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Now Screening At Theatre Near You! -Screen To Stage (And Back!)

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MamasDoin'Fine
Broadway Legend
joined:9/28/08
Broadway Legend
joined:
9/28/08

'What works on one often gets a run on the other, giving Broadway a chance to cash in on Hollywood success'

By Loren King

When “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ finally debuted in previews recently, it elicited the same kind of mixed reaction that greets most film-to-musical adaptations. OK, “Spider-Man’’ is based on the Marvel comics superhero series and isn’t a traditional Broadway musical — director Julie Taymor calls it a “rock ’n’ roll circus drama’’ — but the most expensive show in Broadway history, expected to open officially on Mar 15 2011, is no doubt banking on the success of three popular movies (with the fourth “Spider-Man’’ now in pre-production) to fill the Foxwoods Theater.
It’s the latest in a long line of big Broadway shows eager for tourist-friendly brand names to sell expensive tickets.

Over the last decade, the lights of Broadway have often resembled a film festival marquee. Currently, film-to-musical adaptations of “Billy Elliot,’’ “Elf,’’ “The Lion King,’’ “Brief Encounter,’’ and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,’’ based on the much-loved 1988 Pedro Almodovar film, are running alongside “The Addams Family,’’ “La Cage Aux Folles,’’ and “Mary Poppins’’ -shows based on additional sources but which are still best known as movies.
What’s next, cynics may wonder: a song-and-dance version of “The Godfather,’’ with Nathan Lane as Vito Corleone?
How about “Annie Hall: The Musical’’ with “La Dee Da’’ as its 11 o’clock number?

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, the 1970 Lauren Bacall musical “Applause’’ was based on “All About Eve,’’ and “Grand Hotel’’ in 1989 was based on the 1932 film of the same title but the current trend started with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.’’
The musical based on the 1991 animated film ran for an astounding 5,464 performances between 1994 and 2007. Then came the success of Mel Brooks’s adaptation of his 1968 film “The Producers’’ in 2001, followed the next year by another mega-hit, “Hairspray,’’ based on the “American Bandstand’’ parody film by John Waters.
Mounting a Broadway musical is a riskier-than-ever proposition -“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ will need years of blockbuster sales akin to the top-grossing musical “Wicked’’ to turn a profit from the Broadway production so it makes sense that producers would embrace shows with brand-name appeal for out-of-town and international tourists.
The trend shows no signs of slowing down.
Broadway productions of “Sister Act’’ and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’’ will debut in March.
The creative team behind “Hairspray’’ is readying “Catch Me If You Can,’’ based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, for an April opening.
In the 2011-12 season, “Carrie: The Musical,’’ a notorious Broadway flop that closed after scathing reviews in 1988, will be revived in a major off-Broadway production with hopes of transferring it to the Great White Way.

“Composers are drawn to things that they think already work and will be enhanced by music,’’ says Michael Korie, lyricist for the musical “Grey Gardens,’’ based on the landmark documentary, who’s now writing a musical version of the 2004 film “Finding Neverland.’’ “You need a strong plot for a musical. Movies give you much more plot than modern plays or novels, which are now more character-based. Without a strong story, musicals come apart at the seams the minute you sing a song. Cynics can say we’re just sticking songs in a movie but those are not the shows that really work. ‘Billy Elliot’ the movie and ‘Billy Elliot’ the musical both have their own raison d’etre.’’

Broadway musicals have long relied on adaptations of popular material. “South Pacific,’’ “The King and I,’’ “Cabaret,’’ “Hello, Dolly!’’ “My Fair Lady’’ and “Man of La Mancha,’’ to name just a few beloved musicals, were based on books or plays. And few film- or theater-goers gripe about adaptations of “Ragtime,’’ “Little Women,’’ “Les Miserables,’’ or “The Color Purple,’’ which hail from well-regarded novels even though movies have been made from them, too.
“There’s nothing craven about adaptation. We don’t have big books anymore; we have movies and television,’’ says Korie.

