30 years ago, the first TMNT movie debuted. Not long after, the unthinkable happened: The Ninja Turtles became a rock band. Here's how it happened.
It was August 1990, and there was no more popular franchise than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The comic book that two creators--Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird--created as a joke and printed in their garage had spawned a hit animated series and, now, a blockbuster movie. Following a March 30 release, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie went on to earn over $202 million at the box office. The sky was seemingly the limit on what could be done with this property. Then the next step for the franchise was revealed: The Ninja Turtles were becoming a band and going on a live stage tour that would eventually take them around the world, pitting them nightly against their archnemesis The Shredder and his gang of Foot Clan thugs in an attempt to save rock and roll. And, somehow, 30 years later this odd piece of Ninja Turtle history would be commemorated with a set of action figures.
It was unlike anything that had ever been done before. This wasn't a Broadway musical about a cartoon character like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or a touring show akin to Disney on Ice. This was a concert with a storyline. On the surface, the move to give the characters instruments, release an album, and go on a concert tour heavily sponsored by Pizza Hut seemed like a quick cash grab; a chance for the creators of the Ninja Turtles and a company that serves up their dish of choice--there's a song on the album called "Pizza Power," after all--to capitalize on the mainstream popularity the property was enjoying. The real story behind the Coming Out of Their Shells tour, though, is very different.
In reality, this entire endeavor was born out of a desire two "punky little kids" had to change musical theater. "I started out as a musical theater performer in New York, working as a dancer and a singer in musical theater and industrials," Bob Bejan, who co-wrote the album and wrote and produced the live show, told GameSpot. At the time, though--the mid-1980s--Broadway musicals were a lot different than they are in 2020, and Bejan had the first-person experience to know it after performing in revivals of both West Side Story and Grease. "There really [was] not, other than like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, a lot of rock and roll in the theater like it is now," he said.
"I wanted to be more than a dancer, and just a performer. And I always thought I had an aspiration for a bigger creative vision," Bejan remembered. "I wrote a musical, and I had this very strong point of view that popular music was something that Broadway needed."
It's with that musical--a play called Strides--that he first met Godfrey Nelson. Nelson, like Bejan, was working to make a name for himself in New York City. "I started there in the late '70s with a band," he said. "I went to school for scoring and classical composition, so I was always pushing to do different things."
While Strides might not have been a smash hit, it launched a creative partnership that saw Bejan and Nelson find success as freelance composers and musicians. Eventually, though, they wanted to create their own, rather than a corporation. They just needed to figure out what that thing they created was going to be. Thankfully, in 1989, they found their path forward.
"A lot of our friends were having kids and talking about kind of how miserable it was to go to Sesame Street on Ice. No disrespect to Sesame Street, you know what I mean? But it's not exactly super compelling for the adults that are chaperoning the kids," Bejan recalled.
He continued, "Somebody had given me a copy of the first [graphic] novel of the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles. And I was like, 'This would be awesome.' And we just literally spent a couple of sessions kind of brainstorming, and then we wrote four songs right away. It just came very easily."
Of course, simply writing the songs didn't amount to much when they're based on an established property that they didn't have the licensing rights to actually use. Still, they knew they had something special. Continuing on their quest to figure out how the Ninja Turtles would work as a musical, Bejan wrote a treatment for the show's story and the duo plotted their next step.
"We literally cold-called Eastman and Laird and just went, 'Hey, we've got an idea. Can we pitch it to you?'" Bejan admitted. Then in January 1990, two months before the movie debuted in theaters, the two traveled to North Hampton, Massachusetts for their first meeting with the two men that created the Turtles.
"Bob and I drove up there and told them the concept we had and played them the songs and they said, 'Wow, this is great. Let's do it,'" Nelson said. Little did he or Bejan know that seven months later, their musical would be debuting onstage at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Before that they had to secure the rights. "We were going to have this deal. Surge Licensing, who did all the licensing for the Turtles, told us it was going to be $50,000 for the licensing rights," Bejan said. "And we didn't have that much money laying around."
Thankfully, a solution presented itself. "I read an article in the Wall Street Journal [about] Steven Leber, who was going to ultimately be my partner on the producing side," he remembered. "But I read the Wall Street Journal [that] he was bringing the Moscow Circus to Broadway and to the United States, and I literally cold-called him."
One call and a short meeting later, Bejan secured the funding from Leber--as well as a seasoned producing partner to help bring their vision to life. "He wrote a check for $50,000 [and] we signed the licensing rights and got the rights to all live touring, music, video exploitation, merchandising," he said. "It was unbelievable."
