Sunday, November 08, 2009

Off Topic: I hate musicals . . . usually.

It has been a while since I have done a purely off-topic post. For purposes of efficiency and recognizing that most visitors to this blog are looking for specific and useful information, I have avoided the "whatever strikes my fancy" kind of post. Facebook has also given me a more appropriate outlet for those topics. That said, I am moved to write about an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

I am not a fan of classic American musical theater. I would rather do just about anything than sit through another production of Oklahoma!, Camelot, or Bye Bye Birdie. On the other hand, I have enjoyed more modern musicals including Rent, and Les Miserables. The stage production of Tommy was one of the best musicals I have seen.

That is background. The next piece of background is that I read comic books, or "comics" as we in the know say. Specifically, I read a couple series on the DC side of things (although I am dabbling in Marvel's effort to bring Captain America back from the dead). In the DC Universe ("DCU"), I read a couple of the Batman titles including the new Batman Detective, which features Batwoman Kate Kane at the moment, and the new Batman and Robin series, which tells the story of a new Batman and new Robin trying to figure out how to make their way in the wake of Bruce Wayne's apparent death. I say "apparent" because Bruce seems to have been transported to the distant past and, as a general principle, these things are rarely permanent in comics. Just look at Captain America. I'm hopeful J'onn J'onzz (AKA Martian Manhunter) gets the same treatment.

The other series I read is the Justice League of America and the related title Cry for Justice. These titles seem to be a mess and I am not sure why I keep reading. Everyone knows that the best incarnations of the JLA consisted need the Big Three: Batman, Superman, and Wonderwoman. Into that mix, you need other A-list characters such as a Flash, Green Arrow, a Green Lantern, and one or two other well known characters such as Black Canary, Zatanna, Ray Palmer's Atom, or Hawkgirl. Aquaman is the best known character with the least utility so he is, sadly, disposable in this context.

The current incarnation of the JLA, though, is a collection of B-listers including Plastic Man, Dr. Light, Vixen, and Red Tornado. Also, there is a lot of angst going on as the League debates its future and its mission. While that is going on, Green Lantern and Green Arrow are off with Supergirl, Atom, and odd characters like Gongorilla, proactively hunting for the bad guys, which is a change from their usual reactive process. That change in mission has lead to some interesting "ripped from the headlines" questions about, for example, the value and morality of torture. If Ray Palmer goes up your nose, into your sinus cavity, and then starts to grow until you confess your plans, is that torture? I think the writers need to regroup and ask whether they can address the same interesting and thought-provoking issues with the better-known characters.

So, back to musicals.

Last night, my eight-year-old and I caught up on some TV episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Generally, I don't like this series. Although it is full of good team-ups, it is more in the style of the camp 1960's TV show than the gritty Dark Knight I like to read. But, it can be witty and it does dive very deeply into the DCU. I preferred the cartoon series The Batman, which had a more serious tone.

One of the episodes we watched last night was Mayhem of the Music Meister. I was dubious from the start because I am not aware of any established character known as the Music Meister. Further, I noticed additional credits at the beginning for music and lyrics. What's going on here, I wondered.

What it turned out to be was a fully-realized musical episode. The show opens with a scene involving the villains Black Manta, Gorilla Grod, and Clock King trying to steal a communications satellite while Black Canary, Aquaman, and Green Arrow try to stop them. For reasons that are not immediately clear, the heroes and villains begin to sing their taunts at one another. Eventually, it is discovered that they are all under the mind control of Music Meister, expertly voiced by Neil Patrick Harris.

The singing evolves into a fully choreographed and orchestral piece with hints of West Side Story. From then on, there is little spoken dialog. Also, a romantic subplot develops with Music Meister longing after Black Canary (well voiced by Grey DeLisle), who is longing for Batman. This is more involved than it seems as fans know she ends up married to Green Arrow (a fact foreshadowed in the conclusion of the episode). The show includes the expected elements of a blockbuster musical including a large chorus of Bat villains singing from Arkham Asylum, that Batman "drives them Bats." That is followed by a Black Canary/Music Meister duet that could have been lifted from Beauty and the Beast. After she and Batman are captured, Music Meister puts them in one of thoseRube Goldberg deathtraps to the tune of a punk-ish tune including the lyrics "Acid steaming, lasers beaming, bones crushing, deathtrap." The show ends with a the calculated "blockbuster " song and plot climax.

Throughout all of this, Batman has worked to save the day without singing. He has, however, offered a number of funny quips including that Music Meister's show has been cancelled due to "criminal intent and bad reviews." In the end, though, Batman too has to sing, with the help of his utility belt. Cue the final reprise of Canary's love song to Batman and the timely arrival of Green Arrow.

All in all, the music and writing is top notch. It perfectly walks the line between the cartoony world of TV superheroes and a send up of over-the-top Broadway musicals. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the very entertaining Spamalot, which strikes something of the same balance.

It seems this was a bit of a surprise success for Warner Bros. It has now released the soundtrack, which is available in the Zune Marketplace and Amazon. It's probably in iTunes as well.

See for yourself via Daily Motion:

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea that comics were so deep. Thanks for the tutorial.

Matt said...

As Batman says in Part I "Well, there's something you don't see every day."

As soon as Black Canary tells the evil-doers "You boys need a spanking" I was pretty much hooked. That's not the Justice League I remember from 1965. Thank God.