Joss Whedon created the online sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in 2008, proving independent television online is feasible while simultaneously thumbing his nose at the establishment. In defiance of limited resources and frustrating studio politics, Whedon proved you can produce good product cheaply, distribute it for free, and still make money – Dr. Horrible was a huge hit. It was a new paradigm and one that inspired rabid fan response.
Cut to 2010. Director Andy Lowe of Chinese Pirate Productions fretted, “Why doesn’t someone do a live Dr. Horrible show?” Finally someone asked, “Andy, why don’t YOU just do it?” He licensed the title from the surprisingly laid-back and gracious Time Science Blood Club (managers of Mutant Enemy properties), found musical director Brian Hammond via the San Diego theatre scene, and the rest is more than crazy random happenstance.
The fruits of their labors were shaping up at a warm Sunday rehearsal when the Pixelated Geek staff stopped by for a chat. Check Brown Paper Tickets now and get your seats before they are all gone! With only 107 seats and 16 performances, your chance to see this premiere is limited. There is a double feature on 7/17 with Gam3rs: The Play as part of Gam3rCon, so try and check that out.
While the book for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Live! is basically a direct transcription, Lowe, Hammond, and their team have built new stage work from the robust flesh of the original. Featuring design team members from top San Diego regional theatres and a tremendous cast of singer-actor-comedians, this is the genuine article – not just some shadow-cast karaoke of a beloved geek classic, which I’m sure some fans are concerned about.
Unlike published musicals, you don’t get a nice prepared package with sheet music to match actors to. Echoing the pioneering spirit of the original, they crowdsourced the music and other elements from a wealth of fan work, making the libretto, as Hammond says, more of a “wiki-score.”. Chinese Pirate Productions cast parts with an eye toward the larger-than-life archetypes of the characters, and the actors contributed a great deal to the new versions of the cast. The music could also be tailored to showcase the actor’s vocal ranges — Thomas Lokensgard (Max/Bad Horse Trio) can sing a low D and Susan Hammons (Doris) uses her full Sondheim-level vocal range — rather than simply mimicking the original.
The cast described its first rehearsal as a merry, cohesive “talent show” to showcase the actors’ unusual talents. Revealed skills (such as half the cast having improv experience and Michael Nieto’s nose flutes) promise to spice up the show. Jane Lui (in her stage debut as Penny) is a bit of a YouTube musical sensation, and her random instrument prowess has added new features that I won’t ruin for you here. The show will also feature a four-player band rocking out stage right. Finally, the cast adds color you won’t be expecting.
Let’s just say I clapped my hands and giggled a lot during this interview.
It’s fun to imagine the cast’s professionalism on the cool two-story set while they’re relaxed and silly together in the tiny room, wearing their Captain Hammer shirts, Bad Horse mustaches, and evil goggles. The whole ensemble is used to the absolute maximum in the show — it’s not just three leads with some backup singers, but a fully realized community made from ten players.
I envy them getting to sing and dance this show, but not having to step into the enormous shoes of the original cast’s. As Nathan Turner (Dr. Horrible/Billy) pointed out: after Neil Patrick Harris has delivered a line as perfectly as he has, there’s little to no room for improvement. However the spirit of the line must be kept alive. Reinterpreting characters that are so current and iconic, especially for the finicky geek crowd, can be a challenge. Lowe and company take that familiarity and honor embrace it, and then make room for the actors to put their stamp on it.
It’s a common enough conundrum for any stage show produced after a movie version, but one key difference here is the rabid fan base audience. Having the premiere run during San Diego Comic-Con is both brilliant and brave.
“This is going to bring people to the theatre who don’t usually go to the theatre.” — Susan Hammons.
The cast’s hidden skillsets helped overcome some of the interesting technical challenges in the story. Some creative and surprising decisions were necessary to transition staging between screen and stage and expand the scope of the cast, and I think audiences will be tickled by the results.
Karen Li (Hammer Fan/Choreographer) handles group movement and dance, but she also is responsible for some cool physical visuals that require a different sort of choreography. Her eyes glittered with excitement as she talked about her role in the staging. Everyone in this show is thrilled to be here and is having “super fun.” As you know from the show (and I can tell you from personal experience), such energy does more to make a show unforgettable than all the technical wonders a big budget can provide.
Casting was totally color-blind, inspired by show co-creator Maurissa Tancharoen’s song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” from Commentary: The Musical (the sung commentary track for the DVD of Dr. Horrible). Lowe and Hammond advertised roles based on broad types but with no concern for sticking with the same looks as the original cast. Lui says that for her, it made it easier for her to put her own stamp on Penny’s character without needing to make it all about her ethnicity.
Michael Minto (Captain Hammer) did “a superbombastic last-ditch effort” via email to get an audition: “Oh I heard you guys had auditions, but I’m supposed to be Captain Hammer.” SEND. Perhaps because of the sheer Hammertude of such a play, they let him come to callbacks; all agreed that he really was the only Captain Hammer.
The premise is simple: A villain (Dr. Horrible) loves a girl (Penny), but his arch-nemesis (Captain Hammer) gets in the way of his nefarious goals. Dr. Horrible is the hero of the story, and in true Whedonesque style, the whole shebang is irreverent and unexpectedly sober. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Horrible, you should be. Introduce yourself to the phenomenon by seeing this show: it’s a rare opportunity. Coming down to the 10th Avenue Theatre is well worth your time.