An Entomologist’s Review of ‘Beetlejuice,’ the Musical
By Emily Bick, Ph.D.
Like a caterpillar recently exposed to juvenile hormone, the insect-themed potential for the musical Beetlejuice was high but never quite metamorphosized.
My family decided to take me to the insect-adjacent Broadway musical Beetlejuice to celebrate my recent graduation from the University of California, Davis. I entered the experience knowing little about the show but with high hopes for its entomological potential since its name appeared to reference Order Coleoptera’s common name.
There were indeed several entomological references. The playbook cover features two Scarabaeidae camouflaged within the black and white stripes. The beetles even make appearances on the show’s Instagram page. The antihero Beetlejuice both spells out and mimes his name, resulting in the protagonist Lydia to guess bug, then an ant before landing on the word “beetle” in the song “Say My Name.” While writers opted for entomology appropriate spelling in both the title and song, the stage curtain listed the name as “Betelgeuse.” This entomologically named character mentions a few throw away references to insects including describing his alarming goal of house haunting—by saying “frightened as a fly.”
There were even a few looser entomological connections. One character was threatened with having teeth transformed into scorpions—an arthropod but not an insect. The demon-transformed house was decorated with chairs the spitting image of Tortoise beetle larvae (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae, tribe: Cassidini) and a statue that reminded me of many immature Lepidopterans.
However, insect references were always used to enhance the macabre theme, rather than as an independent topic. The musical was about death, a subject of which insects have a long association with. This association is likely due to the progression of insect colonization on an animal corpse—a process so predictable, forensic entomology is often used to determine the time of death of the recently deceased. Their correlation was expanded in the era of sideshows which featured insects as bizarre. I found myself wistfully thinking of all the places insects could be used (e.g., every reference to decomposing), rather than simply propping up the ghoulish atmosphere.
I should mention, however, that the show itself was incredible. It was hilarious, clever, attuned to the times, and visually stunning, and the “goth” character Lydia (played by 18-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso) completely stole the show. Yet, judged on entomological criterion, Beetlejuice fell short of its potential.
Emily Bick, Ph.D., a recent graduate from the University of California, Davis, will be starting a postdoctoral position at the University of Copenhagen this fall. She received two previous entomology degrees from Cornell University (B.S.) and University of California, Davis (M.S.). Additionally, she is a Board Certified Entomologist (with specialties in Plant-Insect and Medical & Veterinary entomology) and holds two national Linnaean Games championships. She previously wrote “An Entomologist’s Review of an Entomologist’s Love Story,” and is delighted to continue contributing to Entomology Today as a theater critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org