New Kids in The Sewer – When Ninja Turtles Go Pop

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As a nine-year-old boy, I was right in the sweet spot when TMNT hit, or rather, TMHT, with the H for Hero, as the very word ‘ninja’ was banned in the UK, lest us delicate British dandies timorously trickle wee-wee into our knickers. A franchise built around bloodless beat-downs, its wild success caused headaches among the censors for a nation where nunchucks not only couldn’t be purchased, but couldn’t even be seen, a rule which saw the excising of a scene from the movie where a string of sausages was swung around by a giant turtle. Had the Ninja Turtles phenomena begun with Coming Out of Their Shells, perhaps our nation would have been more tolerant.

A touring stage musical, where the Turtles sang and played instruments, Coming Out of Their Shells debuted on August 17th 1990, during peak Turtlemania. With their toys flying off the shelves, Shells functioned as a sort of capitalist Justice League, by teaming with Pizza Hut in a brazen sponsorship deal. The first performance of the show, at Manhattan’s historic Radio City Music Hall, was broadcast live on pay-per-view, which is what I’m watching here.

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The stage costumes are a midpoint between the realistic ones from the first movie, and the kind of thing you’d see falling into a barbecue after a terrible roundhouse kick at a children’s party. The bodies are sculpted muscle, but lightweight enough for the performers to run through simple dance routines, while the heads have animatronics capable of eye-blinks and lip syncing. Well, sometimes. The three banana-sized fingers are too bulky to form a chord, which is explained away in a behind the scenes doc by Donatello building special instruments. Leo’s got a 1-stringed bass, for example, while Don’s keytar keys are triple-wide. At least, that’s what we’re told. In the actual stage show, they’re all just miming with regular human six-strings, with Don’s fat fingers pushing down about a dozen keys at once.

For identification purposes, on top of their unique bandanas, each turtle wears their colour in knee-pads, elbow-pads, boots, and a flap of fabric around their waist, and with a funereal black armband bearing their initial. With denim waistcoats on top of the whole ensemble, the poor fuckers inside must have only needed about one piss a week. They needn’t have bothered individualising them, as they’re scripted with the exact same personality; they’re all a party dude, and the majority of the dialogue consists of 90’s surfer speak, where everything’s totally tubular. The early 90’s was rife with that Cali surf-dude affectation, but as New Yorkers who’ve never left the state, shouldn’t the Turtles sound like gruff Brooklyn cabbies? “Fuck ya mutha, I’m tryin’a eat a pizza here!

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Frequently, the mouths don’t move in time with the words, and often get jammed in a fixed position, gaping open through an entire song, with vocals floating into the ether like the voice of a dead spouse though a tranced Victorian spirit medium. The limited movements of the masks, coupled with the sameness of the characters, make it a disorientating experience, never sure which turtle is supposed to be talking, but as a rule, whoever’s gesticulating the hardest is the one speaking or singing. Also confusing, while each Turtle’s speaking and singing voices are credited as separate performers, the occasionally breathless vocals seem to indicate it’s the dialogue that’s pre-recorded, with the singing performed live. And try as I might, I cannot figure out where their eyeholes are.

Storyline-wise, they’ve chucked in the vigilante work to start a band, after Splinter told them songs were better for the world than kicks and punches. It’s clear the entire Coming Out of Their Shells deal was an effort to rebrand, distancing the Turtles from the fighty, ninja aspects, and shifting to the lucrative medium of music. There’s constant reference to not fighting — unless you have to — like they’re trying to lure in the sort of sensitive, sword-hating parents who made their kids watch Bibleman instead. It’s an odd move, right in the midst of Turtlemania, and in 1990, this was far from a flagging franchise. Any kids who came to see the martial arts action the movie and cartoon were built on would have gone home disappointed. There’s a brief sort-of fight scene with the Foot Clan, but it plays really weird without sound effects on the hits, and is one of those dance-fights, where they’re not even touching each other, and everyone’s swinging with the sort of force you’d use when fist-bumping a baby.

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No, music is why we’re here, with an album-full of TMNT-themed numbers. Usually when I write these things, I end up with the songs stuck in my head for a week; Jim Davidson’s “a bus driver I would be,” the theme tune to Thunder in Paradise; even Cannon and Ball’s Together We’ll Be Okay (a fucking banger). But with this, every song is the opposite of an earworm, so uncatchy and muddy, I can’t remember how any of them go, even while I’m listening to it.

