they have their die-hard adherents, as anything qualifying as “nerdy” must, but even the most mundane musicals have an element of the fantastical to them. Think about it: Musicals are populated by people who think it’s perfectly normal to break into song for literally any reason, people for whom an intricately choreographed dance number is an everyday occurrence….
Does anyone ever stop to think about just how WEIRD that is? (well, Joss Whedon did, but I’m getting ahead of myself)
Some musicals, of course, take this a step further, and draw from the various franchises and genres that we, as nerds, know and love for their inspiration. Others are just totally batshit insane, thus making them quite appropriate for a card-carrying nerd’s movie library. It is such musicals that we honor here today.
I have deliberately left out musicals that have so far only been stage productions. Not that I have anything against live theatre, but such musicals are so numerous as to warrant their own list. Instead, I’ve decided to stick to film or television (and in one case: neither) productions. These media are much better known to nerddom, anyway–no offense, Theatre Geeks!
So clear your throats, and prepare to sing along with:
10. Phantom Of The Paradise
One of Brian de Palma’s very first films, Phantom of the Paradise is unique to say the least. “Weirder Than Tits On A Bishop” would be more to the point. It’s a celebration/brutal satire of 1970s pop music tropes, and the music business in general in the form of a musical based on a combination of Phantom of the Opera, Goethe’s Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. The songs were written and performed by ’70s musical wunderkind Paul Williams, best known for scoring The Muppet Movie. Williams also plays the film’s villain–and he gives one of the most disturbing performances in cinema history: Directing a sex tape for your grandparents is less unsettling than Paul Williams as evil record producer “Swan”. Above is the film’s trailer, with a voice-over by one of the most influential directors and nerds in Hollywood: Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Ant-Man)
9. Sweeney Todd
As awesome as Tim Burton’s cinematic adaptation of the famed musical tale of the semi-legendary murderous barber and the gruesome uses his accomplice, a baker of meat pies, found for his victims is, it’s a bit too mainstream to warrant a higher ranking on a list like this. I’m not judging which musicals are the BEST, merely the NERDIEST.
Still, Burton‘s Sweeney Todd has it’s share of nerd cred: “Burtonverse” fixtures Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter make the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett their own (and have surprisingly good singing voices). The film is a casting director’s wet dream, with every role filled superlatively: Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall stand out as the draconian Judge Turpin and his repugnant toadie Beadle Bamford (yes, 3 members of this cast played Harry Potter characters!) Plus it’s visually magnificent, wickedly funny, and boasts some truly infectious musical numbers.
Oh, and blood. LOTS of blood.
8. Cry Baby
Sweeney Todd wasn’t Depp’s first musical–it was just the first he actually SANG in. Back in 1990, Johnny starred as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker in John Waters’ 50s retro musical Cry Baby. The nerdiness of this film may be a tad less apparent than some of the other entries, but John Waters’ fandom is zealous, if relatively small: Cult comedy nerds may not be the most vocal or visible branch of the nerd family tree—but trust me, we’re there! This hilarious film boasts a number of truly eclectic cameos and supporting roles: Including Traci Lords, Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrrell (remember that name, you’ll hear it again soon), Willem Dafoe, and Ricki Lake (Glenn Milstead, AKA “Divine”, was originally part of the cast, but sadly passed away before filming began).
7. Cannibal! The Musical
Cannibal! The Musical, thanks to legendary independent film studio Troma (the fine folks who gave the world the Toxic Avenger franchise), who distributed this odd little film, put the names Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the radar….last I heard, they had this cartoon thing on basic cable, and some stage show about Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think.
Would have thought they’d have amounted to more given how awesome this film is: Cannibal! tells the story of Alferd Packer–supposedly the first American ever to be tried for cannibalism (Packer DID exist, but Parker and Stone‘s historical accuracy is dubious at best). A VERY young Trey Parker plays the titular cannibal, with Stone and their perennial sidekick Dian Bachar in supporting roles. Parker wrote and performed the music, and the whole thing is far more fun, likeable, and sweet than a movie about eating human flesh should be. Fans of South Park will recognize little tidbits that would later pop up in the show: Matt Stone’s character is where the series got Kyle’s big red Jew ‘fro, and a line in the song featured above is referenced in South Park: Bigger. Longer, and Uncut when Kenny’s heart is accidentally replaced by a baked potato.
6. Little Shop Of Horrors
The original Little Shop of Horrors made bad movie history when infamous schlock filmmaker, Roger Corman, produced and directed it in just under 3 days–merely to prove that he could make a movie from start to finish in under a week.
Two decades later, that story of the little skid row flower shop and the man-eating plant behind its doors became a blockbuster Broadway musical, and was soon adapted into a film by “Muppeteer” Frank Oz. It’s quite simply one of the most purely enjoyable movie musicals ever made, due largely to the brilliant performances of Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin, seen above in the iconic role of dentist/domestic abuser Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS.
5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Yes, friends: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, adapted from the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show (see what they did there?) in 1975 by director Jim Sharman, writer Richard O’Brien, and producers Lou Adler and Michael White. It’s a devious satire of Middle-American values crossed with an homage to classic horror and science-fiction cinema. Everyone knows the plot: Girl and Boy go for drive, Girl and Boy meet Alien Transvestite, Alien Transvestite creates Muscle Man in vat of chemicals, Everybody has sex, Alien Transvestite and his creation killed with lasers by the help, Castle flies off into space, THE END.
Oh, and there’s a lot of really kickass musical numbers in between the sex and the death somewhere.
RHPS is probably best known not on its own merits, but due to the following it has developed: For 38 years fans have been going to midnight showings across the globe where they watch not only the film, but a “shadowcast” in front of the screen in full costume (well, the GOOD casts do it that way 😉 ) miming the actions of the characters. The audience itself also gets into the action: Throwing things (carefully!) like toast and toilet paper at the prescribed times, and yelling call-backs and insults at the screen (an RHPS tradition from decades before MST3K or Rifftrax). In all seriousness, at least ONE trip to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror should be on everyone’s bucket list.
4. Shock Treatment
It’s likely many of you have never heard of this musical by the writers and producers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s equally likely that if you have heard of it, you’ve heard it’s a sequel to Rocky Horror. That isn’t entirely accurate. The filmmakers refer to it as an “Equal, Not A Sequel”. Many of the same characters, actors and settings from Rocky Horror are present, but it isn’t really a continuation of Rocky’s story line: You could see Shock Treatment without ever knowing Rocky Horror exists, and you wouldn’t miss a thing.
Anyhoo, I personally prefer Shock Treatment to its far more famous predecessor: RHPS had a few better actors, and arguably superior production values–but Shock Treatment has much better songs, and a generally “nerdier” vibe. Long before things like Reality TV or The Truman Show, Richard O’Brien envisioned a town that WAS a TV studio itself….where citizens actually lived in shows and the audience just slept in their seats. Again, Middle America is satirized–but it’s not its puritanical morals that are attacked, but its mindless consumerism and obsession with television. I grant you the plot does wander, and lacks Rocky Horror’s cohesiveness: But the superior music makes up for these flaws. (FUN FACT: That’s Rik Mayall of The Young Ones taking the Polaroids)
3. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling
I almost didn’t include this. I wanted to stick to movie musicals, and besides: I’m a lukewarm BTVS fan at best (Angel and Firefly are another story). But our dear and fluffy editor insisted….
And he knew what he was doing! I love this in ways I cannot properly communicate with language. Once More, With Feeling is a work of sheer genius, and the best part is you don’t need to know barely anything about Buffy to enjoy it. The flashback at the beginning is comprehensive enough to bring non-fans up to speed. Here’s the skinny: The town’s under the influence of a song and dance-loving demon accidentally summoned by Dawn Summers. The citizens are breaking into musical numbers at random….just as they would in a musical, except they realize it’s abnormal. Buffy and the Scoobies are affected as well, leading to some great numbers from the show’s best loved characters. Joss Whedon outdid himself with this episode: He could have had a very successful career as a songwriter. Once More, With Feeling has become one of the most famous and beloved BTVS episodes, and has even been performed by live casts on stage!
(PS: Sorry for the subtitles, but getting a clip of anything owned by Fox in its original form on YouTube is like pulling teeth–this was the best I could do…the alternative was a mere slideshow)
Before he was the “Man Behind The Music” of Tim Burton’s film library, Danny Elfman fronted a New Wave/Ska fusion pop band called Oingo Boingo.
Before that, he composed and performed the music for an experimental musical theatre troupe in L.A. run by his brother Richard Elfman called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (hence the name)
Around 1980, when Danny decided he wanted to move from live theatre to music, he and Richard put together a movie version of everything the Mystic Knights was…sort of a “swan song” for the troupe, and Forbidden Zone was born. This utterly mad film follows the adventures of the unbelievably dysfunctional Hercules family, who discover a portal to a parallel universe called the Sixth Dimension in the basement of their new house. The music is a cacophony of conflicting styles, from jazz to rock to minstrel shows to Jewish Vaudeville–yet somehow it all works together, a testament to Elfman‘s genius. The cast includes the aforementioned Susan Tyrell and the late Herve Villechaize (yes, Tattoo from Fantasy Island) as the Sixth Dimension’s queen and king, and Danny himself as Satan (yes, SATAN). Unfortunately, early ’80s audiences didn’t quite get what the Elfman brothers were attempting here, the movie faced accusations of racism for its use of blackface, and it performed poorly at the box office…..Fortunately, the “Midnight Movie” crowd adopted it a few years later, and it’s developed a sizeable and rabid following.
1. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog
Our #1 is neither a movie nor a television show, but holy balls is it NERDY!!!
Joss Whedon’s internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog is nothing short of magic. It’s less than an hour long, but it easily out-nerds (if that’s a term) any feature length musical on this list. Neil Patrick Harris is Dr. Horrible: A budding supervillain torn between his devotion to evil and world conquest, and his crush on the pretty redhead at the Laundromat who runs a homeless shelter (if you never understood why nerds love Felicia Day so much, it’s because you never saw her in this). Horrible works out his frustrations on his video blog, and in song, as he works to gain the notice of legendary supervillain Bad Horse, and deals with the humiliation of constant defeat at the hands of Captain Hammer: World’s Douchiest Superhero (Nathan Fillion–obviously having the time of his life) who’s also dating his girl!
I won’t spoil the ending, but try to remember: This IS a Whedon production….