Sunday, October 25, 2009

#68 - Movie-To-Musical

It was the decade when...

Broadway met Hollywood and fell in Love.

It is a truism that the most successful musicals are based on pre-existing material. Plays were for a long time the best repository for inspiration, as the stage play comes with at least the scaffolding of a theatrical structure; these are stories already tailored to a limited stage time with a managable number of characters. West Side Story (Romeo & Juliet), My Fair Lady (Pygmalion), Mame (Auntie Mame), Cabaret (I Am A Camera) and Carousel (Liliom - betcha didn't know that one!) - many consider these the pinnacle of the form. The business model of contemporary play production however has all but eliminated the creation of new works which contain the breadth and size needed to support future musical adaptation. Most new successful plays have single sets, no more than four characters and a cast of film and television stars.

Novels too have proved their mettle as source material, from Oklahoma! (Green Grow the Lilacs - betcha didn't know that one either!) to current mega-hit Wicked (Wicked, natch). Despite these successes, the sprawling plotting and complex narrative threads that the length and depth of a novel allows for work against their rejiggering into a dramatically cohesive, focused narrative ( See: Ragtime).

Other media can inspire musicals too, from television shows (Jerry Springer: The Opera) to the Gospel of Matthew (Godspell) to cheap tabloid journalism (Bat Boy). But, In the Aughts, no medium provided as many opportunities for Broadway gold as the major motion picture.

Now, it's true that more classic musicals are based are movies than people realize. From Sweet Charity and Nine (Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and 8 1/2, respectively) to two of Sondheim's best, A Little Night Music (Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) and Passion (Scola's Passione D'Amore), the movie, it turned out, could often learn how to sing. But these past successes were selected for the unique take the writers could spin on the material; the foreignness of the original made the American translation fresh and new. Many audiences had no clue the musical was based on anything at all. In the AUGHTS, no such calculations were considered. Freshness was not the order of the day. In most cases, the closer you could get to recreating the movie, the better...just add some songs! And never, ever, change the title.

The trend began strong enough with two successful adaptations dominating in the 2000-2001 season. With a witty David Yazbeck score and one of Terrence McNally's strongest musical books, The Full Monty was a well-executed Americanisation of the quirky British indie hit film of the same name. Shifting the action from the very British Sheffield to very American Buffalo threatened to flatten the sharp, malt vinegar flavor of the original, working-class English blokes being inherently funnier than working class Americans dudes. But, headed by the far-sexier-than-Robert-Carlyle Patick Wilson, The Full Monty was a critical success and proved there was money to be made in the adapatation of popular movie comedies.

The show that really blew the lid wide open and all-but-guaranteed a string of movie adaptations was Mel Brook's Musicalization of his own classic hit film The Producers. The show was a juggernaut on Broadway when it opened in the Spring of '01. Glowing reviews, sold-out performances, and record ticket prices followed. Beating out The Full Monty at the Tonys, The Producers went on to garner more Tony's (and Tony Nominations- 15!) than any show in history, winning in all 12 categories in which it was nominated. A success like that was bound to spawn imitators. And spawn they did.

Coming not long after The Producers, the popular adaptation of John Waters' camp classic Hairspray - successfully neutering Waters' already tamest material for the Bridge and Tunnel crowd - proved that the idea had legs. The Python's got into the action with Spamalot, the musical version of their Holy Grail film. Another hit. The catalogue of films to adapt seemed an inexhaustible resource for musical theatre writers. Alas, these golden successes were to be the exception and not the rule. The Wedding Singer, Cry Baby, Young Frankenstein, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Xanadu , Grey Gardens, Shrek, and Legally Blonde all attempted to translate Hollywood Box Office into SRO crowds on the Rialto. None fully succeeded. Others looked like they might sink the genre entirely (sorry High Fidelity). It wasn't until 2009, when Billy Elliot tied The Producers for most Tony nominations in history, that the trend reasserted itself with full force, book-ending the decade on an appropriate note.

Broadway producers are going to have to think more outside the box if they want to pick films that will successfully transfer to the musical stage; the obvious ideas are more picked over than a whale carcus in shark infested waters (which is a more apropos metaphor for the entertainment industry than you can imagine). That being said, I'll be first in line for The Devil Wears Prada starring Bernadette Peters. (Oh, please, please, please...)

You AUGHT to Remember...


  1. Even worse was that many of these musical adaptations of films were then themselves turned back into film adaptations of the musical. A disgusting and incestuous cycle. Of course, the film industry has also been even more willing to eat it's own young with a multitude of remakes of earlier films, but adding that extra layer in there somehow makes it even worse.

  2. You're getting ahead of me pal! Stay tuned...