Midway through the first act of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, there’s an unforgettable duet between the bonkers, titular villain and Penny, the woman he’s loved ever since spotting her at the laundromat while his socks and such tumbled and spun.
As their voices twine together in “My Eyes,” Dr. Horrible sings of a world as corrupt and compassionless as a pound of tilapia left in the back seat for three weeks in August. Penny sings, wonderstruck, of humankind’s infinite goodness, a world where harmony is ever on the rise.
Depending on which voice you key into (or perhaps what kind of day you are having), the number’s final bars are pure elation or cynical despair.
Still, it’s not hard to find the show’s hero, says Kevin Webb, who plays the aspiring supervillain in Black Button Eyes’s staging of Dr. Horrible, opening in previews October 8. The run is a benefit for Season of Concern, with 20 percent of gross proceeds and anything left over after expenses going to the nonprofit.
“Penny’s obviously the one decent person in the whole story. But she’s surrounded by these toxically macho men who think they’re owed something. Owed her,” Webb says.
We have a word for those guys now, one that didn’t exist back in 2008 when authors Maurissa Tancharoen and brothers Joss, Jed, and Zack Whedon penned Dr. Horrible as an Internet miniseries. Now, the bad doctor is often seen as the archetype for the legions of incels, those weapon-hoarding, woman-hating, petulance-fueled angry manbabies who are involuntarily celibate and believe every woman they encounter (except, perhaps, their mother) is to blame.
“You’ve got two men abusing their power and privilege. Both seem to believe wanting something and deserving something are the same. It certainly makes you think of the context,” says Stephanie Fongheiser, who plays the saintly, unwitting love interest of both Dr. Horrible and his archenemy Captain Hammer (Tommy Thurston) for Black Button Eyes.
That context is enraging and exhausting in its banality.
During the long, COVID-wrought time-out, Dr. Horrible made news not on its considerable merits as a musical, but as a sidenote in the ongoing chronicle of decades of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against coauthor Joss Whedon.
“I think it’s important we recognize that thematically, so many elements of this piece seem to have additional resonance, regardless of, and maybe because of, the situation with one of the four authors,” says director Ed Rutherford. “Dr. Horrible—his story—it’s an allegory. He’s this angry young man living alone, connecting to people online and not in person, feeling entitled to some kind of recognition or glory he’s not getting. Especially when it comes to female affection.”
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
10/8-11/6: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, also Tue 10/19, 7:30 PM, The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, drhorriblechicago.eventbrite.com, $30.
Quick plot recap (minus spoilers): Dr. Horrible yearns to join the big boys at the table of the League of Evil. He also pines for the good-hearted Penny, who has devoted her life to working in soup kitchens and building homeless shelters. His archrival Captain Hammer, meanwhile, plots to make Penny his own whilst showily trumpeting his own heroism. (You know him: Hammer is the loud guy on the socials who takes selfies giving food or dollar bills to the unhoused or indigent, always centering the frame on himself, his benefactors smiling obediently for a picture he didn’t ask if he could take.)
“For me, a lot of it came down to the fact that we’re giving the money back to the community,” Webb says. “I don’t think Joss Whedon is going to make a buck here. What’s been interesting is looking at the way the piece deals with people like him, and the destruction they can cause.” Webb adds, “It gets a bit meta, almost like a snake eating its own tail.”
After COVID canceled the show’s planned 2020 run, Rutherford remained determined to make the benefit work.
“What Joss Whedon gets from the rights, that’s not transparent to me from the payment structures set up for getting the rights. We’re focused on getting money to Season of Concern because artists need it so badly,” Rutherford says.
As for the show’s hero? That remains Penny.
“She is the one out collecting signatures. Enacting positive change for her community. Doing all the little things everyone can do to make the world better. Dr. H could learn that lesson from Penny, but—and I know this sounds melodramatic—he embraces nihilism and darkness instead.”
“It’s easy for Penny to be reduced to ‘the nice girl,’” Fongheiser says. “I really want to find the strength and depth that is innate in Penny, not a stereotype, not an archetype like the men who have manipulated their way into her life. While they’re busy being ‘heroes,’ she’s actually getting stuff done.”