After celebratory drinks the entire situation only got more unbelievable. "It was a f***ing gas," Bejan said with a laugh. They had their demos, they had the rights to make the show, and they had a producing partner. What they didn't have, however, was the budget to produce a massive stage show and tour, let alone record a full album.
Thankfully, they had an idea about how to get their hands on that too. What do the Ninja Turtles love more than anything? Pizza, of course.
"We called up the heads of marketing of Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Domino's and said, 'We have the rights to do this show, we want to come and talk to you about it,'" Bejan said. By this point, the movie had now released and suddenly the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had shot through the roof. So, together, Bejan and Nelson traveled the country, meeting with the marketing departments of the three pizza chains. 10 days later, the duo struck a deal with Pizza Hut.
"They bought three million records upfront and them buying it before we'd even really done the master recordings. They brought them on the demos. They bought three million records at $3 apiece," Bejan explained. That gave Bejan and Nelson $9 million to record their album and produce the show. And that's not all. Bejan added, "They also committed to, at that time, an astronomical $20 million advertising campaign and that they would do a broadcast primetime television commercial."
With such a large deal in place, the scope of the project immediately changed. "The original concept actually was that the Turtles were a garage band. It was right when grunge was coming out and that kind of stuff was going on, and that's the original concept was they had this band down in the sewers, and they are coming out of their shells basically," Nelson remembered. "The budgets quadrupled. Everything just went nuts. And it takes a lot of people to put something like that together, it's a huge undertaking."
That undertaking included recording in both New York and Los Angeles, as well as working with producer Keith Forsey, who recorded Billy Idol's early albums and co-wrote Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me," otherwise known as that song from The Breakfast Club everybody knows. In the end, they had an album full of songs by the Ninja Turtles--plus one by Master Splinter, one by April O'Neil, and a rap track performed by Shredder that doesn't appear on the album but was part of the stage show.
What's more, Bejan and Nelson were able to immortalize themselves through the album. "I was Splinter and Bob was Michelangelo," Nelson revealed. They also lent their voices during promotional appearances on the radio. "We'd have all the Turtles and myself as Splinter in the same room, doing these interviews and it was a lot of fun," he remembered.
Once the album was complete, with a launch date approaching, Bejan and Leber set out to ready the Turtles for their musical debut and a live pay-per-view broadcast from Radio City Music Hall. Part of that process included promoting the tour. In addition to the aforementioned radio interviews, the Turtles were also booked into one of their highest-profile appearances ever: The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The entire episode revolved around the Turtles and their musical efforts. Now the appearance is most remembered for what can definitely be interpreted as suggestive adult humor about relations between April and the Turtles. In reality, between interviews and performances, the episode plays like an hour-long commercial for the tour.
"When you think about the fact that we convinced Oprah Winfrey to do an entire hour like that," Bejan said. "Like, that's wild. Because it wasn't like she was a nobody, she was huge by then already."
Additionally, a VHS tape was released that documented the making of the tour, presenting the Ninja Turtles as real and going inside of their musical process. The goal was to present everything as realistically as possible when dealing with mutant turtles playing musical instruments. "Everything about what we did, all the press kits and everything never broke [character]. Which is pretty wild," Bejan said.
From there, it was time for the Turtles to take the stage. While the making-of video and most of the promotional material centered on the band playing Radio City Music Hall, that actually wasn't where the tour originated. First, they had to go through the arduous process of live technical rehearsals.
"We had done two out of town cities before [Radio City], because what's wild is that show was all [audio] track and we had audio-animatronic heads... You take notes on the timing of what you build in as the estimated pauses for either laughs or applause, and kids yelling back," Bejan explained.
One massive change came out of those rehearsals, ahead of the show's New York City launch. If you've seen the making-of video or remember the backstage cutaways during the concert itself, you might remember very different costuming for the turtles. Initially, the costume design was followed closely to what was seen in the movies, with some embellishments--Michaelangelo and Leonardo had additions to their masks, glitter was added here and there. By the time they took the stage at Radio City Music Hall, though, the turtles all wore bedazzled denim vests, with sweaters tied around their waist. It was, quite honestly, the most early-'90s look imaginable.
However, as Bejan revealed, there was a reason for the last-minute change. "[There's] a night very early on in the tour before we got to Radio City, that's known amongst everybody that's involved with the show, as 'Shell Night.' You know, kind of as a take on Hell Night," he said.
He continued, "Originally, the neoprene costumes were built kind of at the level of articulation of the film almost. More articulated in the joints of course, cause we wanted them to dance. But they had full-blown rubber shells that were part of the costumes and the first evening performance [rehearsal] they had kind of done it without the heads on and all the suits and everybody thought it was going to be okay."
