For superhero and comic book fans, there are both directly obvious and more subtle ways that Justin Huertas’ musical Lizard Boy references the genres. Telling the story of Trevor, a gay man who has been socially isolated since he got lizard skin after a childhood accident involving a dragon, Lizard Boy is a love letter to some of Huertas’ icons. “Trevor likes to doodle, and he has a sketchpad with drawings of Spider-Man and Wolverine. And Jinkx Monsoon!” Yes, drag queen Jinkx Monsoon is a superhero. Expanding what being a superhero is—as well as who looks like one and who gets to be one—is why Huertas wrote Lizard Boy. And it seems audiences are game for that type of expansion.
Last year, Huertas took Lizard Boy across the Atlantic to play Edinburgh Fringe. Huertas was accompanied by the work’s original cast members William A. Williams and Kiki De Lohr, a fun adventure for the trio who had never been to Fringe before. It was at the Scottish festival that Playbill originally discovered the work, which is now making its New York premiere Off-Broadway. Lizard Boy begins with Trevor hoping to connect with someone on Grindr, and what follows is a date that turns into a mission to save the world. Huertas, Williams, and De Lohr are reprising their respective roles as Trevor, Trevor’s Grindr date Cary, and the mysterious singer Siren.
Presented by Prospect Theater Company, the show opened to positive reviews. As Christian Lewis wrote for Queerty, “The quirky show delivers heartfelt, comic gold and a terrific score that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.” The musical runs through July 1.
At its heart, Lizard Boy is a superhero comic book-meets-American musical comedy. The musical is partially inspired by the superheroes Huertas grew up loving: X-Men, Spider-Man, Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “The myths that I had growing up to teach me how to be a good person were these comic book, superhero stories. It was X-Men and Spider-Man that taught me what it takes to be a hero with a good heart, good intentions, and the will to do the right thing,” Huertas explains.
But, there was a catch. “I didn't have superheroes who look like me,” says Huertas. “The unconscious thing when I started writing the show was creating a superhero that was Filipino, or a person of color.”
Huertas admits that he was embarrassed when he realized about a year into writing Lizard Boy that he was actually writing about race. The writer-performer says he’d chosen Trevor’s lizard skin “kind of arbitrarily” at first because he didn’t want Trevor’s queerness to be the center of the character’s trauma. “It’s one of those things where I wrote all these story points because they made sense to me intuitively.” It was only later that he realized why. “They made sense because they were my experience."
In the musical, Trevor has a traumatic accident involving a dragon on the playground in kindergarten. It causes his skin to turn green and scaly. "And that changes his entire life," says Huertas. "I realized later, ‘Oh, that was me in kindergarten being told for the first time that I look different.’” He recalls a memory of kids on the playground pretending to be Power Rangers and how the other kids told him he couldn’t be Billy (the Blue Ranger) because he didn’t look like Billy, who was white. It was the first time Huertas, who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, understood that he looked different. “I discovered much too late in writing Lizard Boy that it's very much about growing up Brown in white spaces.”
Once he realized that unconscious factor driving his writing, Huertas has made it an intentional part of his work. “That was the huge thing about Lizard Boy—creating hero stories that center folks who haven't gotten the chance to be the superhero as often as they should have,” he says. While Huertas has been developing the musical, he’s been on his own personal journey “to stand in his own power.” He says, “I didn't really feel the pride in that until I was performing Lizard Boy on stage at Seattle Rep [where the musical made its world premiere in 2015].” It was a powerful moment that he’d never felt before, and it led Huertas to ask, “Oh my God, those white guys in town who always play Hamlet or the hero, do they get this all the time!?”
But Lizard Boy is not only about expanding what superheroes look like for Huertas. It’s also about what can be a superpower. “Trevor’s greatest superpower really becomes empathy,” says Huertas. “It’s a superpower that he kind of gains from Cary, his love interest in the show, as the show progresses. It really becomes trying to move forward and to fight not with weapons or energy blasts, but with understanding and reaching out.” Though Huertas also adds with laugh, “And he has another superpower, but I won't spoil it.”
There are other ways that Huertas has included tropes from comic books into the production, though nothing quite as on the nose as speech bubbles. Inspired by Bryan Lee O'Malley of the Scott Pilgrim series and the film adaptation, Lizard Boy features fast transitions, a “split scene” detailing two moments at the same time, a comic book-inspired fight scene, a The Matrix-style dodging moment, and classic quips mid-fight. But it’s not just for aesthetics. “It has to be funny. The fight is connected to the character's journey as they have a moment of self-discovery while they're fighting. They have to say out loud what they're learning,” Huertas points out. With a laugh he says, “That's amazing—and really absurd.”
It’s taken a decade for Huertas to get Lizard Boy to NYC. Huertas began writing the musical in 2013, and the show world premiered in 2015, before going to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2022. When it came time to bring the show to Scotland, there was a new challenge for Huertas: cutting down the show to a sleek 50 minutes to fit the show’s festival time slot. “Before the Fringe, there were many parts of the book that were really dense with exposition and world-building. The Fringe challenged us to whittle all that down to its very essentials.” That process has been freeing for Huertas as he has let go of minute details and background information.
But now Off-Broadway, with more room to let the story breathe and expand the characters, Huertas, Williams, and De Lohr are bringing back some of the parts that were cut in Edinburgh. “There was no time for jokes at Fringe. We came back into rehearsal for this run, and then we ended up saying things like, ‘Hey, there was a joke here. What was that joke? Let’s bring it back.’” Some songs are also being put back into the show for its Off-Broadway engagement. But Fringe ended up being more than just a useful step in the continuing work of Lizard Boy. “It meant a lot to me that a lot of people connected with it, especially in this festival where there's a million things that you could see—and people chose to see us.”
Get a closer look at Lizard Boy below.