Inevitably, we open with a song called Pizza Power, which features a couple of dancing pizza delivery boys sliding about the stage, before moving onto Tubin‘, a Michelangelo ditty. An ode to surfing, Tubin‘ serves as a reminder that, despite their Valley accents, the lads live in a sewer in New York surrounded by shit and piss, and the only waves they catch down there are filled with turds, tampons, and spunk-filled johnnies. Backed by dancing sharks in hula skirts, Mike remembers to mime to his guitar for about 10% of this number, which includes the lyric “you don’t have to wait for high tide, when you’re surfing on the sewer side!” Now there’s a pun I can get behind. Because this show has made me suicidal. Many of the songs carry messages of positivity, or in turtle lingo, “walk straight, no need to mutate!” while a couple are straight-up raps. In Michelangelo’s Cowabunga, one of those raps that runs through a backstory for each member of the band, the mechanical mouth can’t keep up with the speed of the lyrics, and opens and closes like a dying fish.

Of course, Splinter shows up, and a talking rat would have been a fun character as a puppet, but it’s another guy in a costume; a gigantic, Bigfoot-sized outfit that’s bigger than the Turtles, with the disconcerting animatronic mouth of a Chuck E. Cheese or end of the pier automaton. During his solo number, he jarringly switches from the normal Splinter speaking voice, aka the kind of voice a white supremacist would use during the racially-motivated assault of an elderly Asian man, into a grizzled Bruce Springsteen. He waffles on about pebbles and ripples in ponds, “everything you do makes good or bad rings, and you must only make good rings,” while the big screen shows black and white footage of real homeless people. This must have been a bathroom break for the audience of ninja-craving kids, and a chance for the Turtles to glug about 8 gallons of water backstage. The worst part about this scene is knowing for sure that modern day furries have had some powerful wanks over it, and there’s probably a bunch of pornographic fan art where Bigfoot Splinter is pregnant with Sonic the Hedgehog’s baby.

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Just when it seems like this is purely a naff concert, Shredder finally makes an appearance, signalling the injection of plot, and transforming it into a naff musical. Now, I know theatre is its own beast, but it’s like they saw the Shredder that fans were familiar with and said “it’s good, but what if instead, he was Widow Twanky in a tinfoil helmet?” The stage Shredder is pure pantomime, down to the eyeshadow and Skeletor-esque insults. He calls Baxter Stockman an “Albert Einstein reject,” and the audience “punoids,” and zings with classic villain alliteration, “you pretentious pile of pate!” A hater of music, Shredder’s plan involves the enslavement of humanity with a machine given to him by Krang, that can suck all the musical notes out of Earth and destroy all of the world’s goodness. I mean on one hand, mass genocide and enslavement under a cruel master, but as a plus, we’ll never hear Robbie Williams again. Swings and roundabouts. But I can’t help but think how much infinitely better this would have been if Uncle Phil had reprised his role from the cartoon.

After he scarpers, it turns into classic panto, with the kids going nuts at the thought of the real Shredder loose inside the theatre, and the Turtles — who were frozen in place with Shredder’s magic — asking them if they know what happened, even though he told them not to grass. “It’s true, Shredder is here,” says April O’Neill, appearing in the audience, and instantly drowning in hysterical children swinging plastic nunchucks, with parents holding their kids aloft and thrusting them towards her like she can heal them. The Turtles further stir the delirium, geeing them up with “our friends will help us!” and asking “are you guys afraid of Shredder?” (“NO!”) There are a couple more songs, a horrific impression of Bart Simpson, and some “he’s behind you!” business with Shredder, signalling the Turtles retreat.

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Receiving the kind of nuclear booing you’d see if Harvey Weinstein showed up to present an Oscar with his dick out, Shredder tells the “little snot-nosed brats” that they’re soon going to be his slaves, except for the ones who look “too scrawny.” The kids honestly look shit-scared, and they cut to the crowd for reaction shots like the ones the WWF did when the Undertaker first started, with one kid in a bandana readying to defend himself with foam nunchucks. He says he’s locked all the doors, so there’s no escape, before confusingly telling them to get out. It sounds like there’s a fucking riot in the audience, and with a final “I said get out!” they cut back to a crowd of children who are genuinely scared for their lives.

