Another strange affair

If you are a fan of the Netflix hit Stranger Things, then head into town to try the five-star irreverent twist on the hit series – in all its hair-raising, blockbuster glory. Singing is involved. Melissa Blease chats to producer Susannah Bond.

If you’re a fan of the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi/fiction/horror drama series Stranger Things (the most-streamed Netflix series of 2022, don’cha know, starring charismatic screen icon Winona Ryder as complex, quietly feisty single mom Joyce Byers), there are multiple ways to indulge your passion and flaunt your allegiance to Joyce, Lucas, Nancy et al while you’re waiting for Season 5 to drop. From books, podcasts and VR games to comics, action figures, Lego sets, hundreds of variations on the T-shirt/beanie hat/wallet/water bottle/jewellery theme and even bicycles, the massive demand for Stranger Things’ spin-offs confirm and formally endorse the show’s cult status; all we need now is an all-singing, all-dancing, live on stage parody to come along! Oh, hang on…

This month, Stranger Sings! lands at The Forum, Bath for one night only. Part of a UK premiere tour following a nine-month stint in New York and three-month sell-out run at The Vaults in London, this award-winning stage show is described as “a wild, irreverent twist on the hit Netflix series in all its hair-raising, blockbuster glory”, and already, it’s garnering cult status on these shores. But as philosophical aspiring photographer Jonathan Byers told his timid, troubled little brother Will in Season 3 of Stranger Things itself, “you shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to” – so, let’s question why Stranger Sings! is supposed to be so good.

“Even if you’ve never seen or followed Stranger Things on TV there’s so much here, for everybody,” says Stranger Sings! producer Susannah Bond. “The set, the lighting, the music, the storyline – it’s a visually wonderful experience, packed with infectious joy! It’s parody, yes, but loving parody: a loving take on the whole world of Stranger Things and, of course, those amazing characters. We felt as though we knew the fan base well and we were really taken in by the original off-Broadway production, so we never really worried about how the show would be received here. Having said that, getting the production off its feet had it’s challenges, for sure…”

Susannah and The Vaults team came across the original Stranger Sings! back when it was a fairly small off-Broadway show in New York, written by US writer and producer Jonathan Hogue. “The show had only done a six-week run at the time, but it had already won lots of awards and earned five-star reviews,” says Susannah. “At The Vaults, we’re mostly known for producing our own immersive shows within our own, totally unique environment [if you’re not familiar with the totally unique environment that is The Vaults, see link at the end of this feature]. But there’s lots of theatre out there and we wanted to explore the joys of making more, say, lighthearted productions – and, we wanted to try our hand at producing a musical, which we hadn’t done before. So I sent the Stranger Sings! team a very informal message on Instagram saying how much we liked the show and explaining that our theatre is, quite literally, underground, so we thought it would make the perfect upside-down venue for them, and the Stranger Sings! world. And they jumped at it! They were really great to work with, and were happy to give us a fair amount of creative freedom. We kind of made it our own, with them, and it did really, really well in The Vaults, so we decided to take it on a wider tour.

Now then! If you’re one of those dedicated Stranger Things fans who have the beanie hat, Lego set and bicycle to prove it, your dedicated feathers aren’t going to be ruffled by the Stranger Sings! remix. “Our show is very much based on Stranger Things Season 1, following the initial story of finding Eleven, and losing Will”, says Susannah (talking directly here to those in the know). “You’ll see all the characters in all their absolute glory, such as detective Jim Hopper – a really loveable figure, we all love him! – and heartthrob Steve Harrington, who has that moment of really coming into himself and becoming a nicer person. But for us, the slight tweak is that there’s a big focus on Barb, who was only ever in Season 1; there’s sort of justice for her in our show, and she’s quite a driving force in the storyline.”

Oh, lovely Barbara ‘Barb’ Holland! As you may remember, she was last seen disappearing off the diving board of Steve Harrington’s pool as he and Nancy Wheeler (supposedly Barb’s best friend) ‘studied’ upstairs – are we about to discover what really happened to her? Let’s not get tangled up in all that right now because, according to Susannah, full knowledge of Stranger Things’ backstory details are definitely not necessary to the Stranger Sings! audience. But surely Stranger Things virgins are in danger of getting just a little bit lost along the way?

“I can honestly, genuinely say no, they definitely won’t get lost,” Susannah confirms. “Whilst it is, in so many ways, written for fans, it’s got a much wider playing field. View it as a homage to the 1980s, for example, and/or a love letter to musical theatre – it really covers a lot of bases, and there’s definitely something for everyone: the story, the characters, the songs; it’s campy, and funny, and uplifting. It’s a standalone joy!”

And there’s yet more to draw non-Stranger Things devotees into the Stranger Sings! world; the clue as to what that draw may be made clear in the title of the show. “Taking on a musical project has been so much fun,” says Susannah. “We’ve worked with musical directors that we’ve never had the opportunity to work with before. The music in the American production was probably quite recognisable as being American, but ours is much more British 1980s – heavy synth, and all the wonderful stereotypes of music from that time. There are little nods to British icons such as Kate Bush and lots of other 1980s musical references in there too. Awful mullets? Perhaps!”

Going by reviews alone, things are going very well indeed for Stranger Sings! in the UK (“Funny, observant, clever and inventive”: Musical Theatre Review; “One of the best satirical shows I’ve ever seen”: Lost in Theatreland) with or without the presence of awful mullets.

As Stranger Things’ geeky, quick-witted Dustin Henderson (all seasons to date) said in Series 1, “why are y’all keeping this curiosity door locked?” Why indeed? Stranger Sings! is a chorus that sings out to the curious; stranger things have happened…

Stranger Sings! Tuesday 12 September, The Forum, Bath;
The Vaults: London’s home for immersive theatre and alternative arts: