Spend thirty seconds reading the comments of any YouTube video, and you’ll likely find at least a few references to Undertale, Toby Fox’s indie RPG that took over the web in 2015.
Called “the friendly RPG where no one has to die,” Undertale quickly grew a large and occasionally obnoxious fandom from its humorous yet heartfelt plot, inventive take on the genre, unforgettable characters, and an overwhelming array of choices, with the two main paths being a “pacifist” route, where everyone lives, and a “genocide” route, where everyone dies. Aside from all of the “this video fills me with determination” and “this YouTuber wants to have a bad time” memes, there has been an abundance of fan art, videos, and musical tributes of varying quality. Among the absolute best of the fan tributes is Undertale the Musical, a musical theater adaptation based on the “pacifist” route, which is currently being released song by song on Man on the Internet‘s channel.
I got to sit down with the Man on the Internet himself, Alex Beckham, who wrote, directed, and produced Undertale the Musical while costarring as Mettaton, an egotistical celebrity and killer robot who serves as one of the most memorable bosses in the game. Here is what he had to say.
Steph: Tell me a bit about your life, pre-Undertale the Musical. What inspired you to get into YouTube in the first place? Which YouTubers were your favorites? What was your non-YouTube life like before undertaking this huge project?
Alex: In west Philadelphia, born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days, when my father comes at me with the knife. “Why so serious? LET’S PUT A SMILE ON MY FACE!” (Yes, “my” face, not “that” face. It’s weird.) And that’s how I became the last survivor of Krypton, except for everyone else.
I’ve actually had the Man on the Internet channel for a while, reserving it for a time when I could put out more Mumbled Movie Minutes, or a Let’s Play series with me in character as an infiltration robot from the far-off future of 2007 with an inexplicable Austrian accent that completely avoided copyright. Mostly to show off my voice acting. As for which YouTubers are my favorites, I really like Retsupurae, and a channel I’m kinda-sorta-maybe affiliated with now (Dr. Kendo Commentaries) inspired me to get a channel of my own.
Steph: What drew you to Undertale, both as a game and as a musical? How did you find out about Undertale in the first place? Did you play all of the routes, or just pacifist (and since Undertale is all about choices, why did you choose to play the way you did)? How did you decide, post-game play, that this is the game that needed a musical?
Alex: A friend of mine decided to roleplay Undertale characters, like, the day after the game came out. It went about as well as you’d expect. Then I actually started talking to people who had played the game and decided to try it out for myself. I listened to the soundtrack before playing the game, actually, as I do with a lot of games (Killer Instinct 2013 comes to mind. No this is not confirming Killer Instinct the musical.) The internet being the internet, I was spoiled about Undertale beforehand, so I decided that my first route through (which was streamed and now lost to the ether) would be… a troll route, where I kill all the bosses but no one else. I don’t think my friends/watchers have ever forgiven me : )
As for deciding to make Undertale into a musical, I thought it was a great story (obviously) and was inspired to go out and create SOME form of fan work of it. But rather than stop at comic dubs or an ask blog I thought I’d go ahead and make a musical – a generally more accessible form to people who can’t/don’t/won’t play the game. This involved simplifying the story, of course, but again, accessible.
Steph: Once you decided to create Undertale the Musical, what was the process like? What is your personal background in writing, play writing, musical theater, and writing for musical theater? Did you write the book and then write the songs, or did the songs come first? Did you write the script and then find the actors, or was it a collaborative effort after the fact?
Alex: I’ve been writing stories and scripts since fifth grade, and wrote a play analyzing and retelling Hamlet as my senior thesis. I went to college to get a theater degree and ended up learning about pretty much every part of live theater, so I’d say I know a thing or two about playwriting and musical theater : )
The songs came first – the idea of making a full musical came after I had already written three songs (Death by Glamour, Metal Crusher, and Metal Crusher Reprise). The book, to tie together stuff that wasn’t already tied together, was written after all forty of the songs were completed. I quickly realized that I couldn’t exactly perform Undertale the Musical as a one man show, so that’s when the casting call started.
Steph: What was the audition process like? Did you put out a general call for submissions, or did you approach people directly? If it was an open call, did people audition for specific parts, or was it a general “sing this, and we’ll place you where you’ll fit best?” What were the audition requirements? Did you give people sides, or did they need to provide their own audition songs? How did you decide that you were the one to play Mettaton?
