A Broadway musical perhaps isn't the first thing that pops into mind when thinking about ways to expand a superhero story from the pages of a comic book. Sure, it's happened a couple of times, but not often—and sadly, not that successfully. It's pretty safe to say that the cinematic universe is where most superheroes really thrive these days. So, why on Earth, (or Asgard...or Krypton...) did the NPR economics podcast Planet Money end up green-lighting a musical when licensing out derivative works for their newly acquired superhero Micro-Face?
Let's back up. We need a little origin story here to explain what's going here.
"At Planet Money we have a proud tradition of undertaking quixotic ventures to try and understand some big complex thing," says Kenny Malone, one of the podcast's hosts. "The sort of canonical version of this was making a t-shirt from scratch and following every single part of the process. We want to understand some big thing in the world. We want to understand globalization, so we make a t-shirt. We want to understand the oil market, so we buy oil. We want to understand the commercialization of space, so we've launched a satellite."
And, of course, each of these explorations are chronicled in a series of episodes on the podcast. That's sort of the beginning. We're still getting to the musical, but first, we have to get to the superhero.
"It was dawning on us that there was this huge economic story that we had kind of been missing, which was that the IP-ification of the entertainment industry had turned into this just gigantic behemoth."
IP in this case stands for intellectual property...and it relates to the entertainment industry most closely with copyrights and trademarks. So, to dig into how intellectual property can turn into financial windfall, Planet Money needed to own a property that could generate products and derivative works. Superheroes was the obvious answer.
When Marvel wouldn't sell them one of their copyrighted superheroes (yes, Planet Money tried that, as documented in the first episode of the "Planet Money Buys a Superhero" series ), the team discovered the wonderful world of public domain.
"Public domain is a very intentional part of copyright that encourages creativity," Malone explains. The owner of the IP has exclusive rights for a period of time, but after that time (which changes depending on copyright law), the property falls into the public domain, allowing anyone else to take that idea and make something new with it. A "boom and bust" of superhero comics in the 1940s left quite a few less-popular characters with lapsed copyrights.
"We went what I kindly called 'dumpster diving' through the annals of superhero history." And Malone and co-host Robert Smith found a buried treasure. Micro-Face, the sonic avenger. He wore a full face mask with built-in microphones that allowed him to amplify and to throw his voice. "We were beside ourselves to find a character that was like a podcaster from the 1940s," says Malone.
So, now Planet Money has their property. They resurrect Micro-Face and hire artists and writers to create a brand new 48-page comic book ("an economic adventure") starring Sam Salazar, a talented, young, NPR business reporter who happens to be the grandson of the original superhero. The comic book was officially released April 22, 2022.
As part of the continuing analysis of monetizing IPs, Planet Money called out to any listeners with licensing (Micro-Face branded merch) or derivative property (blockbuster movie) ideas to call in and make pitches. (Now we're at the musical part!)
Enter musical theatre composer-lyricist Kit Goldstein Grant, who was out walking with her one-year-old in a stroller and listening to the podcast. "I was like, 'Wait. Are they joking? I know they were joking when they said 'a Broadway musical' but here's a song I could write for it." By the time she got home she'd almost completely written Micro-Face's character establishment song in her head. "It's an 'I Am' song...he's a superhero and he's all about audio powers, so he wants to spread omni-directional good. There are a lot of audio jokes in it," says Grant.
"Like, so many," says Malone. "It was ridiculously good. It was so much better than we deserve."
Based on her demo song and pitch, Planet Money struck a licensing deal with Grant, allowing her to license the rights to write a derivative work, and they in turn would license the rights to produce her musical. Grant's story picks up after the comic book takes place, although it does quickly give the audience a little backstory before sending Salazar off on his second economic adventure, a tax refund fraud scheme that he must unravel. Malone points out that Grant draws densely from the Planet Money archives cleverly weaving in previous show topics, in particular "Escheat Show," an episode about a government program for citizens' unclaimed funds.
The musical was presented May 10 at a sold-out, live Planet Money show in Brooklyn, where Malone and Smith recapped the whole experiment and then premiered a concert-style performance of the Grant's work, complete with foley artists for sound effects. The taped episode will be available to NPR+ subscribers July 11, and then to all podcast listeners three weeks later August 1.
Mexican actor Sebastian Treviño originates the role of Sam Salazar, leading a cast of seven for the live performance. It isn't too often that this kind of a role makes the leap from page to stage or screen with so little mythology. Treviño of course had the script and the comic book to draw from, but to really create a new, live superhero almost from scratch left him lots of room to explore the character. "The podcast episode where they talk about merchandise was extremely helpful...like, what would he do, what would he not do." (As it happens, he would not brand temporary tattoos or do endorsements, but he would proudly put his face/mask on aged gouda.)
Since we've been immersing ourselves in the world of the official Planet Money superhero, we can't help but wonder what its creators own super powers are...
"I know the answer to this," says Malone immediately. "I have always had this ability to catch something that's falling out of the corner of my eye. It is legitimately something that has saved me cups of coffee, it's saved things from breaking. I'm very good at it. I don't know where it came from."
Ever the lyricist, Grant says her superpower is finding unusual rhymes.
"I can turn anything into a dance party, and people will go with it," says Treviño, who is hereby officially invited to all Playbill events.