The enterprising British theatre group Transfer Productions has just finished their first run of Mario! A Super Musical, which is exactly what it sounds like: a parody of the beloved game series, told through song. But there's so much more to it than that. The musical is full of cheeky references, unexpected takes on well-known characters, and a surprising twist on the traditional tale.
We spoke to the writer of the book and lyrics, Jim Burrows, to get a better sense of where Mario! A Super Musical came from, and where it's going next....
Nintendo Life: Hello! Thank you for agreeing to chat with us! First up: Tell us about the Mario Musical, in your own words.
Jim Burrows: Hello!
Mario! A Super Musical is a parody musical with a totally original score centred around what would happen if the main premise of the games were subverted - what if Bowser kidnapped Mario and Peach had to save him? Along with Toad, Luigi and Yoshi, Peach must shake off the shackles of being the archetypal "damsel in distress" to defeat Bowser and his dastardly sidekick Kammy Koopa. We also have unexpected romance, ridiculous gags and some gorgeous harmonies. It's a really fun power hour!
We know it’s boring, but we have to ask: Weren’t you worried about the dreaded Cease & Desist from Nintendo?
Oh, every day we feel like the Sword of Damocles hangs over us but that almost adds to the excitement. In previous versions of the show we had an encore song called Please Don't Sue Us which had 100% legally accurate lyrics, which read:
IN PARAGRAPH 5 SECTION 30A
OF THE COPYRIGHTS ACT, WELL IT DOES SAY
THAT A PARODY OR A CARICATURE
IS FAIR GAME FOR THEATRE TO EXPLORE
So it is the old gambit of "fair use", but we've employed enough parody and artistic license to create our own unique experience.
We were also heavily inspired by the spoof musicals of Team Starkid (Very Potter Musical, Holy Musical Batman etc) and the UK's own brilliant Fat Rascal Theatre with their hilarious show Unfortunate, which is a Wicked-esque take on the story of Ursula from The Little Mermaid.
If even The Mouse aren't touching parody musicals, we feel quite secure! We've also had Nintendo employees come to see previous runs who have really enjoyed it so maybe they put a good word in to the higher-ups. Either way, I hope Nintendo are enjoying the free advertising we're giving them!
Which musicals and writers did you have as inspiration?
Obviously the aforementioned Team Starkid and Fat Rascal, but my main musical theatre inspiration is the late, great Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin) who I firmly believe was the greatest lyricist of all time. (Sorry, Sondheim.) If you can find a better piece of internal rhyme than Gaston's "As a specimen, yes I'm intimidating!" I'll eat my hat.
Another huge inspiration for the show were some of the brilliant YouTubers who add lyrics to existing Nintendo tunes - brentalfloss, Dave Bulmer et al - who in a way almost introduced me to the concept of musicalising the inner thoughts of these characters in such an extravagant and fun way, so thanks to them for being my virtual mentors!
We love that you kept in/added accents and twists to the established characters. Yorkshire Kammy, Scottish Luigi, Fancy British Toad, Female Luigi — was this a conscious choice on your part, or did you let the actors do their own thing?
Female Luigi was always a conscious choice as they double as Rosalina later in the show, although the other candidate of the final two during auditions was a fabulous drag queen who would have brought a different and brilliant dimension to both roles - definitely still on the table for future runs!
I think Fancy Lad Toad was also always the intention as his personality is mostly based on Sunshine's Toadsworth (a Captain Toadette also quite early ended up on the cutting room floor). Everything else came from the minds of the actors - our fantastic director Ellie Coote very specifically wanted actors to use their own accents as we wanted to veer as far away from "impersonation" as possible to allow them to connect with the characters and so the audience isn't sat there like "hmm, that Italian accent isn't 100% accurate", and instead believe in our version of the characters within our interpretation of their world.
The magic of theatre means that literally 2 lines in you'll have completely forgotten that Luigi wasn't always Scottish. We also allowed a lot of improvisation in rehearsals as the cast developed their own versions of the characters - It would also be remiss of me not to mention that Kieran Sims, who plays Bowser, is the funniest human being I've ever met and several scenes are just "Kieran does something funny here" - his scene involving Pikachu changes every single time it's performed and I cry laughing every time.
Which songs did you write first, and which was the hardest to finish?
