There’s a line between funny and over the top, and when that line is crossed on stage, amazing things can happen. With the recent release of The Toxic Avenger on BroadwayHD, it’s a good time to look back at the campy musicals that push the limits of absurdity and, some would argue, taste to take their audiences to unexpected places. These productions definitely provoke extreme reactions and have some of the most devoted groups of fans in the musical theater world.
Perhaps the most well-known musical of this genre is Little Shop of Horrors. Based on a “B” movie of the same name, Little Shop tells the story of a carnivorous, talking plant that takes up residence on “Skid Row” in New York City in the early 1960’s. The show was wildly popular with audiences, running Off-Broadway for years. In many ways, it established some of the most prominent features of campy shows. While the audience is in on the joke from the beginning, the show is played very realistically. Actors do not often wink at the audience. The music is either derived from or composed in homage to specific genres. In the case of Little Shop, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman hued closely to early 1960’s rock and Motown sounds to create the music for show. Lastly, the show’s source materials is decidedly low-brow. In this case, the musical is based on a very low-budget Harvey Corman film that happened to be Jack Nicholson’s first film.
Camp musicals tend live Off-Broadway. In fact, the original production resisted a move to Broadway because book writer Alan Menken thought the show was better suited to the Off-Broadway milieu. Other shows followed Little Shop’s lead including one of the campiest musicals ever written, Bat Boy: The Musical. Ripped from the headlines of the Weekly World News, a fantastic tabloid, Bat Boy tells the story of a half-bat, half-boy living in a cave near Hope Falls, West Virginia. Playing on similar themes of forbidden love and taboo experiments, Bat Boy has become a cult favorite among musical theater enthusiasts and has been produced professionally in Los Angeles, New York, and London.
Around the same time as Bat Boy, another camp musical came to prominence. Reefer Madness, a musical based on the 1936 film of the same name, satirically warns against the evils of marijuana use through the tragic story of Mae and Jimmy. While the original film is in earnest, the musical plays as camp with the characters in the show acting with absolute sincerity. Just as with Bat Boy, Reefer Madness has garnered a following of musical theater enthusiasts worldwide and, like Little Shop before it, became a musical film starring Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming.
Now The Toxic Avenger is continuing the tradition. A rock musical based on a 1984 film, it premiered at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The show features a crusader, Melvin, who seeks to thwart an evil politician’s plans for a toxic waste dump in New Jersey, only to be thrown in said dump by her henchmen and turned into The Toxic Avenger, a seeker of environmental justice for all, but especially for New Jersey.
What these shows, and The Toxic Avenger, show us is that there is an appetite for absurdity in theater. Sometimes, people want serious drama or sincere comedy, but there’s something very appealing about something that takes itself so seriously while being completely unbelievable at the same time. Although one might argue that there’s nothing but fluff in these shows, often they demonstrate the greatest sense of humanity in the theater. Our reality, at least as I see it, is really much more campy and absurd than it is dramatic. One might dream of having the angst of Hamlet, but we are probably more connected to Bat Boy living in a cave in Hope Falls or Seymour in Little Shop nursing a dangerous plant that will eventually be our undoing.
Stream The Toxic Avenger: The Musical on BroadwayHD today.