How Often Are Musicals Based on Documentaries?

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By: Jan. 28, 2024
How Often Are Musicals Based on Documentaries?
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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: Is How To Dance in Ohio the only musical based on a documentary?

How To Dance in Ohio, the new musical which is currently playing at the Belasco Theatre, is based on a 2015 documentary of the same name, which won the Peabody Award for Documentary Film. Alexandra Shiva directed the documentary, about autistic young people preparing for a formal dance. 

Eight years later, this past November, the musical How To Dance in Ohio started previews on Broadway, with book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik and music by Jacob Yandura, directed by Sammi Cannold. The legendary Hal Prince was involved as director and also dramaturg before he passed, and the show is now dedicated to him. How To Dance in Ohio cast actors with autism to play characters with autism, opening doors for new conversations to be had.

While How To Dance in Ohio is not the first musical to be based on a documentary, it is certainly far more rare for a Broadway musical to be based on a documentary than on a movie of another genre. Every season, multiple musicals premiere based on comedies and dramas from the big screen. A musical based on a documentary is more uncommon.

How Often Are Musicals Based on Documentaries?

In 2013, Hands on a Hardbody went this route. The musical with book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Green, directed by Neil Pepe, became a favorite of many musical theatre aficionados. The show, based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, followed a group of underdog Texans who compete to see who can keep their hands on a truck the longest. The competitor who wins gets to take the truck home, a significant change of fortune. Hardbody told the stories of folks who don’t often get musicals written about them, and was incredibly moving. Several of the real-life people featured in the documentary even attended the show and took on-stage bows.

A few years earlier, in 2006, Broadway saw Grey Gardens come to life. The 1975 documentary was about a mother and daughter both named Edith Beale who were cousins of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and became extremely eccentric recluses. Book writer Doug Wright (who also wrote Hardbody), composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and director Michael Greif brought these characters to the stage, first at Playwrights Horizons and then on Broadway. Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson received Tony Awards for their acclaimed performances in the leading roles. The show ran for over 300 performances, and continues to inspire fans. 

The 2017 hit West End stage musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has not been on Broadway (yet), but is a significant show of recent years that falls into the musical-based-on-a-documentary category. The uplifting, pop-infused show about a British teenager’s journey to become a drag queen is based on a 2011 television documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has book and lyrics by Tom MacRae and music by Dan Gillespie Sells, and was directed by Jonathan Butterell. In addition to its years on the West End, the show has also toured in the UK, and premiered in both L.A. and Mexico City.

While not based on a film or television documentary, there are also other Broadway musicals with documentary-like aspects. Shows like A Chorus Line, Working, and Come From Away, that are partially based on interviews with real people, might be considered offshoots of the musical-based-on-a-documentary sub-genre. There are also musicals like Kinky Boots, which are based on source material that in turn was based on a documentary. (The 2013 Best Musical winner was based on the 2005 British film of the same name, which was based on a 1999 television episode of the documentary series Trouble at the Top.) And of course there are many shows, including a large number of jukebox musicals, which are based on the stories of real people, and thus have documentary-like elements.