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One aspect that does work quite well, particularly with the children’s fear and frenzied fandom, is the sense of the audience have gotten dragged into the story. The intermission features Kip, April’s jittery roving reporter colleague, who’s got the manner of a first responder on scene at the fall of the Twin Towers. In perpetual freak-out, he shrieks at a lobby full of children that “Shredder’s locked all the doors and he’s got April; what are we gonna do?!” before arming himself with a plastic glow-sword and heading down to the basement. He scuttles and stumbles in the dark, desperately calling “Hello?!” at shadowy corners, and “SNAKES! SNAKES!” at a coil of ceiling wires. Lost and crying, he finally happens upon the Turtles, riling them up by calling them “a bunch of weenies.”

Undoubtedly the terrible highlight of the show is when they send Shredder out to do some crowd work, kicking off the second act with a full five-minutes of him pacing the stage to insult a literal crowd of six-year-olds. “What planet did you just fly in from?” he asks, like he’s doing open mic at a smoky stand-up club, telling some kid he saw their face on a milk carton — inferring their parent is a kidnapper? — and hitting on a mom by offering her “a one-way ticket to my Technodome,” which is probably what he calls his ballbag. On and on it goes, mocking a little boy for sitting with his female cousin, and thus, not being able to get a date. The fidgeting audience, now bordering on genuine civil unrest, chant for the Turtles to return, while Shredder admonishes them for standing on their seats; “that’s made of velvet!

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Eventually, we get back to the plot, where Shredder unveils his weapon; a grey dustbin with a NO MUSIC sign on it, into which he dumps LPs to destroy all the world’s music forever. After demonstrating how it works three times, he yells “I HATE MUSIC” and breaks into a rap. Like all white people doing a rap on TV in the early 90s, it’s a single repetitive beat all the way through, with rhymes like:

I hate music, I think it’s the worst

The gift of song is a gift I curse,

I hate music, I said I think it’s the worst

Well, now I hate it too. At least this confirms they’re singing live, because he loses track of the beat a bunch of times. Though he does get one of the loudest reactions of the night by name-checking NKTOB, immediately summoning a deafening cacophony of squeals. By this point, April’s tied around the waist with a rope, which lets her roam the stage like a cartoon bulldog, as Shredder uses his machine to steal Kip the reporter’s voice right out of his mouth. Now alone, April further incites a crowd which is on the verge of razing the building to ashes, asking “they aren’t weenies, are they?!” and “you guys aren’t afraid, are you?!” Then it’s time for, possibly, the last piece of music the world will ever hear, with a song the Turtles taught her, to help her not be afraid, April’s Ballad.

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I can only imagine, to a room full of agitated children who’ve not seen the Turtles onstage since the first act, how this went down, but April’s Ballad is the musical highlight of the entire show, and the closest thing to a proper song. She really gives it some welly, and one might feel as though they’re watching Broadway, at least, until the word ‘turtles’ shows up in the lyrics. But then Shredder uses his machine to steal her voice, leaving April mute, and they cut to news reports on the sudden disappearance of all music. A confused NY busker shakes his guitar as though music will fall out of it; birds have stopped singing and all radio has switched to a talk format; and some fucking nerd in a bow tie captioned as “Chester Ashworth, Music Industry Executive” sobs about Mr. Bojangles.

But as they must, the Turtles return to save the day, even though Shredder’s machine saps their life-force, cuing a surprisingly dark suggestion from Raph of “what are we supposed to do, kill ourselves?!” After some in-fighting, where the lads insult each other with burns like “lard face,” they accidentally discover the machine’s weakness was, of course, inside us all along, and that having faith in the music is enough to turn its warning dial to TOTALLY UNCOOL. The only way to win, Splinter says, is to believe in yourself and follow your heart. Michelangelo’s maudlin acapella, Follow Your Heart, echoes up to the balconies, through the entirety of which, his mouth is stuck wide open, like the silent scream of a man who’s discovered the ritually mutilated bodies of his entire family. To finally defeat the machine, our boys enlist the help of the audience, while Shredder threatens to steal all their voices forever. “Prepare yourselves to never speak again!” he says, as the camera focuses on a frightened child holding a plastic sword aloft as though it’ll help him.

