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Superheroes and the Musical genre have always made for somewhat strange bedfellows. They’re both styles that emerged in popularity in the ‘60s, both depend heavily on colorful exaggerations of real life, and both are the domain of spectacle-driven popular culture more than the high art of theater or literature. Despite those similarities and the way the verbosity and simplicity of the superhero would seem a natural fit for the world of the musical the two haven’t intersected as often as you might think.
There’ve been some notable exceptions over the years, but the two just don’t combine nearly as often as they really ought to, given everything they have in common. The two are set to combine once more in the upcoming Flash/Supergirl musical crossover episode, which will be the first major superhero musical in the past 5 years. What previous musicals have there been? What are the origins of this strange tradition? Has it ever been done legitimately well? All these questions and more will be answered in the history of superhero musicals.
The superhero and the musical have been intertwined as far back as the dawn of the superhero in mass media form. Understanding this relationship is tied very much into understanding the difficult place the superhero has had to occupy in the pop consciousness. Initially appearing the ‘40s, the superhero served as the cornerstone of the most digestible forms of media for young boys throughout the decade- comic books, serials, radio shows.
However, by the ‘50s television had moved in to supplant radio and serial as the dominant force in popular culture, the birth of America’s mass media concept. Superheroes were slow to adapt to this new frontier, mainly owing to the fact that a lot of them were complicated and expensive to film. Remember, the big reason the ‘50s was so dominated by cowboy films was that they were an easy way to give a sense of grandeur and scale without costing a lot.
The ‘60s brought about advances in technology that made things easier for high concept FX to work on TV and the films. That’s part of why the ‘60s is when sci-fi gained purchase in mass media pop culture and not just B-movie junk food, in particular through the weird science of the James Bond and other Golden Age spy franchises. That particular overlap is where we find the first musical superhero star- Adam West.
It’s a crime how much the Adam West TV show has been relegated to the dustbin of history given its MASSIVE impact on the genre of superhero and its popularity. It’s safe to say without the Adam West Batman show the mythos of Batman and his ubiquity would not exist today. A big part of that was that the Adam West show was more of a tongue-in-cheek variety program that played into the pop art, spy, and parody styles of the time. The best example of this was the Batusi.
Appearing in the show’s premiere episode ‘Hi Diddle Riddle’ in 1966, the Batusi was an elaborate dance that Batman did and whose name was a pun on the Watusi. The actual creator of the dance is somewhat disputed, with some sources naming Adam West as the creator while others credit dance instructor Arthur Murray, but either way, it became a national craze. I am not even kidding when I say Adam West’s stupid Batman dance became a national phenomenon, that’s the kind of power this show had.
What’s more, it did a lot to pair Batman with the musical genre, to the point he’s had the most musical adaptations of any hero. I think part of that is that he’s one of the easier characters to adapt because he’s non-powered, but at the same time, there’s a natural level of camp that makes Batman a better fit to the musical than say Daredevil or Iron Man. Actually, the best example of this might be the fact that Liberace actually appeared as a villain on the Adam West show and fit in pretty much perfectly.
The same year Adam West’s Batman took the dance floor another DC hero took to Broadway. For the most part, the history of superheroes and musicals favors DC Comics characters because of their ubiquity and iconic status. Everyone might know who Captain America and Hulk are now, but for a long time, they were second rate compared to the likes of Superman, which is why Superman was the first superhero to get a full on, out and proud musical. It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman ran for 129 performances and was nominated for 3 Tony awards during its run. The show has been revived multiple times throughout the 21st century, appearing in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, London, and Germany from 2007 to 2016.
The Superman musical is an exceedingly odd concept, mainly because of the weird knots it twists itself into over what parts of the comics it wants to adapt. A lot of that is wrapped up in the fact that most of the Superman mythos was steeped in the whimsy and cartoonish surreality of what’s called the Silver Age. This was the era when Lex Luthor was a jack of all trades evil scientist who hated Superman because they knew each other as kids and Superman accidentally made Lex go bald. As such, Luthor doesn’t actually make it into this production, instead being replaced by the villainous Abner Sedgwick, who’s basically Luthor in all but name and intensity.
