Quick, what’s your favorite children’s musical Broadway show that ends with the main character eating the heart of her best friend? Miss Piggy’s Foot Fetish Funtime Hour? Hmm, I’ve never seen that one. My favorite is Raggedy Ann The Musical. The only Broadway musical for kids with a menacing haunted carnival theme.
The Raggedy Ann musical has a cult following among weird musical theater nerds because its songs are kind of catchy but everything else, from its costuming to the set design to every element of the story, seems like it’s explicitly designed to make a child cry. You can’t convince me that anyone involved in this production liked children. I’m an adult, and I had a nightmare about being chased by clowns after watching a bootleg VHS recording of this show some hateful maniac uploaded to Youtube.
Broadway musicals always have an “I Want song” in the first act that establishes what’s driving the main character. Raggedy Ann’s main character is a little girl named Marcella, and what she wants is to not die. She’s very ill, which we know because three doctors in clown wigs stand on her bed and sing to her about it.
The actual lyrics for the, again, weirdly catchy song are:
♪“Because you’re sick, sick, sick
and you’re not getting better quick, quick, quick
You’re sick, sick, sick
and we think you’re gonna die!”♪
Grapevine, grapevine, two, three four. The clown straddles Marcella so he can jump up and down on her bed as he tells her she’s dying.
♪“You’re sick, sick, sick
Your future isn’t worth a lick, lick, lick
Yeah, you’re sick, sick, sick,
and we know you’re gonna diiiiiie! Hmmmm”♪
Marcella has the saddest life ever. She says her Mother abandoned her, but her Dad’s like, “No, she didn’t abandon you. Remember she was kidnapped.” Which, I guess, he thinks is the healthier thing for Marcella to believe. It seems like there’s something more light-hearted than kidnapping this musical about a clown doll could have gone with as a lie about her mother’s absence, but its writers have never heard of a sad thing that they didn’t want to add into this jaunty musical.
Immediately after discovering that Marcella’s mother abandoned her, we also learn her dog, Red Fang, ate her pet bird, Tweety, and choked to death on its feathers. This is kind of played as a joke, but it’s extremely important to the plot later.
At the risk of writing the most disturbing sentence of all time, Marcella’s dad, being scolded for his alcoholism by clown doctors as they high kick offstage in front of his dying daughter, tells her that her toys come to life when she sleeps. He sews a candy heart into the Raggedy Ann doll he makes for her and puts it into her toy box. When she falls asleep, one by one, the toys start climbing out of the toy box, and each one is more menacing than the last.
There’s Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, of course, but there’s also a baby doll that uses baby talk and kind of flops around like a real baby. And also a panda with a human face and an extremely racist accent. Since this was made in 1984, I’d, of course, expect nothing less.
It seems like William Gibson, who wrote the book for this musical, was trying to do an experimental Freudian thing, where this kid with the shittiest life travels through her own psyche and solves all of her problems. The moral of the story is something like, “Have you tried not being sad?” The characters are constantly like, “Maybe you wouldn’t be dying if you didn’t have such a bad attitude, Marcella.” How about instead of bitching about your imminent death, you get up and DANCE FOR ME.”
The show’s villain is called general D when he first appears, but he reveals that the D stands for Doom after about five minutes. He’s recruiting for his army of the dead, and he says he’s going to take Marcella with him by sunrise and maybe also marry her? He has two sidekicks with him: a sexy ’80s bat who pole dances at one point…
… and a dog man he keeps on a leash who continuously harasses the bat by biting her and licking her neck. This whole musical is like a Bingo card of the worst things I can possibly think of.
A fun fact about the villains is that the actor who played General D was dying of terminal cancer and passed away a year after the first round of performances. Anyway, enough real-life tragedy! Let’s get back to the whimsical, pretend tragedy!
Marcella, Raggedy Ann, and company are somehow transported via the General, or possibly just dream logic to, “The Miami shipyard where all dolls go to die.” There they meet a sad camel who sings a song about how life isn’t worth living because no one loves him. God, I know this sounds like a creepypasta and looks like security camera footage of an Insane Clown Posse brawl, but I swear it’s real.
The song is called blue, and here’s a little taste of the lyrics:
♪“When you’re wrinkled and cold
and your fortune has all been told
and you’re nobody’s ‘I love you’
How can you be happy?
How can you be smiling?
How can you be anything but low-down, saggy, and blue?
