Stranger Sings! Titanique! What Makes Parody Musicals Popcorn Fun

How do you make a crowdpleasing parody musical of pop culture? There's no one answer. At their best (or bare minimum), a solid musical parody is a popcorn box of catchy songs, jokes, and wish fulfillment. Enjoy something as bloody and racy as "Game of Thrones"? "Game of Thrones: The Musical (The Unauthorized Parody)" features tap-dancing direwolves and wordplay ("I accept your Hand job"). Like or dislike the rom-com "Love Actually"? The musical spoof "Love Actually?" ridicules the movie's purported best and worst qualities.

This year, I highlight two parody musicals different in genres: one that reimagines a romantic epic blockbuster and the other that spoofs a mega-hit sci-fi streaming show. The best of their tactics underline the revelry of spoofing intellectual properties. For those who already enjoy the source material, these are for you.

Stranger Sings!

When walking into the immersive black box theatre, you'll see Walt Spangler's scenic design of Christmas lights, bean bags, a small Dungeons and Dragon tabletop, and wooden decor. Such is the familiar atmosphere of the 1980s Hawkins, Indiana home setting in "Stranger Things," the Duffer Brothers' supernatural series on Netflix. But sillier things happen here.

If you're interested in Netflix's upcoming "Stranger Things"-based play, the unauthorized "Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical" is playing at the St. Luke's Playhouse 46 (or check out the available album if you're not near its stagings in NYC or London). As in the series, the parody musical follows 12-year-old misfits (Jeffrey Laughrun as Mike, Jeremiah Garcia as Dustin, and Jamir Brown as Lucas) in the small town of Hawkins. Their (relative) normalcy is disrupted by the disappearance of their friend Will Byers (a Muppet-esque puppet operated by understudy Hannah Clarke Levine, doubling as Will's mother Joyce). The boys befriend a lab-escaped Jane (Harley Seger), a telekinetic girl known by her experiment number "Eleven," who holds the key to finding their lost friend. But the kids must outsmart Jane's evil lab "Papa," Dr. Brenner (Garrett Poladian) as they ride their bikes into the forests without parental supervision (yes, the script acknowledges the '80s cliche).

With composer-lyricist-bookwriter Jonathan Hogue's synth score and Nick Flatto's restless (often scattered) direction, the parody follows the season 1 storyline to free Will from the Upside Down parallel universe. It also incorporates references to the later seasons, adding a "Running Up That Hill" gag from its 2021 off-Broadway premiere.


If you're waiting for the 25th anniversary screening of James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster "Titanic," you'll want to sail on the "Titanique" musical at Asylum NYC. It was for the better that Cameron was so moved by Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" that he allowed it as the end credit song despite initial misgivings. Because then theatre writer-director Tye Blue wouldn't have staged "Titanique."

On a spare, classy stage with a live band, the Céline Dion herself (actually Marla Mindelle, one of the show's writers) narrates Blue's parody musical. Turns out, the famed Canadian singer survived the RMS Titanic that made its ill-fated 1912 maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Other than the Canadian superstar's involvement and a Tina Turner-dressed Iceberg (Jaye Alexander), "Titanique" (mostly) follows the movie. The aristocratic Rose longs to escape her forced engagement to the arrogant rich Cal (Ken Walk Clark). When sailing on the so-called Ship of Dreams, she falls for Jack, a lower-class artist. A jukebox-style album of Céline Dion's ballads and jams (arranged by Nicholas Connell) accompany their star-crossed romance as they face the Titanic's imminent sinking. There's no official "Titanique" album, but you can watch Frankie Grande play Victor Garber (referring to the actor who played the Titanic designer in Cameron's film) in this "I Drove All Night" clip.

Let's skewer the iconography

Smaller scaled than licensed screen-to-stage musicals on Broadway, parody musicals sell tickets on their silly reenactments. Like the series, "Stranger Sings!" pile up the references, like inserting a prop unicorn in a "Xanadu" fantasy (complete with a roller-skating ensemble), converting Will into a Muppet puppet (the 1979 "The Muppet Movie" is '80s-ish) in an inspired creative choice, or integrating a "Flash Dance" climatic dance-off.

Meanwhile, "Titanique" reduces Cameron's iconography into low-budget hilarity. The funniest gags come from Rose's famous Heart of the Ocean necklace (prop design by Eric Reynolds), an enlarged tinseled prop heavy around Rose's neck. Also in this version, Jack's hobby of sketching nude bodies results in him drawing stick cat pictures, so this pays off when he draws Rose "like one of his French girls."

Unauthorized parody musicals especially find their comic material in critical and fandom commentary. Of course, "Stranger Sings!" pokes fun at the backwards gender politics ("This is a red state," Mike warns when he convinces a wanted Jane to put on a dress). Of course, "Titanique" replicates the "floating door has room for Jack!" debate with a large door strapped to the actress's back (all the more clever for planting a foreshadowing image on the door).

The songs and characters gotta have heart

Because their length may exceed one hour, parody musicals benefit from more emotional dimension than an "SNL" sketch. But despite two acts of a fun ensemble and Hogue's energized songs, "Stranger Sings!" unfortunately displays an example of a number that overplays the stereotype: the song number "Crazy." It reduces Will's determined mother, Joyce (originally played by Winona Ryder in the series), into a madwoman. Though a Joyce performer could potentially balance sympathy and comic timing, Levine's live performance and Caroline Huerta's version in the album double down on the mental wackiness for cheap laughs. This is disappointing because Hogue intended the chuckle-worthy cameos ("Heathers," "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," and "Little Women") as a fitting tribute to Ryder's career. Ironically, Levine channels the comic punch and pity much better when she puppeteers Will through the show's funniest solo "Where There's A Will," an unexpected "Rainbow Connection" pastiche disrupted by the Upside Down creatures. 