Alex: I put out a general call for submissions on a casting call website and just let people find the page. With 500+ submissions (100 of which were in the first week) I’d say I did pretty well. I don’t really believe in approaching people directly unless you’re already a big name, and even then it’s still an issue if you approach someone, ask them to audition, and then not end up casting them. I’ve seen that happen multiple times.
Each of the characters had their own set of lines and sample songs to sing, and people could audition for multiple roles (generally with the understanding that they wouldn’t be playing Papyrus and Sans at the same time – I wanted to make the musical be as if it COULD be performed live on stage, so no doubling of characters that are already onstage. This also helped bring in a bigger cast : ) ) Even though sample songs were provided, I allowed people to sing audition songs of their own if that was where they felt most comfortable. The goal of an audition is for an actor to show you their best, not show you they can do a specific song. That comes later.
I actually cast someone else as Mettaton but he never showed up, so I took the part myself.
(Track #28, “Death By Glamour,” starring Alex as Mettaton)
Steph: Back to the writing process. So many of the lyrics you personally wrote are brilliant, especially the ones for “Ghost Fight” and every single Mettaton song released to date. I’ve said before that you should just take over for Sondheim, and I stand by that now. 🙂 However, you also mentioned in the live stream that the actors were given a chance to improv. Certain lyrics like “Incorporeal; sorry Toriel,” from “Ghost Fight” and “You will be a star, then you’ll burn like one” from “Metal Crusher” were clearly written out beforehand, but in general, how much was your writing, and how much was ad-libbed?
Alex: Pretty much all of the lyrics are mine, but dialogue can be ad-libbed. In the case of “It’s Raining Somewhere,” Toriel wasn’t even in the song until Lindsay said she wanted to, so I guess that counts as ad-libbing.
(Track #20: “It’s Raining Somewhere”)
Steph: More writing questions. You are easily talented enough to have written the whole musical yourself, but for many of the songs, you used lyrics from pre-existing sources. How did you choose which lyrics you wrote and which to borrow from elsewhere? Since the game has basically exploded the internet, most of the Undertale songs with fan lyrics have multiple versions. What made you choose the versions you ended up using?
Alex: I’ve written several plays but never a full-fledged musical, so I thought I needed some help along the way. I messaged several YouTubers who had already written lyrics for Undertale songs (gosh, it’s almost as if the game was popular) asking for permission, and for the most part they all said yes! Now, this DOES make Undertale the Musical a bit of a performance rights nightmare, so later on down the line (but not anytime soon) I might go rewrite all the lyrics. As for which versions I chose, I looked at versions that were mostly self-contained but could easily fit into a singular narrative – so many of Radix’s lyrics were used, since the same lyricist often unconsciously picks themes that fit together.
Steph: When you visit their channels, many of the actors appear to primarily be Let’s Players. Did you find that most of the auditioners were gamers who could sing and voice act, or were most of them singers and voice actors who played video games? How many people auditioned initially? How did you narrow down the cast list? How did you decide that Steel would play Sans and be the sound mixer? How about that Tom/Tenebrismo and Lindsay/Magicklorelai would respectively be Dogamy and Toriel as well as manage the community? That Upgraded Moon would be both Napstablook and do the outros?
Alex: I don’t really check out channels of people who audition to avoid “oh, this is a big name, I’m gonna cast them just for that rather than actual ability” syndrome. Which I have seen. A lot. Most of the people who auditioned were voice actors, though I attracted some people who were gamers or singers who bought a mic just to audition. I guess I did something right. Over 500 people submitted auditions and I gave critique to every one of them – which is not something typically done in the voice acting field, and not something I recommend unless you have A LOT of time to give thoughtful commentary.
Narrowing down the cast list from all the auditioners was quite difficult – as many as 50 people each auditioned for the roles of Sans, Flowey, and Undyne alone. But I started with narrowing down auditions to people who theoretically COULD play the part, then compare and contrast them before you settle on one that’s shown their best and gone above and beyond. It’s like a reality show but less commercials and you actually like the people.
As for cast members performing crew duties, that kind of happened by happy accident! Upgraded Moon messaged me before casting saying that, even if he wasn’t cast, he’d like to do animations (a thing he’s been doing on his own YouTube channel for some time). It turned out Steel was an amazing mixer so I promoted him to an essential cog in the wheel. Many cast members are also artists, and I hired on more, after many cast members suggested that instead of simple storyboards illustrating what’s happening on stage full illustrations could be used. Darby was nice enough to get footage he planned to use for a voiced Let’s Play to fill in the rest and make the videos more dynamic. And Tom and Lindsay spent a lot of time in the comments anyway, so I promoted them! After casting I kind of gave everyone crew jobs by the seat of my pants, and I can’t say enough how thankful I am for this wonderful group of people supporting me.
