Last month, Phoenix Wright came to life on stage in Japan courtesy of the all-female musical theater group, Takarazuka Revue. It was bright, it was catchy, it sold like hotcakes — and it was downright uncanny.
Takarazuka is no stranger to adaptations; their five troupes have each put on works based on Western literature and films, Japanese mythology and even popular manga throughout the group's 96 year history. The Cosmos Troupe — newest and most experimental of the Takarazuka gang — handled the Phoenix Wright adaptation, rendering the DS esquire down to the last detail along with his colorful cast of supporting characters. Because they the adaptation with developer/publisher Capcom's blessing, they had a certain quality standard to live up to.
Clearly something clicked as Capcom and Takarazuka are continuing their collaboration for the musical Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2. Takarazuka's success in adapting a video game into a musical begs the question, then, of when we can expect to see a major-production video game musical in the United States.
The answer: We're almost there.
Below: From Les Freres Corbusier presents Dance Dance Revolution
Just a little over a year ago, Les Freres Corbusier presents Dance Dance Revolution completed a successful run at the Ohio Theater in New York City (off-Broadway, but still Broadway). The production wasn't in anyway affiliated with Konami, but because it's a comedy "loosely based on" DDR, it falls under the protection of parody law in the United States.
Even with that legal cover, Alex Timbers, Les Freres Corbusier's Artistic Director said, "It wasn't parodying Dance Dance Revolution per se. But no one was purchasing tickets because they thought it was DDR."
"I'd already done a musical based on Buck Hunter," he said, revealing his tendency to hang out in video arcades for inspiration. "I had, on a lark, written [a DDR musical] — and at that time, I'd never played it — but we did a really sort of low-budget production of it and it was really fun, it was a huge hit."
In his adaptation, Timbers invented a plot to go with the music that was taken mostly from Dance Dance Revolution Disney's Rave Remix. The story is set in a futuristic totalitarian society where dancing is illegal (think George Orwell's 1984). The "dance prophet" Moonbeam Funk arrives to shake things up for the no-fun government — and that's where the Dance Dance Revolution part comes in.
After a summer stock production, Timbers brought on professional video designers and took their vision of Dance Dance Revolution to the next level. They got a larger venue in New York and planned to stage the production in a bar where the audience could be a part of the action instead of just the spectator (and of course drink).
"It was a success in that it sold out before its first performance," said Timbers. "And the show was good. It's a little hard to quantify it in theater [where productions are expected to lose money]. But it definitely felt like it met all expectations and exceeded them."
Timbers said that for some the production was a "sweetly loving ode" to DDR, while others said they wanted to see more of the actual game in the show.
"Though," he said, "I have no idea what that show would be."
Below: From Jonathan Mann's Mario Rock Opera.
Chances are it would look something like Jonathan Mann's Mario Rock Opera. Not this crazy puppet version, mind — but the live action one-act musical staged as part of the California Institute of the Arts student showcase in 2005.
Writer-director Jonathan Mann said he'd always wanted to do a Mario musical. "The first video game memory I have is of playing Mario at a babysitter's house," he said. The nostalgia he felt for the game in college was so powerful, he found a way to sneak it into his curriculum. "I was in the writing program at Cal Arts, which is sort of this really wide-open [program]. As long as you justify what you're doing you can make whatever. It was technically my thesis project."
Mann's adaptation draws from the basic themes in most Super Mario games: princess gets kidnapped, Mario jumps on goombas, wash-rinse-repeat. Mann expands the idea of Mario as the everyman, painting him as a hero in an emotional crisis.
"He realizes he's this Sisyphean character who's done this thousands of millions of times," Mann explained. "And he has a sort of existential crisis and he becomes really depressed. And at the end of the first act he dies at the hands of Magic Koopa."
Boy, I can't tell you how many times that happened to me.
Below: The CD cover for Mario Rock Opera.
"Most of the teachers didn't totally get it," Mann laughs. "I just don't think that they understood [because they'd never played the game]. I had to frame it in this sort of Joseph Campbell [premise] to sell it to them. But everyone who saw the finished piece enjoyed it. I think they enjoyed it whether or not [they'd played the game]."
