Ready for a superhero musical? Usually the answer is, no, no we’re not. There’s been only one superhero musical of note: “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman,” which didn’t last four months on Broadway in 1966.
Admittedly, $40 million is being spent on “
wisdom has always been that it’s enough trouble persuading audiences to believe in flying crime-fighters wearing colorful tights, much less breaking into song.
Still, the producers of “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” the animated series that airs Friday nights on the Cartoon Network, are confident enough in the first Batman musical — titled “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” — which they’re unveiling to fans Friday at Comic-Con International in San Diego before its airing when the series returns for its second season in the fall.
In this most lighthearted take on the Caped Crusader since the Adam West series of the 1960s, “How I Met Your Mother” star (and upcoming Emmy host) Neil Patrick Harris voices the villain the Music Meister.
“It was always in the back of my mind that a musical would be a fun thing to do,” says James Tucker, producer of the series. A musical theater fan, he enlisted his co-producer Michael Jelenic to collaborate. Together, they came up with what Tucker calls “a bare-bones framework of a plot to hang the songs on. We didn’t want to do ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Sweeney Todd.’”
Batman, along with fellow heroes Green Arrow, Aquaman and Black Canary, and villains Gorilla Grodd, Black Manta and Clock King are powerless to resist the voice of the Music Meister, who naturally plans to control the world. Over five songs that occupy 18 of the show’s 22 minutes, the plot is revealed and foiled, along with a love-story subplot that fans of the DC comics will recognize and maybe even find touching.
This all started in July of last year, when Tucker and Jelenic met with “Batman” composers Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter (all of whom won 2001 Emmys for scoring an earlier animated series, “Batman Beyond”). It would be up to the trio — who together have scored hundreds of Warner Bros. superhero cartoons dating to 1991 — to make it all work musically.
Ritmanis, who had the most experience working on musicals, acknowledges that she was “a little gun-shy,” knowing
that they had only three months to do what often takes a year of writing and rewriting. Yet, she says, “for us to be in on the beginning phase was thrilling, because usually we come in at the very end,” providing underscore that punches up the action dramatically or quietly supports the dialogue.
“They knew what they wanted the songs to do,” McCuistion adds. All three composers were impressed that the producers were following musical theater tradition in using songs to move the story forward. Tucker and Jelenic — neither of whom had any songwriting experience — went off to write lyrics, which the composers later set to music within specific musical styles.
Says Jelenic, “When we conceived a musical, we didn’t necessarily want to wink at the audience. We wanted it to stand on its own — yet some of the lyrics are really absurd.” He hopes it works for audiences on multiple levels.
The opening song, which introduces the Music Meister, needed to be part “Guys and Dolls,” part Stephen Sondheim, McCuistion said. Ritmanis got to write the big ballad “If Only,” in which several characters yearn for their imagined soul mates.
The biggest challenge was the finale, which Tucker says demanded “a big, over-the-top, Busby Berkeley feel,” yet at the same time, Carter adds, needed to function as a grand “tango of death.” There is also a rock number and a funny patter song in which all the villains complain about Batman.
Harris was everyone’s first choice as the villain, since he had done voices for “Justice League” and “Spider-Man,” and proved his musical mettle onstage in such productions as “Rent” and “Assassins.” Tucker saw him in “Sweeney Todd” at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1999 and remembered how good he was.
“Eighty-five percent of this episode is music,” says casting and voice director Andrea Romano, “so we
needed somebody who was going to be able to handle this quickly and easily. Neil just flew through his session. It really was a perfect marriage of role and actor.”
Luckily, most of the other regulars were talented singers, notably Grey DeLisle (Black Canary) and James Arnold Taylor (Green Arrow). Diedrich Bader, who regularly voices Batman, stepped aside for Jeff Bennett to sing in the final number.
Tucker thinks this concept would never have worked on the earlier Warner Bros. comic book shows, many of which he worked on as designer, storyboard artist and director. All were too serious in tone. “Brave and the Bold” was just different enough.
“We wanted to free up Batman to be fun again,” he says. “This show has been so wild and out of the box that we can do a musical and no one will question it at all.” The studio even agreed to hire a 28-piece orchestra, similar to that granted to the composers of “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” but nowadays considered a luxury in children’s animation, which is usually scored with synthesizers and samplers.
Could the Music Meister return in another Batman musical? Ritmanis answers with a smile: “I have an idea that maybe he could return on Broadway.”
— Jon Burlingame
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Credits: Batman images: DC Comics and Cartoon Network. Superman: Los Angeles Times.
UPDATE: This post had one incorrect title earlier, it has been fixed because we all deserve second chances.