There’s also no kryptonite in the musical; instead, the villain’s plan revolves around making Superman too depressed to fight crime. The musical was slightly rewritten and restructured for a TV special of it, which is was released in 1975. This was part of a larger push by DC to leverage more of their properties after the monster success of The Six Million Dollar Man proved superheroes on the small screen still had potential in the ‘70s. Which also leads us into the next entry in this subgenre, coming to us from DC’s most successful mid-'70s project- Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.
Unlike Adam West’s Batman or the Superman musical, the mid-'70s Wonder Woman show was a lot more low energy and sedate. I’m not exactly sure why it was decided ‘70s TV should be so sleepy when it comes to superheroes but trust me, there’s a strong reason Adam West stuck around as THE Batman till 1989 and Lynda Carter kind of faded from memory. It also doesn’t help that Wonder Woman’s more impressive mythic feats were far too expensive for the show’s budget, so she was relegated to spy craft and “capers.”
1979’s ‘Amazon Hot Wax’ had Diana going undercover in the record industry to catch an extortionist, which was basically an excuse to pitch an episode where Lynda Carter got to sing songs from her debut album Portrait. How much you’ll like the episode depends a lot on your feelings about late ‘70s over-produced easy listening. Carter’s a good singer, and her music isn’t terrible, it helps that Rick Springfield was a guest star.
After this, 1978’s Superman had completely rewritten the book on superhero adaptations. It catapulted the Superman franchise into the multi-media arena and created a desire for bigger, effects-driven spectacle in superhero fair. It took the genre away from the camp of Adam West and the small scale of Wonder Woman, pushing it in a bigger, flashier, and moderately more adult direction. Suddenly superheroes needed more complex characterization and nuance, which eventually codified into the dark and striking Tim Burton Batman films that kicked off in the ‘90s.
Marvel was still struggling to get its act together at the time, but there was one major other superhero franchise that rose to compete with DC’s dominance- the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After dominating the small screen throughout the back half of the ‘80s, the franchise was catapulted across the media frontier in 1990 with a live action movie and a now ubiquitous live concert performance Coming Out of their Shells tour. It’s an incredibly weird little slice of the past with a lot of underwritten songs that sound curiously like repurposed Christian rock.
The concert had a plot too about Turtle’s foe the Shredder trying to steal all the music of the world but, honestly, that was just set dressing. What’s most surprising is that the concert was enough of a hit to actually spawn a behind the scene tour documentary and a sequel tour on an even lower budget called Getting Down in Your Town, which featured Casey Jones as the real central star. There was also a Turtles Christmas album/movie thing because there was a time where slapping TMNT on any product guaranteed success.
Even though the Turtles’ stab at musical superhero theater would end up banished from our collective memory until a few years ago, this style would eventually seep into other work of the time. In particular, things started to shift for the ‘90s superhero standard bearer Batman around 1995, when Joel Schumacher took over the franchise.
While not technically a musical, Schumacher’s two Batman films draw a lot of inspiration from the genre of musical theater, trading out Burton’s drab and goth aesthetic for a campier, neon cartoon look. A lot of folks have compared Schumacher’s Batman to the Adam West show, which is far from unfair though the Adam West show was far more aware of its limitations.
There was a bigger emphasis on slotting pop music into the Batman film series than Superman. Prince wrote the original, unused soundtrack for 1989’s Batman, Seal did a cover of Kiss from a Rose for Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin featured songs from R. Kelly, Smashing Pumpkins, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, R.E.M., and the Goo Goo Dolls. None of this was an outright Batman musical, however, just musically adjacent material, though there was a brief and amusing vision of a Batman musical featured in a 2000 episode of the animated series Batman Beyond.
Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman also toyed with the idea of a Batman musical from 1998-2002, after the success of Disney’s various Broadway ventures. There was even a 2001 opening date announced, but the plan fell through, and the only remaining remnants of it are a series of demos Steinman posted in 2006.
Most of the 2000s were too dark and drab to truly accommodate a superhero musical, even on the lighter side of things in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films. Where things pick-up next is with the first full Batman musical in the form of a 2009 episode of the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Entitled ‘Mayhem of the Music Meister,’ the episode featured guest star Neil Patrick Harris as the titular villain who boasted the power to mind control people through song.
The episode is arranged as a stage musical with acts, mostly featuring songs and choreographed fight/dances, and even a curtain as part of the act breaks. It’s a great fit and puts a big emphasis on sonic superhero Black Canary to match Music Meister’s singing ability, though it’s let down by the fact Batman never gets a song of his own.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold was always a lighter take on Batman that brought together a love of Silver Age goofiness with tongue-in-cheek fun, paying heavy homage both to the Adam West years and the classic eras of cartooning like Looney Tunes. As such, there were several musical interludes throughout the show, with characters like Joker, Aquaman, and the Birds of Prey all getting a musical number but Mayhem of the Music Meister was the only full musical episode.
One year later brought forth arguably the most public example of this genre mash-up in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. I don’t really know what the impetus behind this show was, except that the music was written by Bono and if the head of U2 says he wants to make a Spider-Man musical you let him make a Spider-Man musical. I actually suspect the decision was something of a reflection of Marvel’s recent purchase by Disney, perhaps testing the waters for a Marvel Heroes Musical live show at their parks.
If that was the case, the massive production difficulties behind Turn Off the Dark probably killed that possibility as the show’s heavy wirework proved incredibly difficult. Marvel and Disney did eventually launch a live show, but there’s no singing in it. As for Turn Off The Dark, while it does tell the full story of Spider-Man’s origin, love of Mary Jane, and battle with the Green Goblin it’s only ever received middling reviews, and tech difficulties plagued the show throughout its run. Like most of these musicals that don’t involve Batman, it seems to have been cursed from day one.
Which brings us neatly to 2012’s Holy Musical B@man! Performed for a limited time at the Hoover-Leppen Theater in Chicago, Holy Musical B@man! is a parody musical making fun of Batman and pretty much the entire DC universe. It’s a lot more comedy centered than Brave and the Bold’s musical, which is kind of a must for a project of this nature.
Holy Musical B@man! isn’t actually an officially licensed production of any sort but rather a fan production by people who really do love this material in all its delightful goofiness. As such, it has to be a thoroughly over parody to avoid copyright infringement, though you can still feel the love the creators have for this material shining through.
Actually, this musical goes well beyond being a Batman musical as Superman is a major character as well and the Super Friends appear at one point as well. You find a good handful of musical adaptations like this involving some more famous heroes like the X-Men but Holy Musical B@man! is easily the most popular, with a full on a cult following. The whole thing has been uploaded to Youtube for the curious, and I thoroughly recommend it.
And that’s where the story of the superhero musical comes to an abrupt and unceremonious end- with arguably its best entry. You can still see elements of the musical/superhero crossover areas sneaking into the genre, especially in the more comedically informed superhero adaptations. Stuff like LEGO Batman’s beatboxing, DJing, and rap metal tunes are a pretty good example of how this overlap just refuses to give up, especially when it comes to the Dark Knight.
There’s also plenty of musical numbers to be found in Teen Titans Go, one of the few remaining superhero animated shows these days. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a full, feature-length theatrical superhero musical in our lifetime that’s of genuine quality and officially licensed, that might just be too many successes to ask of such a limited idea. Either way, soon enough we’ll have a brand new entry to this list to look over and who knows, maybe it’ll launch a whole new era of superhero musicals, it’s not like the idea’s unheard of.
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