However, when the first full-costume performance took place, two of the turtle actors passed out halfway through the show. "[They were] just over overheating inside the suits," Bejan explained. "And so then we had to go through this kind of radical redesign phase of like, 'How could you sustain a two-hour performance if you have dancing and moving, and not kill these people?'"
The answer was to replace the heavy shells with the vest/sweater combination, which Bejan thought would serve another purpose. "We're obviously trying to kind of respond to the criticism that we knew we could get, which is like, 'Where the hell are the shells if they're really turtles?'" he said. A potentially unintended outcome was that the new design gave the show--and its turtle stars--a unique feel that set it apart from previous incarnations of the franchise.
Once the costumes were set, it was on to New York City. The third show of the tour's residency at Radio City Music Hall was the one broadcast on pay-per-view, which also saw some changes from how the show was originally intended.
"The night before, we're doing a run-through and final dress rehearsal, in front of the fire marshals, with all the [pyrotechnics] and everything," Bejan recalled. Part of the pyrotechnics saw sewer lids shoot off the stage, revealing elevators in the floor the turtles would appear through.
"That rehearsal in front of the fire marshals, there was too [many] fireworks in one of them and the sewer lid catches on fire and goes through the ceiling where the big red Radio City Music Hall curtain is. And the fringe of it starts to catch fire," he said. "That was a very auspicious right before opening."
Once the level of pyrotechnics was adjusted, the show went on. Bejan and his cast and crew presented the show in front of the theater's audience for two nights, before going live on pay-per-view for night three. "You can't overstate how amazing it is. In any kind of performance moment, if you've got that gene, it's logical," he explained. "The bonus of it is it's something that you had a part in or played a role in crafting or making. It's deeply resonant, you know? I mean, it's really fun. And to be able to be fortunate enough to do that kind of stuff, which, if you're not thankful for it, and if that's not the best of it then something's not working right."
Still, he realizes just how unlikely it is that any of this could have happened. "What a lucky break," he said. "I mean it's crazy. I mean it's absolutely nuts."
Case in point, to promote the tour's arrival in New York City, the Ninja Turtles sang the National Anthem at a New York Yankees game. "I got to stand in the dugout of the New York Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, next to Don Mattingly when he was still playing and sing the National Anthem while controlling a Turtle standing on the pitcher's mound, pretending to sing the National Anthem," Bejan said. That's f***ing crazy!" He's not wrong.
And yet, somehow, the experience only got bigger from there. Ultimately, Coming Out of Their Shells toured the United States over multiple legs, and there were even two international touring companies--Latin America and Europe. What's more, there was even a followup tour, the less-remembered Getting Down in Your Town.
The only downside to the live show was that Nelson never saw the show in person. He stepped away from the project after completion of the album and had moved on--physically--by the time the show debuted at Radio City Music Hall. "I wasn't in New York at the time, I was working on a project in Minneapolis on another show," he revealed. "And it did come to Minneapolis, but when it came to Minneapolis, I was back in New York."
He continued, "All my friends and my wife and everything, they all went to the opening. But I didn't see it. It's really weird."
Now, 30 years later, memories of this strange slice of Ninja Turtle history are alive and well. There's even a group of fans that cosplay as the band to perform at conventions, using the original costumes. "They did a comic-con in New Orleans," Bejan said. "They got the heads to work and everything, so we sent them original master two-track versions of those songs and they'll do performances."
Unfortunately, thus far, that's as far as a full-on revival of the project has ever gotten. Still, given 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the tour--as well as the first movie--all hope isn't lost. In fact, according to Nelson, the interest is there. "It's kind of weird, people have tossed around the idea of doing another tour," he said. "People have talked to us a little bit about doing something, but there hasn't been any firm approach."
In the meantime, the duo have done some licensing of the music--which they own--including a vinyl single of the songs "Pizza Power" and "Tubin'," which was released for Record Store Day 2019.
And all these years later, they're still creating together. "We're actually in the midst of another project right now, together," Nelson revealed. "It's a theater piece, but it's another big undertaking."
Still, while they may be working on something new, their piece of the Teenage Mutant Turtles legacy is set in stone. Whether it's eventually revisited or not, there's no taking away the time they took the characters on a world tour and sold three million albums while doing so.
"The thing is, we were punky little kids, you know? I was 28 years old. And to be around something that had that much popular culture impact and be in the whirlwind of it, it's just kind of an incredible gift to be given," Bejan said. "It was amazing."