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After a call-and-response with the audience for one more dreadful song — “you guys, keep singing!” — the infernal machine is destroyed and Shredder is defeated. He pegs it to an escape pod, but they plug it into the machine, sucking him into a TV. We go out on a reprise of the battle song, with an audience of jubilant kids rocking out on inflatable guitars and rushing the stage, while others restlessly squirm in their parents’ laps, long-since ready for bed. As the credits rolled, I felt like I’d lived through the end of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey for real, but I now had such an awful headache, I’ve no idea how any of the parents who were actually there survived. Both musically, and as a piece of theatre, Coming Out of Their Shells is an astonishingly awful production, but if nothing else, I must applaud its conviction to continually frighten an audience of tiny children, who merely came to see their heroes in a concert, and genuinely believed Shredder’s invasion wasn’t part of the show.

Sadly, there’s no info about this maddeningly weird stage production to be found in the accompanying Making Of video, which turns out to be a Behind The Music style mocumentary, entirely in kayfabe. Taping outside the rigours of a stage performance allows them far better-looking costumes, though as a consequence, it’s clear the performers can barely move. The heavy animatronic heads loll to the side, and every time they cut back to the Turtles, they’re stood in an odd lean, like they’ve been shot in the stomach, unable to bend at the legs or waist. At one point, there’s an interview with Raphael, who stands slumped against the wall with the posture of a cardiac arrest. They frequently cut back to footage from the live show, where the more flexible Turtles look like a different species. I say ‘flexible,’ but there’s a backstage shot from the tour, where we see the spry young ninjas gingerly being helped up a couple of steps by multiple stagehands like they’re ninety years old.

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They interview real producers and label-heads, selling the storyline of discovering “this incredible group that was playing in the sewers of NY,” and showing them laying down tracks in the studio. Music nerds will be thrilled to learn minor details, like how Michelangelo plays 3 fingers tuned to an Open E. There’s a lot of serious talk about how the label sees them as a band and not just a commodity to be exploited, before the genuine press launch for the tour, where a guy from Pizza Hut informs a crowd of six-year-olds that “Pizza Hut will launch the most aggressive promotion ever done in the record industry to support the Turtles’ new music.” Cut to them playing Pizza Power on the roof of Radio City.

The most confusing thing is when the director talks about the Turtles incorporating Broadway storytelling elements into the show, over footage of Shredder using his machine. Wait, so the Shredder stuff wasn’t genuine and he was scripted to disrupt the show every night? Did they pay him (and make him promise not to fight them for real)? Or did they hire someone to play the role of Shredder? It would explain why he was so dumb and white, and why none of the punches connected. What if the real Shredder had invaded the stage, furious at this fictional portrayal? Or did Shredder really take over the exact same way every night, and destroy all the world’s music in the process? I have so many questions. Thankfully, so did the audience of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

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The TMNT’s promotional drop-in to Oprah, mid-way through the tour, was even weirder than the stage show itself. By this point, turtle fandom is at fever pitch, and we’re told the soundtrack album has gone double-platinum. The whole thing’s conducted in character and mostly unscripted, resulting in a bizarre piece of improv performance theatre. With an audience of small children and a handful of parents, there’s a Santa’s Grotto vibe, with every kid mesmerised at the jigging Turtles mere feet away, half in elation, and the other half in wide-eyed terror. Each song further unsettles the weans, with that confusing switch between their on-mic speaking voices, and the tinny second voice that sings from a distant speaker. Though modern viewers will take solace in the fact Michelangelo is clearly a time-travelling Charlie Day.

With the gang sitting still under studio lighting, we get a better look at the stage costumes, which each have a couple of coin-sized air-holes bored into the top of the head, hidden in the liver-spot paint design. Though I still can’t figure where their eyeholes are. The whole endeavour is clearly a PR push for their new brand as musicians and not fighters, to sell positivity-infused albums to the kind of parents unwilling to buy ‘violent’ action figures. “If you sing a song with someone, you make a friend. If you fight someone, you make an enemy.” Though the adults in the room are nodding, it’s a tough sell to their fanbase, as a little boy with a rat-rail tells them he wants them to fight. Mikey tries to sooth him with “if you get pushed in a corner and there’s no other recourse, you gotta fight… but we’d rather not fight.” “Mmm-hmm” says the kid, clearly deciding at that moment he’s making the switch to Power Rangers.