Yoshi's solo Sidequest is what we call a 'trunk song", which basically means it existed before this version of the show even began! It was written for a prospective Zelda musical and was sung by Tingle, of all people, but only required a few tweaks to fit in this show as it was already so generalised to gaming as a whole - swap fishing for coin collecting, job done.
The first song actually written for the show was Peach's big opening "I Want" solo, Free, which really served a mission statement for us and the story we wanted to tell. The hardest song to finish was our finale as to be honest I actually didn't want the show to end and I wasn't ready to let go of the characters.
Really upsettingly, after I finally thought I'd nailed it with a song called "Into The Unknown", Frozen 2 came our about a month after I'd finished writing it and I had to go back to the drawing board...
There are a few nice references in the simple stage outfits, like Donkey Kong’s Velvet Underground banana t-shirt. What other neat details did you include?
There's plenty of references within the set itself! Our Mushroom Kingdom mountain (not to be confused with the just as cheap-looking Marble Arch Mound) is built out of cardboard boxes and Nintendo consoles and plushies - there's a load-bearing Wario amiibo somewhere.
There's moments of physicality and choreography lifted directly from the games as well, from Peach's idle animation in Super Smash Bros to routines from Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix. The music obviously occasionally features DA DA DA DOO DUN DAH and organically hides little hooks from games like Galaxy and Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins (my favourite buried reference).
There's also ridiculously obscure references buried in the dialogue to games like Bubble Bobble, Killer Instinct, Kingdom Hearts and Zelda II - there's one reference to Hotel Mario which literally I think one person gets every single time, I always try to spot the one or two people who laugh at it so I can buy them a drink after the show.
Which characters, musical numbers, and cool ideas had to be cut for time?
We have more cut songs than songs that are still in the show! There was a hilarious scene with Sonic that sadly had to be cut for narrative structure reasons, and a lot more Wario and Waluigi nonsense peppered throughout, which were also cut due to them just being a bit irritating and unfunny.
a hilarious scene with Sonic that sadly had to be cut... and a lot more Wario and Waluigi nonsense peppered throughout, which were also cut due to them just being a bit irritating and unfunny
The two songs I do really miss and which could possibly be reinstated for future runs are "Heroes Wear Green" where Link and Zelda appear to Luigi in a vision to inspire him and "The Pacman Can Can", a solo for Toad, which at this stage I don't want to tell you anything more than the title!
We also right at the beginning of development looked into any areas of interactivity from the audience to really give it a game like feel, but after some experiments and workshops decided wouldn't benefit the story we wanted to tell - if Peach's main goal is to give herself some agency, why take it away from her and give it to Keith on the fourth row? Another videogame-centric musical named Stages debuted at the Vaults recently which had the audience makes decisions on behalf of the protagonist like a Telltale game, which was incredibly awesome and I hope that show returns for another run some day.
Did you expect the audience to have a bit of video gaming knowledge? Were they usually under 40?
There's definitely some hardcore references that you'll only get if you know your Yoshi's Safari from your Yoshi's Cookie and that'll heighten your experience, but to understand and enjoy the show our audiences have proved that you don't need more than a passing familiarity with the plumber - and this is extremely common, with it being said that Mario is more recognisable than Mickey Mouse these days - to really enjoy the music, jokes and story.
Our audience has definitely skewed more towards the millennial/Gen Z bracket, but not exclusively, and everyone's enjoyed it! One older woman approached me after the show last night and said "I understood and loved about 70% of it, and I can tell everyone else was enjoying the other 30%, so I gleefully let it pass" which I think is about the correct balance!
Which video game would make a great musical next?
I would love to see the beautiful game Wandersong adapted for the stage, as it already has the bones and structure of a musical baked into it with its glorious setting and characters.
An incomplete Animal Crossing musical has been sat on my desk for years which I hope to finish someday (it's a murder mystery!) and I'd love to do a Crash Bandicoot musical someday, particularly focusing on the villains. I know Dingodile has an aria buried inside him just waiting to be freed.
Although the London run of Mario! A Super Musical at the Camden Fringe is over, Jim says to "watch this space" — you can follow the show's Twitter to be one of the first to find out if the musical is coming to a theatre near you.
Have any of you actually seen Mario! A Super Musical? Do you hope it'll get the Starkid treatment, and end up on YouTube for us all to enjoy? Let us know in the comments!