🎶 Pokémon is the one thing in life I can control
Not too long ago, I ventured down the hedgehog hole of “early Sonic canon,” an example of Americanization of a Japanese media property at its finest. Believe it or not, there is an even weirder example of this process at work in another beloved game franchise—Pokémon. And no, I’m not talking about the upcoming Detective Pikachu film. I’m talking about the short-lived Pokémon stage musical known as Pokémon Live!, a joint production of Nintendo, 4Kids Entertainment and Radio City Entertainment.
Directed by Luis Perez, a veteran dancer and choreographer, Pokémon Live! premiered in September of 2000 at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It went on to tour North America for five months, during which it experienced mixed critical success and ultimately became a financial failure. What went wrong? Despite the franchise practically printing money for Nintendo at the time, it turned out that touring a stage production—one with monsters, elaborate sets, and a giant robot invented solely for the show—was not a cost-effective proposition.
Unlike a game or a cartoon, a musical has to be performed anew every time—and If you missed in back in 2000, and didn’t catch the showings in Portugal, Belgium, or Dubai, then you were out of luck. Until recently, that is, when production stage manager Chris Mitchell uploaded the musical in its entirety to YouTube. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Cashing In On PokéMania
The year is 2000. Pokémon is at the height of its popularity in America—Red and Blue hit North American stores less than two years prior, the anime dub is well into its second season, Pokémon: The First Movie earned over $85 million in its North American release, and the trading cards have exploded onto the scene, transforming playgrounds everywhere into underground gambling rings.
Suffice to say, America had been officially hit by Pokémania, a term that TIME Magazine would soon coin to describe just how obsessed with the franchise the American youth had become, and the so called “dangers” that came with it. Pocket monsters had taken the place of the turtles and rangers that came before them in the heart of American popular culture.
American distributors of Pokémon were quick to cash in on the franchise’s popularity, bringing over as many products from Japan as possible while putting out a few creations of their own. One of these creations was Pokémon Live! The logic behind this decision was not entirely flawed. Pokémon was killing it in absolutely every medium it touched, and venturing out into another form of media—especially a ticketed event—seemed like a solid plan.
Poké-Production (or “151 Pokémon, Millions of Dollars”)
Nobody can say they weren’t ambitious—Pokémon Live! was a multi-million dollar show with a number of advanced effects and puppets, as well as 20 different choreographed musical numbers. All of it—the casting, writing, construction—was completed in just five months, an unusually short development cycle for a show of this kind. Miraculously, the show was ready to go just in time for its scheduled September premiere.
In 2016, Michael Slade, the musical’s writer, told Game Informer about one pitfall that came with the over-the-top production. All of the effects, costumes, and sets worked great in a single venue set up for the show, but the musical was expected to tour—which meant that everything had to be packed up and rebuilt at each location. As Slade tells it, the task required no less than eleven semi trucks.
Aside from transportation, some of the show’s biggest expenses were designer Yvette Helin’s Pokémon costumes and puppets. Oddly, most of these were only showcased in the first and last musical numbers, the show effectively playing all of its best cards up front with few Pokémon appearances to follow until the grand finale. Possibly the most expensive Pokémon prop of them all was MechaMew2, a completely original Pokémon created by Costume Armor Inc. specifically for the musical—an idea approved by and possibly originating from The Pokémon Company themselves.
Built by Giovanni of Team Rocket in-universe, MechaMew2 was designed with the ability to learn any move and amplify its power simply by encountering it in battle, making it a seemingly-unstoppable weapon in the service of the crime syndicate’s plans to take over the world. The robomon even appeared on a collectible card handed out at showings. It isn’t usable in the Pokémon card game, but it does list the monster’s dimensions—10 feet tall, 7 feet wide, 8 feet deep and over two tons in weight—which some believe were the actual prop’s measurements. Despite—or perhaps because of—this gigantic stature, MechaMew2 was unable to amplify and return the investment its real-life designers had made in it.
The story of Pokémon Live! was adapted from a combination of the English dub of the anime and two American soundtracks that had been released prior to the musical’s production, Pokémon 2.B.A. Master and Totally Pokémon. These albums are too weird to fully explore here, but it’s enough to know that they’re collections of songs that were included in the English dub—hits like “Viridian City” and the infamous “PokéRap”—and a few original tracks that were inspired by the show and helped build the story for Pokémon Live!
