‘Steven Universe’ Evolves from 11-Minute Shorts to a 90-Minute Musical

‘Steven Universe’ Evolves from 11-Minute Shorts to a 90-Minute Musical

Since its 2013 debut, Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” has followed the lovable titular teen on his adventures with the Crystal Gems, a team of Earth-defending extraterrestrials. Together, they fight epic cosmic battles while simultaneously attempting to fit in with their human neighbors in the quirky town of Beach City.

The show ended its fifth season with Steven, who is half-human and half-Gem, besting a trio of intergalactic authoritarians and saving the world for the umpteenth time. And he did it all using his signature strengths — a big heart, an open mind, a heartfelt song and, of course, the magical pink jewel lodged in his navel.

That’s just where “Steven Universe: The Movie” picks up. The full-length TV musical (which airs Monday) finds the young hero putting his hard-won happily-ever-after on hold when a new, mysterious villain hits the scene.

Adding to the show’s already formidable discography of warm-and-fuzzy original songs, the movie delivers 15 new vocal tracks, featuring such collaborators as Chance the Rapper, Aimee Mann, Ted Leo and Estelle (the voice of Garnet, one of the Crystal Gems).

At the core of all this sci-fi-fantasy fun are themes of inclusivity, empathy and the significance of family in all its forms. The show’s creator Rebecca Sugar, who identifies as non-binary and goes by the pronouns “she/her” and “they/them,” has also placed a strong focus on L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. representation, offering up a wide array of characters who mirror that multifaceted community. It’s resonated with audiences: This year, the show won both a GLAAD Media Award and a Peabody Award for its groundbreaking work in children’s programming and the Season 5 episode “Reunited” — which features a same-sex wedding — is nominated for an Emmy.

“We don’t want to make a story that’s a generic cartoon,” Sugar said. “The more it captures a real experience, the more it captures something you’ve never seen before, the better.”

In a recent phone interview, she discussed the importance of feeling seen, the work that went into creating a musical movie and what the future holds for Steven and the Gems.

Congratulations on your latest Emmy nod. What was your reaction to the announcement?

“Reunited” is so special to me. We had been trying to do that episode for so many years and were hitting so many walls, just in terms of what was permitted on children’s television at that time. We were pitching Ruby and Sapphire’s story in 2015, before gay marriage was legal in the United States, and we could absolutely not do a lot of the things we very much wanted to do to express the wholesome, beautiful love between these characters. So, to finally get to arrive at their wedding and have it be nominated for an Emmy, it’s hard to put into words how stunning it is.

Being one of the few family shows that focuses on L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. representation, do you ever feel pressure to be all things to all members of that community?

Absolutely. But I also feel the pressure to be as authentic to my personal experience as possible and to give the opportunity to my crew members to express themselves as honestly and personally as possible. What I’ve found in my life is that, without having access to stories from individuals like myself, I felt what I was experiencing was either irrelevant or just nonexistent. I didn’t have any way to find a connection to other people who were going through what I was going through as a kid. Especially because L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. stories were considered “adult,” so they were kept away from me when I was young.

Often, the conversation around representation is directed toward cis, male, white showrunners and how they can make a positive impact, which is extremely important. But in the case of “Steven Universe,” we’re telling stories about our own experiences. I think it is so critical that L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. people have a platform to reach others like them and not just tell their own stories, but also have fun.

The series also features an extremely diverse cast of voice actors. Was that intentional?

Everything is a reflection of the team. I developed the show with Ian Jones-Quartey and many of the characters are based on his family, my family, as well as our other writers and storyboarders. Many members of the “crewniverse” are people of color, so, to be accurate to our experiences, it made sense for that to be part of every aspect of the show.

You went from creating 11-minute episodes to making a 90-minute musical. Was your creative process different?

It was a completely different project. It was massive. We were coming off our hourlong special, “Change Your Mind,” so we had just done the hardest thing that we’d ever done. Then, all of a sudden, we were entering the new hardest thing. This wasn’t just many episodes lined up next to each other. We’d done arcs that lasted many episodes. But to make something that would work on its own, you approach it really differently.

I had six weeks to write all of the music. It was really intense. I watched every musical I could get my hands on, just to figure out what was and wasn’t working. With the show, we like to take things that feel familiar and dig into them. So, I wanted to approach a “Steven Universe” musical that way: These are things you recognize from other musicals, but with these characters.

Which ones were most influential?

Though I watched tons of musicals I’d never seen before in order to study, the movie is most inspired by the musicals I loved when I was younger, like “The Music Man,” “Victor/Victoria,” “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.” It’s also influenced by the stage musicals that changed my life, like the Broadway runs of “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy,” which both featured Patti LuPone [who has a recurring role on the animated show], and the Takarazuka Revue performance of “Guys and Dolls,” which heavily influenced the Steven movie.

You’re staying tight-lipped about the movie’s plot and its big villain, but what did you set out to achieve with the film?

One thing I hope comes across is that, as much as Steven wants to help, you can’t save people. But people can save themselves, if they’re committed to doing so. For anybody who’s ever had to figure out how to communicate with someone who’s very toxic, I hope that this will resonate.

Will there be a sixth season?

This is not the end. I think that’s about all I can say. What’s gone on in the show and the film will continue to matter in the future.

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