Dear Broadway: Not Every Movie Needs To Be A Musical

12:30 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

If you've been paying any attention to Broadway these days, you might have noticed a few familiar titles. Or more than a few. In recent seasons, the theater world has been overrun by "new" musicals that are based on existing stories, particularly films. Some (Once) have been great. Others (Ghost, anybody?), not so much. Now, adaptation has been the bread and butter of book musicals since Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted Green Grow The Lilacs, a play with 64 Broadway performances to its name, into one of the most popular and groundbreaking musicals in theater history: Oklahoma! The difference is, the adaptations we're seeing today are not true adaptations of a story into something new for the theater. Instead, it feels like producers go down a list of popular movies and try to shoehorn them into a milieu that simply doesn't work. I love musical theater, but here's the thing: not everything should be a musical.

Don't get me wrong, some of the greatest musicals of all time have been adapted from existing works. To return to the Rodgers and Hammerstein example, let's look at their four masterpieces: Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific. The first two: based on existing plays. The third was based on memoirs of real events, while the last came out of a short story collection. So what's the difference, you might ask? The difference is that these stories were chosen for a reason and then modified significantly to fit those reasons and the themes the pair were interested in pursuing. The stories fit the ideal, not the other way around. For instance, South Pacific came to the duo's attention and further developed their previous ideas on prejudice. One of the most controversial and famous songs in theater history, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," came from these meditations on prejudice and learning. Listen to a clip from the 2008 revival- you'd never find a song of this depth in today's adaptations:

These beautiful stories were not just straightforward transitions of putting exactly what was on the page onto the stage. Instead, the duo cherry-picked the storylines they needed and added others in order to craft a musical that was entirely its own entity. The similarities were there, to be sure, but the musicals had their own stories, their own sounds, their own tones. No one could accuse them of being cookie-cutter translations from one medium to another. 

Carousel original production; image (c) PBS
Likewise, the era of the megamusical in the 1980s also produced several enduring musicals based on existing works. The trifecta of great British megamusicals- Les Misèrables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon- were based on two novel and an opera. Once again, though, the aim was to find stories that would make for great stage shows and that would fit into the theatrical milieu of the day. In this case, the trend was for sweeping stories with grand music, big emotions, and bigger spectacles. The result? Three of the most enduring images in modern theater: a giant turning barricade, a helicopter taking off, and, of course, a falling chandelier.

These musicals were adaptations, and yet they were something special, something unique. No one was concerned with putting every detail of the original works onstage. Indeed, in some cases, huge chunks of the stories had to be excised in order to streamline stories and themes. How many audiences at Phantom know that Raoul is a composite of his book counterpart and the character's brother? Or that Les Mis's Marius has a complicated history with the villainous Thenardiers? Instead of trying to simply take an existing work and put it onstage, the creative teams focused on specific through-lines and emotional themes, cutting large pieces and adding others. For instance, one of the most famous moments in Les Mis has no real counterpart in the book, but was created to underline the themes of love that lie at the heart of the stage show: √ąponine's longing ballad "On My Own":

Continuing with the Les Mis example, there is no moment in Victor Hugo's massive novel in which every plotline overlaps at the same moment. If the creators of the musical had stayed strictly true to the novel, we never would have had this iconic masterpiece of counterpoint:

Today's adaptations, however, are a very different story indeed. There is a constant stream of "new" musicals on Broadway with very familiar titles and sources. For the moment, let's leave Disney musicals out of the discussion; the sources for Disney on Broadway shows are already-musicalized animated films with musical-theater structures. Their relationship to the old fairy tales, well, that's a discussion for another day. But for the moment, let's go ahead and keep them out of the discussion, along with other movie-musical-to-stage-musicals like the upcoming An American in Paris.

The jukebox musical deserves a quick mention here for managing to make a hybrid of the original and the unoriginal. Or, at least in theory. In reality, though, with an exception or two (Jersey Boys and Beautiful come to mind, and those are behind-the-scenes tales, not stories created out of thin air), these "original" stories tend to be rather unoriginal, flat plots that serve as flimsy excuses to shoehorn in as many popular songs as possible. Mamma Mia! has its charms, but even its fans have to admit the story is pretty slim. Motown? Rock of Ages? Stories, character, and emotional through-lines are sacrificed, consciously or not, for the sake of attracting audiences with the lure of the familiar.

But there are a few, a select few, which manage to buck this trend and become memorable, clever pieces of theater. Why do they succeed when others do not? In most- though not all- cases, it seems that the works behind successful adapted musicals tend to be lesser-known or less successful in the first place. Because of this, the creative team will feel more free to take liberties and less beholden to the original. This past year's Best Musical Tony winner, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, was in fact based on the book Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which previously inspired the film Kind Hearts and Coronets. Despite maintaining a darkly comedic tone, Gentleman's Guide was a cleverly stylized musical, chock-full of impressive wordplay, that in fact deviated from its predecessors. 

Similarly, rock musicals such as Rent and Spring Awakening managed to carve out a niche despite being based on, respectively, an Italian opera and a German play, through stylization and updating of themes to reflect the modern world. Plotlines (who dies in Rent, whether or not there is a rape in Awakening) were altered accordingly. 

The true rarity in today's theater is a truly original musical; the number of recent notable musicals not based on other sources can be counted on one hand. When the profane, convention-skewering The Book of Mormon collected 9 Tony awards in 2011, it gave hope that perhaps we were returning to an era where original musicals had a chance. But aside from Mormon, the only notable original musicals in recent years have been 2010's crowd-pleasing Best Musical Memphis, and the complex, thoughtful contemporary-pop/rock collaborations from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal and If/Then. These original musicals, regardless of flaws, have that special something that the flat, often generic movie-to-stage adaptations lack. Let's compare. And to be fair, let's compare Tony performances, the numbers each show selects to highlight themselves on theater's biggest night. First up: a performance from 2009's Next to Normal:

Then, the performance from 2014's Rocky: The Musical:

The differences are clear. Both have a rock beat, but that's about where the similarities end. Next to Normal displays three of its four stars in a number that highlights both the technical quality of the score and the genuine-feeling emotions of the characters. Rocky, on the other hand, chooses to highlight its faithful recreation of the "final fight" scene, iconic from the movie, complete with "Eye of the Tiger." The original-for-stage music that is present is generic at best and gives little for an audience to connect with; it relies almost solely on the existing affection for the film.

That's the problem, really: over-faithfulness. Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't try to sell Carousel as Liliom: The Musical. They made it its own creature. Enough already with "X: The Musical," unless there's a very good reason for it and a strong creative voice to make it stand on its own. Also, as a side note, just because a movie has dancing in it doesn't mean it'll be a good musical: my job meant I spent way too many days that I'll never get back at Flashdance: The Musical- trust me, I know what I'm talking about. And now we've had announcements of upcoming musical versions of Doctor Zhivago, Finding Neverland, American Psycho, Amelie, and many others. Some of these might be wonderful. Some of these will probably be terrible. Take a risk, be creative, and see what happens. There's magic in the theater yet, if only we dare to make it.