Are There Many Musicals About the Same Subject?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Apr. 21, 2024
Are There Many Musicals About the Same Subject?
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: With The Great Gatsby musicals happening now, are there other examples of musicals about the same subject?

At the beginning of 2021, the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby entered the public domain. Now there are multiple Gatsby stage projects happening simultaneously, including The Great Gatsby, currently on Broadway, and Gatsby, headed for The American Repertory Theatre this summer. This has inspired theatre circles to wonder: has this happened before?

At the Broadway Theatre, The Great Gatsby has been chasing that green light since previews began in late March, after an out-of-town tryout at Paper Mill. This version of the show is directed by Marc Bruni, with book by Kait Kerrigan, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Jeremy Jordan and Eva Noblezada star, as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, in this story about a millionaire and his forbidden romance with a past love, during the jazzy 1920s.

Meanwhile, next month at ART, Gatsby begins performances, setting the same story to different words and music. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, with book by Martyna Majok, music by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett, and lyrics by Welch, this Gatsby musical will star Isaac Powell and Charlotte MacInnes. (Fun fact: Maya Sistruck appeared in the ensemble of The Great Gatsby at Paper Mill, and will also be in Gatsby at ART.)

For almost all theatre folks, the first instance that comes to mind of a similar situation is that of The Wild Party. Joseph Moncure March’s poem of the same name was in the public domain at the time that both Michael John LaChiusa and Andrew Lippa became inspired to adapt it into a musical. Like The Great Gatsby, The Wild Party is set during the roaring 1920s, a time of excess, changing morals, and increasing socialization amongst folks in different social classes.

LaChiusa’s Wild Party was lead produced by The Public Theatre on Broadway, while Lippa’s Wild Party was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club off-Broadway. Both productions opened and closed during the first half of 2000. The timing inspired a lot of debate by journalists, industry folks, and theatre fans about which Wild Party was superior, as well as comparisons about their attributes otherwise. LaChiusa’s version was directed by George C. Wolfe, who also co-wrote the book, and counted among its stars Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt, Tonya Pinkins, Norm Lewis, and Marc Kudisch. Lippa’s version was directed by Gabriel Barre, and counted among its stars Julia Murney, Brian d’Arcy James, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, and Alix Korey. Both Wild Partys have continued to gain fans through their cast recordings and new productions, and are particular favorites in college musical theatre programs.

Are There Many Musicals About the Same Subject?
Scene from Lippa's The Wild Party

But what was the Gatsby and Wild Party of the actual 1920s? Blossom Time, of course!

In a previous column, I was asked a similar question: have there ever been two productions of the same show on Broadway at the same time?

In 1923, the musical Blossom Time was so popular that it needed two simultaneous Broadway productions, across the street from each other, in order to keep up with ticket demand. While in this case, two different versions of a musical with the same source material weren’t competing, there were two different productions of the same musical competing. (Okay, okay, it’s not really the same…)

A more similar situation occurred in March of 1939. The Swing Mikado, presented by the Federal Theatre Project of the WPA, re-envisioned Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, replete with swing orchestrations, a tropical island setting, and an all-Black cast. In the same month, The Hot Mikado opened on Broadway. This was also a re-envisioned Mikado, with an all-Black cast. The Hot Mikado came about when producer Mike Todd had his offer to manage The Swing Mikado rejected. He then decided he would create his own adaptation of the source material, to compete. The Hot Mikado, with a starrier cast including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, ran for 85 performances, while The Swing Mikado clocked in at 86.

While they might not have played New York simultaneously, there have been multiple musicals based on the same Shakespearean plays. These are arguably ideal for musicalization as they are in the public domain, with proven story bones, and audience recognition. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, has inspired the Broadway musicals Music Is (1976), Play On! (1997), and All Shook Up (2005). (It also inspired the more recent Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptation, titled Twelfth Night (2018).) There are many more instances like this one. For example, The Boys From Syracuse (1938) and Oh, Brother! (1981) were both adapted from The Comedy of Errors, with very different results. Technically both Rockabye Hamlet (1976) and The Lion King (1997) are take-offs on Hamlet.

Edmond Rostand’s iconic 1897 play Cyrano has inspired countless adaptations in different media, including multiple musicals. In 1899, just two years after the play premiered in Paris, and one year after it premiered on Broadway, a musical version came to Broadway as well, directed by A.M. Holbrook, with book by Stuart Reed, music by Victor Herbert, and lyrics by Harry B. Smith, and starring Francis Wilson, the first president of Actors’ Equity, in the title role. 1973 saw another musical adaptation of Cyrano reach Broadway, this time directed by Michael Kidd, with book and lyrics by Anthony Burgess and music by Michael J. Lewis, starring Christopher Plummer, who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The most recent Cyrano musical on Broadway was in 1993. The Eddy Habbema-directed version with book and lyrics by Koen Van Dijk (English lyrics by Peter Reeves, additional lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) and music by Ad Van Dijk starred Bill Van Dijk and was nominated for Best Musical. (None of the Van Dijks are related.) The Cyrano musicals on Broadway are hardly the only ones written for the stage. Another notable adaptation was written by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire and premiered during their college years at Yale. 

Are There Many Musicals About the Same Subject?
Scene from The Phantom of the Opera.

Another notable entry about this topic involves the longest running show in Broadway history, The Phantom of the Opera. The musical, which ran from 1988 until 2023, was directed by Hal Prince with book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber, music by Webber, and lyrics by Stilgoe and Charles Hart. The source material for the show is the novel of the same name, by Gaston Leroux. More than one musical based on the same source material exists, the most prominent being Phantom, with book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. This version of the story first premiered in 1991 in Houston and has received over 1,000 productions. Webber, Stilgoe, and Hart’s Phantom is quite different from Kopit and Yeston’s Phantom.

Will Gatsby hit Broadway just like The Great Gatsby has? Will the trajectory of the Gatsby musicals be “more Wild Party” or “more Phantom”? Only time will tell…

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