Halloween is almost here, and theater folk sure love their “ghosties, ghoulies, and things that go bump in the night” (to quote the Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane song from the Broadway musical version of Meet Me in St. Louis). The holiday is a celebration of all things spooky, including classic character types of the horror genre, including witches, vampires, ghouls, and ghosts (sadly, werewolves seem to have mostly avoided representation on the theatrical stage). Today, we take a look at the plays and musicals that utilize these haunting characters and put them in the spotlight.
If witches are your favorite Halloween scare, there are many plays and musicals that will give you a taste of their bubbling brew. Of course, the three sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth are theater’s quintessential witches, but there are others. An oldie but goodie is the 1945 Howard Richardson and William Berney play Dark of the Moon. Set in the isolated recesses of the Appalachian Mountains, this drama concerns a small town fearful of infiltration by witches, hysteria setting in when a local girl falls in love with a witch boy. Witch hysteria is most famously depicted in Arthur Miller’s 1953 dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible. The play is a potent drama that depicts what happens when a town turns on itself, fearing that their daughters are under the control of witches. For a more modern musical take on witchcraft, there is the long-running Wicked by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, which opened in 2003 and is currently celebrating 15 years on Broadway. Wicked tells an alternative version of the life of L. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West (via Gregory Maguire’s novel). And, though it never came to Broadway, there is The Witches of Eastwick, based on the John Updike book and subsequent film of the same name; a theatrical production ran in London’s West End in 2002. Just like in Macbeth, you get three witches for the price of one — in this case, three scorned sorceresses uniting their powers to exact revenge on a devilish man who seduced each of them.
What is it about mad scientists that theatrically fascinates us? Could it be their potential for over-the-top lunacy that is both inherently dramatic and entertaining? Whether it is the title character(s) from the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusse musical Jekyll & Hyde (1997) or the title character from the Mel Brooks/Thomas Meehan musical Young Frankenstein (2007), there is something captivating about obsessed scientists who will stop at nothing to see their experiments through to the end, at whatever the cost. However, not every mad scientist in theater is a conventional one. Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show is certainly a colorful alternative. Author Richard O’Brien imagined a sexually fluid cross-dressing interpretation of the mad scientist whose ultimate goal was to create the physically perfect man (and maybe get a little nookie on the side). There was also a serious play version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which played Broadway’s Palace Theatre for one performance in 1981. The calamitous (and costly) flop by Victor Gialanella is notorious for its delayed opening thanks to complicated, uncooperative scenery. The lost investment of close to $2 million (a record at the time for a Broadway play) may have been the scariest thing about it.
Next to werewolves, zombies appear to be the most underrepresented characters of Halloween lore in plays and musicals. But unlike werewolves, our beloved zombies have gotten some play. Everyone wants to go to their prom, even the living dead. So, without a doubt, the musical that brings all of it together is the 1996 Off-Broadway musical Zombie Prom. Attending high school near an unstable nuclear power plant can certainly have its effects, and it does when one of the students, Jonny, commits suicide after a breakup. Not to worry, though: Jonny still makes it to the prom, albeit in a resurrected zombie form. Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey created Zombie Prom, a testament to that “undying love” that lives on even after we have died.
How do you like your vampires? Traditional? Well, then you need to look no further than the 2004 musical version of Dracula, with a score by Frank Wildhorn, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton, which draws directly from Bram Stoker’s legendary novel. If a romantic take on the vampire legend is more your bag, then the 2005 Elton John/Tim Rice/Linda Woolverton musical Lestat, an adaptation of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles novels, is sure to get your blood pumping. If camp has more of a “bite” where your undead are concerned, then the Vienna-born Dance of the Vampires, based on the 1967 Roman Polanski film, is sure to thrill. With a score by Jim Steinman (Bat Out of Hell) and Michael Kunze, the piece had a short run on Broadway in 2002 starring Michael Crawford. Vampire musicals haven’t run long on Broadway, but play versions have certainly captivated audiences. Hamilton Deane wrote the 1924 stage version of Dracula, which played in London and then had a Broadway premiere in 1927 starring Bela Lugosi. Perhaps the most successful stage version of that script was the 1977 revival starring Frank Langella as the notorious count, and creepily designed by Edward Gorey.
What would Halloween be without ghosts? Phantoms, specters, and apparitions abound in plays and musicals and are perhaps the best-represented supernaturals in theatrical writing. William Shakespeare loaded his plays with ghosts, including Hamlet and Macbeth. Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit hilariously imagines what it would be like for a man to be haunted by not one, but two of his deceased wives. That play was also turned into the 1964 musical High Spirits. Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Zippel, and Charlotte Jones brought Wilkie Collins’s 1859 The Woman in White to the musical stage, a mystery story concerning a mysterious woman dressed in white who may or may not be a specter. For a touch of the macabre and a dose of dark humor, the musical The Addams Family (based on the Charles Addams cartoons), with a score by Andrew Lippa, features an entire chorus line of ghosts parading through the home of the titular clan. The theatrical ghost tale that reigns supreme, having haunted London for 32 years and Broadway for 30, is The Phantom of the Opera. Once again, Andrew Lloyd Webber provides the music, this time to the lyrics of Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart, bringing Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel to life for audiences. The Phantom of Opera is a ghost who roams the shadows of a Parisian opera company, fixated on a young ingenue who he coaches for the stage, demanding her loyalty and her heart in return.
Though science fiction isn’t exactly an iconic character type of classic horror, it is an iconic genre that brings about frightening possibilities. It has also been well represented in musical theater. Little Shop of Horrors (1982), the Off-Broadway musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, draws from the 1960 film of the same name about a flower shop attendant who is nurturing a plant that turns out to be a flesh-eating monster. Off-Broadway’s Bat Boy (2001) by Laurence O’Keefe, Keythe Farley, and Brian Fleming draws its inspiration from a supermarket tabloid headline about a deformed human found in a cave who resembles the blood-sucking marsupial. When a series of cow murders ignites around the town, the residents attribute them to the misunderstood Bat Boy. And then there is Carrie, based on the novel by prolific horror novelist Stephen King. Adapted by Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford, and Lawrence D. Cohen for the musical stage in 1988, the story surrounds an abused high school girl with telekinesis whose powers escalate into a horrific display of carnage when she wields them at her tormentors. Carrie is arguably the most notorious of all Broadway musical flops, due to its mammoth budget of $7 million, entirely lost when scathing critical reception and audience word of mouth closed it after five performances. Carrie has been somewhat redeemed in recent years with a successful Off-Broadway production in 2012. Like the ads for the original production asserted, “There’s never been a musical like her.”
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.
Last updated and effective as of January 14, 2019
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