In addition, the "Stranger Sings!" main boys — Mike, Dustin, and Lucas and their can-do attitude — are not as compelling as the long-suffering Jane (true for the original series too). In a musical homage to "Somewhere That's Green," Jane's "The Dad I Never Had" number brims with dark lyrics despite the tender scoring and Seger's wistful performance. Her reprises build up to a satisfying union with the gruff Hawkins detective, Hopper (a deadpan Shawn W. Smith), who would become her adoptive father.

The heart of Titanique

The intermission-free "Titanique" is more successful at anchoring its comedy in its humanity in between Céline Dion's rambly narration. Boasting comedy chops on par with Barb and Star, Alex Ellis and Constantine Rousouli (credited writer) play Rose and Jack, respectively, with a self-deprecating energy that doesn't take the show seriously even as they treat Rose and Jack's dreams as seriously as Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio do onscreen. In their spoofy lines, Ellis conveys real ache ("I'm supposed to marry a man with a painted hairline") just as Rousouli expresses a dorky confidence ("Art is subjective!" is his best defense of his cat sketch of Rose). "Titanique" does not mock Cameron's melodramatic screenplay as much as it embraces it with new absurdities. The cast's performance of the Céline catalog, inserting comic vibratos into hits like "The Prayer," inject a wholesomeness to the material.

As part of the charm, "Titanique" also extends a human understanding to its villains, campier than their movie counterparts yet faithful to their original essence. Clark acts as a pompous (metrosexual) Cal just as Courtney Bassett (understudy on my day) spits acid as Rose's strict mother, Ruth. Even if you have no pity for the antagonists against Rose's happiness, Bassett and Clark have empathy for their characters' self-absorbed pathos that fuels their respective diva meltdowns. For Bassett, she vents about repressed womanhood. For Clark, he gets a hilarious set-piece (set to a "Seduces Me Reprise") when Cal aims a nerf gun at the main couple.

The more the world-building, the better

Like the streaming show, "Stranger Sings!" juggles human angst, like the subplots of Mike's teen sister Nancy (Seger, ramping up the horniness) torn between lusting for the jerkwad Steve and the awkward Jonathan (both played by Poladian), Joyce and Hopper competing with their "I lost a child" trauma, and Steve learning to be a more feminist jerkwad and the internet's Favorite Babysitter. Though these human issues are amusing at a hit-or-miss rate, "Stranger Sings!" brings the biggest laughs when it mingles with the otherworldly. The demogorgon humanoid eldritch (Brown in a spandex bodysuit) wins as the non-human MVP, performing the "Thriller" dance before warbling on the telephone like the offscreen adults of "Charlie Brown" cartoons.

The gags work when "Stranger Sings!" sneaks in a serious mood. In a contrast to its screwballiness, the show makes a spooky transition into the Upside Down under the strobe lights and ceiling vines, an atmosphere that could belong to a licensed adaptation. Then the seriousness pivots into a climatic "The Final Battle" dance-off (against a James Bowie-inspired Dr. Brenner who incorporates ballet moves into his evil monologuing).

Fix-it fantasies

If you wanted a fix-it fanfic of your favorite property (especially one with depressing endings) performed live, then the parody musical justifies the ticket price. Case in point: Emma Thompson ditches her cheating husband in the "Love Actually?" musical instead of staying married.

As for happier outcomes, "Stranger Sings!" ends before the later canon can complicate Jane and Hopper's bond. It also overhauls the canon fate of the disappeared teen Barb, internet fan-favorite of the #JusticeForBarb campaign. In this parody, Barb (a take-no-prisoners SLee) survives to sing her diva showstopper "Barb's Turn" (a pastiche of "Rose's Turn") to reproach her negligent best friend and the narrative for sidelining her. (She also has the support of her new demogorgon boyfriend, who she sadly doesn't get to keep at the end.)

Meanwhile, "Titanic" dooms the ship and the star-crossed lovers but "Titanique" can sing its way to a happy ending. A Céline Dion ballad — yes, the one in the "Titanic" end credits — can raise the ship and the dead. But for a wacky twist, the parody earns its happy ending because it made us care about Rose and Jack's romps, and we believe in the whimsy of Céline Dion.

Make homage

For those acquainted with the source material, "Titanique" and "Stranger Sings!" both show that parody musicals succeed when they operate as absurd homages, not beat-downs. Their goofy lyrics and extreme revisions may acknowledge gripes with the source material but they overall appeal to the audience's affection and nostalgia. So they especially benefit when you can detect the humans cracking out of their caricature shells.

Lastly, meta jokes specific to location are irresistible. Céline Dion thanks her audience for seeing her show beneath an abandoned Gristeles market as casually as Joyce remarks the Upside Down feels like a "scrappy church basement turned performance space." I'm spoiling the quotes, but trust me that they're funnier in person.

"Stranger Sings!" is currently running through January 1, 2023, at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke's in New York City. "Titanique" is currently playing until November 13 at Asylum NYC, then will transfer to the off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theatre on November 20th through February 19th, 2023.