That will be the ultimate challenge of adapting video games to musicals: Can the script and the music build off of the premise the games on which they are based and still be fun for everybody to watch?
San Francisco Bay Area theater critic Sam Hurwitt thinks it's possible. As a critic who specializes in reviewing plays and musicals based off of movies and books, it's not hard for him to imagine what a video game musical adaptation would look like or how soon he'll be reviewing it.
"It's only a matter of time," Hurwitt said. "You've got tons of people who play video games going to movies, so they're making games into movies… and a lot of movies are being adapted into musicals."
There are two problems with this from Hurwitt's perspective, though: the first is that adaptations in general don't leave a lot of room for originality in musical theater.
"The thing with musicals is you'll often have the temptation to completely revamp the story to make it more musical friendly — maybe give it a happy ending or something," he explained.
The second thing Hurwitt is a little leery of is the lack of narrative in many video games: "In the case of something like Super Mario, it's not that much of a story. You can't have two and a half hours of just somebody jumping over turtles and knocking over things to get to the princess."
Clearly he hadn't seen the Mario Rock Opera.
Ironically, Hurwitt's concerns address each other. If a game has a weak or non-existent narrative, there is more room for a would-be adaptation to get creative.
Left: Another scene from the Dance Dance Revolution production.
"[Video games are] exciting and incongruous in a way that allows you a lot of latitude," Timbers said. "Doing a musical based on Toy Story, for example, you know what that's going to be. But doing a musical based on Dance Dance Revolution, that's exciting and mysterious and there's a lot of creative latitude."
Even something like Mario which follows a very clear (if basic) narrative is still a wide-open field in terms of creativity. Just look at the Mario Ice Capades show (do not look at the film
Endless creativity in adapting video games to musicals presents its own set of challenges, though. Les Freres Corbusier presents Dance Dance Revolution hasn't caused any Konami lawsuits so far (hooray for parody law!). But if rouge theater companies start staging musicals "loosely based" on licensed properties left and right, chances are a game publisher will take exception.
It's this fear of corporate pressure that's kept Mann from completing acts two and three of his Mario Rock Opera — and from exploring Metroid or Zelda operas, which would be his ultimate dream. "If I had some help, I could do it," he said. "I got kind of burnt out doing Mario all by myself."
But even if he got funding and a troupe like Cosmos, Mann would still be afraid of Nintendo quashing the project before it even got going.
"You will not find someone that thinks that there is more of a market for this kind of thing than me," said Mann. "I put two years of my life into it. But… every once in a while someone will call me up and say, ‘Hey, Mario Opera – it's a great idea' and their first question is ‘do you have the rights?' And my answer is ‘No' and their second question is… Well, they don't have a second question."
Left: The Phoenix Wright musical's promo poster.
That doesn't mean it's impossible – but it will take time and some vetted examples of success to convince both theater people and game companies that video game musicals could, in fact, rock. Fingers crossed, Takarazuka's Phoenix Wright production will clue other publishers in to the idea that there's a market for video game musicals.
They may already have. Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to make his musicals into games; Takarazuka already has Phoenix Wright sequels in the bag; and — rumor has it — EA is shopping for theater companies to look into adapting some its licensed games to the stage. (Our contacts at EA were unable to comment on the rumor one way or the other.)
"The real test is not going to be a video game musical's fealty to the video game — although that could be interesting — the question is how entertaining is it as an evening of theater," said Hurwitt. "In order for it to work, it's great for it to appeal to the fan base of the video game… but it also has to have some sort of crossover, to play to somebody who hasn't played the game. If the video game theater audience crosses over a bit more [into musical theater]… it's only matter of time."
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2 hits Bow Hall in Hyogo, Japan on August 21 and will come to Tokyo's Akasaka ACT Theater September 5. Jonathan Mann is hard at work on getting the first act of his Mario Rock Opera animated; and although Alex Timbers doesn't have any future plans for video game adaptations (yet), his next show will feature live robots on stage. That's not too far off from a Super Robot Taisen musical, right?