Steph: More casting questions. How did you decide to cast a woman to play Asriel? It’s very Peter Pan-esque. How did you decide to give Sans a higher, softer, and sweeter voice than nearly every other adaptation online (a surprising choice, but one that makes perfect sense once you remember Sans’ affection toward Frisk in a pacifist run)? And how did you decide to cast the gender-neutral characters, aka Monster Kid and the human children?
Alex: Child roles in voice acting and on stage can be done by anyone as long as they have the proper range and ability. In voice acting, especially, I don’t care about gender, race, physical appearance, whatever. If someone is a blind quadriplegic moon werewolf I don’t care as long as they can play the role and do it well. Undertale is unique amongst games these days in that it has characters identified as gender-neutral and no one in-game really cares, which gave me the chance to say, in casting, “hey this character is gender neutral, no matter what you identify as you can audition.” (Mettaton, being clearly labelled as “he”, was not one of them.)
Nearly every adaptation of Sans online gives him a deep voice and a Brooklyn accent. I don’t care about casting or not casting people based on their native accents, but putting on an accent for a character is always iffy to me. Like, why does Sans (and ONLY Sans) have that accent when the monsters have been separated from the world (including Brooklyn) for countless years? I much prefer voices, like Steel’s, that realize “oh yeah, he sounds like a normal person (and also like the voice blips, which the deep Brooklyn voices… typically don’t.)”
Steph: As an adaptation, the musical is very pragmatic–for example, you’ve replaced Frisk’s fight with the practice dummy with “Ghost Fight,” had Alphys accompany Frisk through the True Lab, and for reasons finally revealed as of the most recent video, put “It’s Raining Somewhere” and “Core” before any of the Mettaton songs. How did you decide to order things the way you did? How did you decide to keep “Spider Dance” but cut “Mad Dummy” and “Temmie Village,” when they all have roughly the same impact on the original story line? If you could go back and do any songs you didn’t record, not necessarily to add to the musical, but just for fun, which would you choose, and why?
Alex: Like I said earlier, I simplified and adapted the musical to be more accessible to an audience who has never played a video game, let alone Undertale, before, and would not be likely to. So characters that show up once and are never mentioned again, like the Mad Dummy and Temmie, were cut out to keep the plot moving. Muffet, on the other hand, shows up before her fight and after her fight (in Don’t Give Up), and serves as a reminder that, oh yeah, these monsters do want to kill the human child. Characters accompanying Frisk is mostly pragmatic, since Frisk doesn’t talk.
Steph: Will you be doing a Genocide musical after the Pacifist one? What about an adaptation of any non-Undertale musical? What’s next for you and for your cast and crew? And since we know just how much you guys love the “When’s Meglovania” question, was Steel deliberately channeling Ser Pelo for the video in response to that?
Alex: There are four kinds of people who ask When’s Megalovania – people who are joking, people who don’t realize we upload songs on Sunday and are confused about when songs come out, people who don’t realize Megalovania does not fit at all in a Pacifist musical (and their ideas of trying to force it in are… not good), and people who are just jerks who demand satisfaction right now or they’ll unsubscribble guyz. We told Steel to channel Ser Pelo, but his first try wasn’t crazy enough so we made him redo it and form the glory that we have today.
(Ser Pelo’s April Fool’s prank)
As for “what’s next” we definitely have plans, but nothing with enough currently put together to make a formal announcement about it. Wait a few months, then we’ll see : )
Steph: You’re releasing the songs one by one roughly every Sunday morning. What made you decide to do so in the order you’ve chosen?
Alex: We release/record songs out of order because that actually, overall, helps the musical get done faster – otherwise, we’d have to rush, say, Asgore out to get a song done, then nothing until Memory, then nothing until the last stretch of the musical. When recording songs out of order, Darby can be doing Bonetrousle at the same time the chorus records Ruins, Xander does Your Best Friend, and I work on Metal Crusher. As for choosing to release them Sunday morning, originally it was just “whenever they get done” but I’ve seen so many comments saying that people from all sorts of time zones stay up to hope for a new video, so I figure I’d try and save their sleep schedules by keeping uploads regular : )
Steph: Will there ever be a stage adaptation? Why or why not? How would you imagine staging it if you could? Personally, I keep imagining “Bonetrousle” being done with juggling, using bones instead of pins and having Sans catch all of the extra bones. If you don’t plan to stage it, how would you feel about fans doing their own versions?
