Back to Hawkins in the Joy Machine: 'Stranger Sings!' Returns to Off-Broadway
Most students at the School of the Arts are settling into their first weeks of classes, but Theatre Management and Producing student Jonathan Hogue is gearing up for the Off-Broadway return of his show Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical.
Hogue is the writer and producer of Stranger Sings!, the musical send-up of Netflix’s wildly popular series, Stranger Things. After a world premiere in 2018 and a 2021 production at Off-Broadway's The Players Theatre, the show now returns with the original cast on September 12, 2022 at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke's.
Audiences will return to Hawkins, Indiana to watch characters like Eleven, Dustin, Joyce, and Hopper, even indelibly beloved Barb, sing their plight in a variety of 80’s-inspired, joyfully camped-up musical styles.
That precious, all-too-familiar feeling of not wanting a good show to end is in part what inspired Hogue to create a musical journey to Hawkins.
“I became such a massive fan of Stranger Things when it first hit Netflix, and found myself wanting to stay in that world long after I finished watching,” Hogue told Broadway World.
Hogue wrote both the book and score for Stranger Sings!, evolving it from a five-minute concert into the two-act show it is today, which parodies all four seasons of the series, and expands to a cast of eight, “with puppets!” he added.
Hogue is adept at tapping into the iconography of the series—Eleven and her Eggos, Joyce communicating with Christmas lights, the cult of Barb—and translating them into musical set-pieces.
“I knew it was important that the show retained a lot of these iconic looks and moments from the series that fans loved, but also functioned naturally in the world of musical comedy,” he noted to Broadway World.
Like a dancing Demogorgon in an Eye of the Tiger-esque battle scene, or a hair metal turn for Steve, the show is full of nods to 80’s pop culture. Even the staging of this most recent production brings audiences into an 80’s style basement, complete with wood paneling and outdated decor, where the show will be performed in the round.
To “build out the sounds of the 80s,” Hogue did his homework, and sought out references appropriate to each character. “I had a playlist for each song I was writing, of different songs from the 80’s that would get me in the right headspace,” Hogue explained.
Jonathan and Nancy get a Corey Hart, Sunglasses At Night-style number, while for Barb and Nancy’s friendship song, Hogue was “really looking at that Olivia Newton John, Cyndi Lauper kind of poppy sound.”
The influence of musical theater itself is also palpable. Hogue says one of his easiest choices was crafting melodramatic Joyce as a classic musical theater diva, and letting Barb get her “Rose’s Turn” moment.
How does a composer reckon with the series’ iconic, deliriously synthesized Duffer Brothers theme music? “We created our own sort of version of it that sounds similar, but is our own Stranger Sings version,” Hogue said, “And we kind of wove the actual theme into the opening number as well, just for kind of a wink to the audience.”
“There may or may not be a nod to 'Running Up That Hill,' he added, referring to the Kate Bush song featured so prominently in Season 4 that it re-entered Top 10 charts three decades after its initial release, “so keep an eye out for that one.”
I asked Hogue what he considers to be the most important aspect of writing parody. “Finding what the joke is,” he responded. “It’s about taking things and flipping them on their head, so I’m not writing Stranger Things the musical, I’m writing the parody.”
He also spoke about the need for balance, to give the show emotional dimension.
“I need to do two things: I need to tell a story—and I am taking the arc of Season 1 and telling it all the way through—and then also find a way to make it funny. Usually there’s some element of irony at play, in what the characters are singing or doing and what we’re perceiving.”
Finding the joke in each song can be difficult when characters are dealing with more painful story beats, he explained. Particularly when it came to the relationship between Eleven, a supernatural girl struggling to find family, and Hopper, a man who has lost his own daughter. “Taking that seriously was something I had to balance,” Hogue said.
According to Hogue, Eleven’s number, "The Dad I Never Had," was inspired by the Little Shop of Horrors number “Somewhere That’s Green,” which manages to be both sincere and tongue-in-cheek without canceling out either register.
“Yes this is a two-act, two-hour silly comedy night of fun, but I want there to be heart, and I want the audience to care.”
Hogue has called his show a “joy machine,” a haven of silliness where he hopes Stranger Things fans can gather “and know they’re in good hands.”
With Stranger Sings! performances beginning September 12, 2022, audiences awaiting Season 5 can get their Stranger Things fix with this gleeful, parodic journey back to Hawkins.