Since most of the songs were written beforehand, with only four original numbers being developed for the musical, the narrative of Pokémon Live! was more-or-less Frankensteined together from the lyrics of these songs and elements from the anime, with a few original concepts to stitch it all together. You can read a version of the script here if you’re interested.
The plot depicts Ash (Dominic Nolfi), Brock (Dennis Kenny) and Misty (Heidi Weyhmueller) as they journey to obtain the Diamond Badge from a mysterious new Pokémon Gym, which turns out to be part of Team Rocket’s plot to take over the world, as Giovanni has been using MechaMew2 to learn the move of every Pokémon that challenges it. Along the way, Ash encounters Jessie and James (played by Lauren Kling and Andrew Rannells—the latter of whom musical theatre fans may recognize as the lead in the original cast of Book of Mormon, as well as a voice actor on the Pokémon anime) and learns the usual kids’ media lessons of friendship and love.
It was a mostly by-the-book plot with a couple of interesting ideas—for the audience of the time, it was a solid B+ of a production. But, as it tends to be the case with early Americanizations of Japanese properties, the producers decided the text wasn’t weird enough as it was and couldn’t help but toss some of their own ideas into the mix.
Love and Rockets
Some of the most out-there elements of Pokémon Live!’s story were the romantic subplots. Yes, subplots, as in plural. One of the main threads of the narrative is that Misty was deeply in love with Ash and can’t find the right way to express her feelings. Of course, fans have shipped the two characters for years, but there was never any confirmation in the anime that they had feelings for each other, only suggestions in the form of gags. That is, until the release of Pokémon 2.B.A. Master.
One of the tracks on this album, entitled “Misty’s Song,” has Misty singing of her secret love for Ash. This served as the basis of Misty’s story in the play, snowballing into a pretty significant subplot wherein she scolds Ash for forgetting her birthday, belts out this song after Jigglypuff puts Ash and Brock to sleep—a number that involved an out-of-place dance performed by two plain-costumed actors and a random appearance from a Mew puppet—and tells Ash that his Pikachu abandoned him because he’s a terrible friend—you know, typical romance.
Misty’s crush on Ash is definitely bizarre, but it’s not the most bizzare romantic subplot of the musical’s story. No, that title belongs to Ash’s mom, Delia Ketchum. Half of Delia’s story focuses on her past as Giovanni’s girlfriend and member of the gang that would form Team Rocket.
Yes, that’s right, sweet Delia Ketchum was once the gangster girlfriend of a man who seeks world domination on a weekly basis. This wasn’t a throwaway gag either, a background detail put in without a thought—it was a major plot point that partially motivated Giovanni’s actions and drove a wedge between Ash and his mom after he found out about her checkered past. And 4Kids actually approved of the idea, going so far as to endorse the proposition of Giovanni being revealed as Ash’s father—a plot point that, thankfully, didn’t make it into the final product, though it has been speculated about by fans for years.
The undoubted highlight of the musical—for both kids watching it in 2000 and a 20-something watching it now—is a song entitled “The Best at Being the Worst.” This was a tango number between Jessie and James as they lamented their many blunders in trying to capture the elusive Pikachu for Giovanni, failing to even dance properly throughout. It’s surreal and bonkers and glorious all at the same time.
Other strange highlights include James asking Giovanni his thoughts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” MechaMew2 learning the power of friendship and self-destructing to defy Giovanni, Psyduck scene transitions that desperately said, “Look kids, we get this show!” and my personal favorite, a musical number between acts in which a personification of Ash’s Pokédex named Dexter performs the rap song, “What Kind of Pokémon Are You?” from 2.B.A. Master as he dances with his “Dextettes.”
Reception and Legacy (Or Lack Thereof)
Pokémon Live! vanished as quickly as it had arrived. Beyond reviews—which are rather scarce and vary from scathing disgust to praising it as a 21st Century version of “The Magic Flute”—there is very little historical information about the show aside from Michael Slade’s interview.
I put out a call for stories from people who’d seen the musical as kids, but nothing came of it—as though it never existed. And, were it not for the YouTube uploads and archived websites, I’d be inclined to believe that Pokémon Live! was something we collectively dreamed up—a show everyone remembers but that nobody seems to have actually seen.
But Pokémon Live! was very real, and it perfectly encapsulates the whirlwind American encounter with Japanese pop culture at turn of the century—a time when a stage musical based on the soundtrack based on the English dub of an anime that itself was based on a video game series could not only get made, but seemed like an amazing idea.