Sad but true.”♪
It’s yet another moment in a play for children about processing their emotions where someone says, “I’m sad,” and the overwhelming response from the rest of the cast is, “How about you shut the fuck up about it, and we all move on?” The camel’s costume is also a great example of how each costume in the play is somehow scarier than the last. His head was a puppet, and while he was singing, someone was making it blink and making the ears move, but the eyelids weren’t on quite right, so if he fully shut his eyes, the top of his eyelid would pop off. This meant he had this half-lidded stoned look for most of the musical.
Anyway, Raggedy Ann decides that since Marcella has tried every other doctor and they all say she’s dying, maybe he should ask the doll doctor to fix her. The toys and the camel turn Marcella’s bed, which was transported with them to the Miami shipyard where all dolls go to die, into a boat, and start to travel to see the doll doctor. A sea monster attacks them, so they turn the boat into an airplane and go up into the sky where the clouds, sun, moon, and stars all sing a bullshit song about being happy which doesn’t belong in this musical at all.
It’s like someone had a seizure and decided to do a children’s song for three minutes, but when you put it next to everything else going on in this musical, it just becomes haunting. I’ve never seen tap-dancing look so menacing.
Don’t worry. Things go back to their comfortable place of extreme darkness reasonably quickly when the bat attacks the sky boat, and all the characters end up on the roof of an Oklahoma meat processing plant. And also don’t worry, they make sure to tell the kids in the audience it smells like “burning bones.”
Here it’s revealed that the bat and the dog are actually Marcella’s dead bird and dog but like, as zombies, I guess? Anyway, it doesn’t matter because pretty soon, General D gets mad at the bat and, no shit, strangles her to death on stage and then shoves her through a glowing red trap door to Hell. You know, just in a case there was a single child in the audience still untraumatized at this point.
If you thought that was going to be the only death in this musical, strap the fuck in, boys, because next, we cut to the Gastly Woods, a set I think is supposed to symbolize, no shit, a suicide forest. My supporting evidence for this is that there are skeletons painted in amongst the trees in kind of an arty way, and the character we meet there is a woman who is trying to kill herself by hanging, but she can’t tie the knot right.
This woman turns out to be Marcella’s Mother, who sings a weirdly perfect and haunting ballad called “What Did I Lose?” about her regret at leaving Marcella behind because she felt like she was losing herself in motherhood. Genuinely, if this power ballad had gone in any other musical in the ’80s we might have been singing it instead of “Memory” at our high school musical auditions. What is it doing surrounded by psychotic clowns and suicidal camels?
Marcella forgives her mother for leaving her, and just as their tearful reunion begins, the dog attacks everyone, causing them to scatter. They wake up in a hospital run by the clown doctors from the beginning. There’s another run-in with General D., and when they escape him, they find the doll doctor in a dungeon-type deal below the regular hospital.
Another example of this show going way too hardcore is how the stairway in the doll doctor’s cell is stuffed with tons of nude broken doll limbs. It’s the little touches that make a show like this pop, you know?
I spoiled the ending in the intro, so you know the doll doctor tells Marcella that she has to eat Raggedy Ann’s heart, and for two seconds, Raggedy Ann, who’s been all about saving Marcella up until this point, is like, “But I only have one heart!” So the children in the audience who are slow can do the math and realize, yep, Raggedy Ann is definitely going to die. She’ll join the bat in Hell, I guess!
Marcella is understandably conflicted about devouring her friend’s mortal flesh, but everyone else is chanting, “do it, do it!” Eventually, she gives in to peer pressure and eats the whole heart Daenerys Targaryen style while looking directly out across the audience. It’s chewy, and it takes a long time.
General D. takes the heartless corpse of Raggedy Ann in Marcella’s place, and Marcella wakes up from her dream feeling miraculously better. This implies that either the dream was real and she actually ate her friend’s heart, or she was never sick in the first place, and the dream was about processing her trauma and forgiving her absent mother, which allowed her to stop faking being sick for attention. Her dad offers to give Raggedy Ann a new candy heart, so hopefully that does something even though General D already took her to Hell?
Yeah, there’s clearly a reason this show only lasted five (5) performances on Broadway before closing. One reviewer said it “made Macbeth look like Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm.” When it was still in previews, a woman hated it so much that she reported it to the local news who did a segment I imagine was titled, “The Suicide By Hanging Scene That Might Be Hiding In Your Kids Musical About A Heart Devouring Doll.”
However, there was one group of people who absolutely lost their shit for this show– Russians. Somehow this monstrous thing was part of a cultural exchange with Russia, and instead of starting a war, it became a huge hit. They advertised it as, “The show that took Moscow by storm,” which was yet another mark against it during the Regan era. So, that’s why you might never have heard of the best musical ever written (that included a scene where the main character ate her friend’s heart.)
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Josh Fabian, who also has a candy organ you can eat.