“Adaptations are sometimes a great idea, but there has to be a good reason to put it onstage. You have to find the theatricality of a piece,’’ says Paul Daigneault, founder and artistic director of Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, who later this month will direct “Nine,’’ the musical (itself turned into a film last year) based on Fellini’s groundbreaking film, “8 1/2.’’ “You have to ask, is this material stage-worthy? Musicals only work if the singing comes when mere words are not enough.’’

Daigneault says “Legally Blonde,’’ for instance, hit the stage with “dialogue that was identical to the film. I’ve never seen a show so divisive. Yet some of the music was surprisingly inventive.’’ “High Fidelity,’’ he notes, “was a small, indie film that was turned into a high-gloss production’’ with dismal results.

Except for Brooks, no other film director has seen a modest screen hit turned into a Broadway blockbuster like John Waters. The “Hairspray’’ creative team took his “little dance movie’’ from 1988 and “didn’t imitate it; they reinvented it as a big, brassy, sing-out-Louise Broadway musical that was faithful to the characters but in a different vein,’’ he says. “It had to be re-imagined and mutated into a musical.’’
Unlike many directors who have little to do with the musical adaptations of their films, Waters was closely involved with reshaping “Hairspray’’ for Broadway. He says he quickly learned that what works for a film doesn’t necessarily work onstage. “Film is thousands of camera angles; Broadway is like a Woody Allen movie: It’s one long shot. I saw [‘Hairspray’ director] Jack O’Brien tinker with a scene for two seconds. It hadn’t gotten a laugh, then it got laughs,’’ he says. “That’s theater directing.’’

Resistance to the movies-to-musicals trend may be just age-old snobbery that theater is the more sophisticated art form. “Nine,’’ based on Fellini’s film, and “A Little Night Music,’’ Stephen Sondheim’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,’’ aren’t dismissed as readily as “The Wedding Singer,’’ “Xanadu,’’ “Legally Blonde,’’ “Nine to Five,’’ or “Footloose.’’ Is it because these are lightweight, mainstream films remade into lightweight, mainstream musicals? Is it because we expect Broadway, with its grand tradition and steep ticket prices, to aim higher than a Reese Witherspoon comedy?

But there’s reverse snobbery, too. Film buffs might shrug off fluff like “Legally Blonde,’’ but recoil when esteemed films are messed with, Fellini and Bergman notwithstanding. “Sweet Smell of Success,’’ the 1957 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis drama, is generally regarded as a masterpiece, yet the 2002 Broadway musical starring John Lithgow as despicable gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker closed after just 109 performances and mixed reviews. “Sunset Boulevard’’ is revered by film critics as one of American cinema’s great noir classics; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, despite its 1994 success on Broadway, not so much.

Hollywood has long relied on remakes, sequels, and recycled TV shows. Broadway isn’t much different, routinely depending on revivals and star turns to sell tickets. The success of “The Producers’’ led to the adaptation of Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein,’’ just as “Hairspray’’ spawned the musicalization of another Waters film, “Cry-Baby.’’ “It was a financial failure. We closed after we lost the Tonys, but I loved what they did with it,’’ Waters says. “It was closer to a John Waters movie; maybe that was part of the problem.’’

Waters, for one, quips that he’s “open for calls.’’ A company in St. Louis is reviving “Cry-Baby,’’ he says. “If it works, who knows, they may do ‘Serial Mom’ and then my Broadway career isn’t over.’’
Updated On: 1/16/11 at 07:57 PM
Beergoggles
Broadway Legend
joined:4/30/05
Broadway Legend
joined:
4/30/05
There will always be an argument here. I for one am a traditionalist lover in the sense that i like it when a musical is totally new (book, lyrics etc) but that doesn't (sadly) happen very much anymore. However some of the musicals that go from screen to stage i find are brilliant, if not better. I for one loved legally blonde on stage but in the same breath wasn't so fond of Footloose. Have to take the good with the bad.
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