What’s behind the process of creating intentionally absurd stage musicals based on the worst stories that come out of pop culture? There really isn’t any Broadway precedent for this other than off-off Broadway where even they may have rejected more than a few similar concepts over the years. It’s also something hard to track on its history since it may have started after the O.J. Simpson trial began and the foundation for reality shows was assimilated into the mainstream media. If that’s true, then you can say intentionally cheesy musicals based on equally bad pop culture perhaps started with one rock-opera based on the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident.
Yes, it perhaps started there first since any attempts at a musical about O.J. Simpson didn’t come until later. There was an obscure musical called “Juice” that didn’t get much attention, though has clips on YouTube of one of its numbers called “My Name is Johnnie Cochran.” Also, a movie satire called “O.J.: The Musical” is playing on the indie circuit right now and shows a fictional musical production being staged through the classic Christopher Guest mockumentary style.
While the above obviously can’t count, it still has a degree of realness considering they stage actual numbers in the movie that we’ll thankfully never see on a real theater stage. It’s still startling, though, that people like the producer depicted in “O.J.: The Musical” really do exist and stage offbeat musicals based on pop culture figures we’ve long been sick of hearing about.
Such is the case now with Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. Someone is truly staging a “Rob Ford: The Musical” there, which received quite a bit of media attention recently. Several media outlets mostly focused on the audition process where dozens of Rob Ford doppelgangers showed up to be the lucky person to land the lead. And, yes, it’s going to have actual songs that we’ll likely see on YouTube eventually. No doubt we’ll be seeing a number of tumbles on the stage, meaning insurance premiums will likely be high in the event someone really does break a leg.
But where is this type of musical heading, and are they really making money? You might be surprised at how much people are starting to eat these up, with some of the music not all that bad.
“Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Musical” Success
That rock opera I mentioned above about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan has been an unbelievable runaway success over the last several years. It’s been touring around the country and giving critics a major surprise on how effective the story and music actually is. For a serious musical theater critic, it’s probably surreal to have to give such reviews to something you’d expect would be intentionally bad. Regardless, the creative forces behind these pop culture musicals are taking the subjects very seriously as perhaps they should be.
While “Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Musical” is done in an intentionally absurd manner, being absurd can still be taken seriously on the stage when the music is high quality. With recent critics saying that it’s surprisingly poignant amid all the comedy, you have to wonder if this musical may actually get staged off Broadway eventually based on its (no pun intended) legs.
Similar musicals have been produced about pop culture figures of the last 20 years, including musical takes on Princess Diana and Prince Charles. None of them, though, have quite reached the status of “Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Musical.” Will the Rob Ford musical end up becoming just as popular if the musical talent behind it put some serious thought behind a character considered alternately buffoonish and tragic?
When you think about it, most of the best characters in legitimate Broadway musicals have the same collisions of character to make them interesting. In that regard, pop culture musicals may have near the same quality and only become shunned by larger audiences because the subjects became ubiquitous in the media.
It’s a genre that’s likely to continue, however, based on the prospects for making real money. In another decade, we may be seeing small musical productions based on the life of Lindsay Lohan or the Kardashians. Almost all of them will probably have the strange collision of being absurdly funny while also having as much hard-hitting tragedy as a Shakespeare play.