(Track #13: “Bonetrousle”)
Alex: Like, a professional stage adaptation? Maybe, if all the songs with borrowed lyrics get rewritten, and Toby Fox is okay with it, since at the end of the day it’s his story. School or amateur non-profit stuff we’re fine with so long as it uses our script – we’ve had a couple of people use our songs but their own script and claim the whole thing as theirs, which was rude. Choreography, costumes, and set design would be very tricky, though, and live pyros are always… something to work with, especially for amateur productions.
Steph: Is Toby Fox aware of Undertale the Musical? If so, how does he feel about it? Will Toby’s avatar, the Annoying Dog make a cameo in his honor?
Alex: He’s aware – Darby sent him a message about it. But Toby Fox is a busy guy and I doubt he’s taken the time to sit down and watch the whole thing. If he has seen it, and does approve, I’d love for him to voice one really bored-sounding “bark” just so we can claim Toby Fox played himself : )
Steph: In a live stream, Lindsay said that the moment she realized this was a real musical and not just a series of songs was when she heard “Turn Around and Shake My Hand,” which was incidentally also the moment it hit me. Thanks to that song and some of the other chorus numbers, I frequently find myself telling people that Undertale the Musical is like a somewhat darker version of Seussical. What’s your take on this? Obviously you wrote it, so you knew it was a real musical, but I’d still love to hear your reaction to these concepts.
Alex: Having not seen Seussical I can’t really comment on that. As for the numerous comments we get about “wouldn’t it be great if this was a real musical,” I usually take that as “staged musical” because, well, this already is a real musical. I do, however, see people misuse the term “musical” a lot (i.e. “Do So Sorry the Musical”), but that’s usually attributed to people not really knowing what a musical is versus one song.
Steph: What are some of your favorite Undertale fan tributes outside of Undertale the Musical?
Alex: There were a couple of pieces of fan art that were really heartwarming, and a bunch of people coming together to do a Save Goatbro mod was pretty cool. I can’t really comment as to the best Undertale fan tributes out there, but I’m sure Toby Fox is floored by the sheer volume.
Steph: Who is your favorite Undertale character? If you could play any other character, who would you choose?
Alex: I actually really like Undyne, but can’t play her for obvious reasons.
Steph: Are you as afraid of Mippa’s Undyne as I am? I don’t know if it’s her performance or the background music, but so far, most of her parts have been as terrifying to me as Undyne was when I first played the game, before I knew she was secretly a softie.
Alex: Mippa’s audition was fantastic because it showed both sides of Undyne in the two lines she was given. The background music Undyne uses runs the gamut from intimidating to hilarious to being punched in the face with heroism, and she pulls them all off really well.
Steph: What are your favorite musicals, either ones you’ve seen or ones you wish you could see?
Alex: Hamilton’s a recent favorite, and I also like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Disney movies got me into musicals in the first place but I know a lot of elitists frown upon them because it’s not real art or something. I dunno, one of my directing class’ textbooks was written by a grumpy old man talking about how back in his day they didn’t need such and such to have a theater, and they liked it!
Steph: For you, what has been the most rewarding part of doing Undertale the Musical? What has been the most frustrating? Would you do it all again if you could?
Alex: The most rewarding and the most frustrating thing has been the viewer response. Frustrating because hey, it’s YouTube comments, you can’t expect every one of them to be a bar of gold. Rewarding because HOLY CRAP the reaction we’ve gotten so far! Since we started this project we have exploded in subscriber growth way beyond what we could have guessed. We even have a Patreon, and are overwhelmed by the support we’ve gotten so far! Even if we didn’t have our subscribers, we would still be doing this – I believe art is a selfish venture made to express what the artist wants, and if the masses like it, awesome – but the fact that we have so many people loving what we do means a lot.
Steph: What else would you like to tell our readers?
Alex: It’s never too late to start doing what you love. I would have made Ice Climbers the Musical if it resonated with me, relevance and modern-ness be damned. Everyone’s got a story inside them that is dying to be told. Don’t be afraid to tell it, and make it a good one.