But they can’t get away with a whole show of “stay in school, read; don’t skip class and hang out with bad dudes,” and Oprah soon takes them to task with her brand of hard-hitting journalism, warping reality by asking how they can be in a cartoon, but also here in person. They show a clip from the movie, with the really good costumes and the Japanese Shredder, and I wonder if she’s going to eviscerate them like she did James Frey and demand an explanation. April joins the lads onstage, and tries to keep things on track, under Oprah’s questioning of possible romantic dalliances. It’s established in the later Q&A that the Turtles are 14-15 ½ in human years and 3-4 in turtle years, so April keeps it clean and plays like they’re all just friends, but Oprah keeps pushing it. Raph tells her he’s been unsuccessfully trying to talk April “into an interspecies relationship for months,” adding “the biggest problem is she can’t hold her breath long enough, you know what I’m sayin’?” to which they make this cut to the audience.

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A panicking April states that, as a reporter, “the good thing about these guys is that, they’re not black or white; they’re green,” and there’s a brief Shredder cameo, where he cackles and threatens the Turtles to “follow you all over the city, to destroy your totally tepid turtle tunes!” Then he just blatantly lists tour dates “When you’re in Boston, I’ll be there. When you’re in Miami, I’ll be there…” You can barely hear him over the booing, with Oprah leading a manic chant of “TURTLES! TURTLES!” until he scuttles away.

The absolute solid gold highlight is a Q&A with the audience, with questions that have clearly not been vetted beforehand. It’s fascinating watching the unspoken dynamic at play between the performers, who can’t even see each other’s eyes, put on the spot and forced to instantly figure out who answers and how, mentally unpacking pages of PR bullet-points and years worth of TMNT backstory. Leo and Don barely speak through the whole thing, with Michelangelo the clear leader, and he and April getting them all through it. The sort of questions only kids would ask, the first sets the tone with “Where’s your bed? Where do you sleep?” It only gets odder from there, with a recurring preoccupation with the sewer. “Is it dark in there?” “Can you see in the sewers?” “If you live in the sewer, is there any water comes down the sewer?” When one kid asks “has anyone ever caught you in the sewer,” Raph’s weary “What do you mean ‘caught us in the sewer’, dude?” has an undertone of “four years at Juilliard for this shit?”

Some of the questions read like they haven’t even seen the show, like “who made your weapons?” or “who gave you your names?” One kid asks what their favourite pizza is — “Pizza Hut!” — followed literally 2 seconds later by another kid’s “what kind of pizza do you like?” Other questions suggest the musical rebrand isn’t going to fly, with “where are your weapons?” and “if you don’t have your weapons today, how you gonna fight somebody?” Toeing the new company line of friendship over fighting, Raph tells them “you don’t ever purposely want to start a fight, or kick someone in the head or somethin’…” But they just keep coming, in what must be the actors’ personal Vietnam — “are you gonna sing any more educational movies?” and “who’s the coolest guy?” and “WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT SPLINTER?!” Some forgo questions altogether to fling statements at their heroes, like “I’ve got your toys,” or the boy who informs them “I have your soundtrack,” only to shake his head with a huge grin when they ask him if he likes it, like a psychopath. Perhaps the deepest cut of all is “who was your mom and dad?” which Michelangelo palms off by describing frequent dreams of being a baby turtle in a big fishbowl, but sadly adding “we don’t know.”

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Before the show ends with Oprah and a stage full of kids dancing around with pizzas, she makes a grown woman in the audience stand up and explain why she’s wearing a cape, bandana, and green plastic nose. She won tickets to their tour, she says, by dressing like a turtle, eating their cereal, and walking backwards down Michigan Avenue with turtle underwear on her head. Clearly, this was a cruel radio morning show prank, and she was probably kicked out by the box office when they saw the ‘tickets’ were slices of ham.

Though it did spin off into a smaller follow-up tour, 1992’s Gettin’ Down in Your Town, the musical experiment was not a success. Financially, the initial blitz sold a ton of records, but as was constantly clear throughout, kids were in it for the fighting, not saccharine songs about believing in yourself. Decades later, the franchise lives on, with countless reboots, both live-action and animated, none of which saw the green lads put down the nunchucks for a banjo. The message is clear; fuck peace and love and singing a song, let’s all just punch each other in the face. Besides, everyone knows the best Ninja Turtle song has already been written.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a bunch of posts up, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too.

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~ by Stuart on September 9, 2018.

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