Before we start, we should acknowledge that the trend of movies being adapted for the stage (usually as musicals) has become more and more exhausting as the adaptation process becomes more and more mechanical. It feels less and less like writers are particularly inspired by source material and more like they were presented with a dossier of properties next on chopping block. I’ve mentioned this before, but since 2000, nearly thirty best musical nominees have been based on increasingly random movies, including one year (2013) when all four nominees were film adaptations.
This year’s recently announced Tony nominees are, therefore, a refreshing change of pace. Only one (Groundhog Day) is based on a movie, and it’s actually pretty great. The others are either original, based on a true story, or based on a small chunk of Tolstoy. (Although, it was surprising to see some high profile film adaptations shut out completely, or almost completely. Well, it was a competitive season).
That said, the choice to base a musical on a movie isn’t in and of itself a bad idea. In fact, musicals have always been a particularly adaptive medium, repurposing existing storylines from books, plays, poetry and mythology with song—why should movies be left out just because sometimes the motivation is a little… Ehhh…. You know? So let’s take a look back at some of the best stage adaptations (plays, too, although there are fewer) of films.
Passion/A Little Night Music
I’m doubling up here because it seemed unfair to give Sondheim two slots even though he’s Sondheim. You do have to give him credit for picking almost absurdly uncommercial sources when he adapts a movie into a musical, drawing on Ettore Scola’s forgotten Italian drama Passione d’amore for Passion and Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night for A Little Night Music. But both premises—a love affair during Italian unification and the romantic lives of multiple couples on a country estate in 1900s Sweden—had something musically that only Sondheim could see, and the result (with help from James Lapine and Hugh Wheeler) is two of his most heartbreakingly romantic pieces. A Little Night Music is particularly musically ambitious, written in continuous waltz time with staggering counterpoint when different themes merge together, as in the Act One standout “Now/Later/Soon.” All this makes the fact that the show’s biggest hit, “Send in the Clowns,” was written at the last minute for Glynis John’s vocal limitations all the more impressive.
The 39 Steps
Hitchcock was always to specifically filmic that his movies never seemed particularly ripe for a stage adaptation. They definitely didn’t seem right for a comedy, so no one could have anticipated that his early thriller The 39 Steps would become one of the most hilarious plays in recent memory. Brilliantly, playwright Patrick Barlow changes very little in terms of dialogue, but director Maria Aitken and the actors (including two clowns who play countless supporting roles) raise the archness of the text just enough to make it unforgettably hilarious instead of melodramatic. The barrage of quick-changes and repurposed props is dizzying, but Aitken’s real triumph is in finding a way to put Hitchcock’s filmic flourishes on stage and integrate them fully into the unstoppable pace of The 39 Steps.
The massive success of The Producers helped in the current era of regularly adapting non-Disney film properties, but it deserved all the praise it got. Mel Brooks poured a lifetime of devotion to musical theatre into this adaptation of his classic film about a hack producer and a meek accountant who team up to defraud investors by staging a deliberate flop. It shows. Rarely does a love of the medium’s tropes and cliches translate so well in a musical (Brook’s wrote the music and lyrics, in addition to the book). Audiences may have come for “Springtime for Hitler,” but they stayed for the soaring romanticism of “I Wanna Be A Producer.” It’s still pretty funny, even if its shock value seems a little tame these days and its show-biz in-jokes have withered over the years. Brooks made the very smart move of ditching Lorenzo St. Dubois (LSD; the 60s!) from the original movie.We even got an excellent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm out of the deal.
Little Shop of Horrors
Alan Menken seems to be caught in a pickle. Whenever Disney stages a musical that includes songs he wrote for one of their renaissance films, it’s usually a pretty big, obvious success. Whenever he attempts to adapt something weirder and more idiosyncratic (say, Twilight Zone episodes, Kurt Vonnegut, the Books of Samuel, or Canadian novelist Mordecai Richier), the response is tepid. The exception to that rule is Menken and Howard Ashman’s bizarre, hilarious, and genuinely unsettling 1983 Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, which keeps a few elements from Roger Corman’s film but vastly improves on everything else. For such a little musical, it captures grand faustian themes while delivering on an impossibly catchy numbers that make the most of straightforward orchestrations, proving that when you keep resources limited and put Menken in a corner, he can figure out some pretty neat stuff.
This microbudget Irish film was actually a natural choice for a Broadway musical, thanks to its shockingly successful soundtrack. The musical replicates the hand-held intimacy of the film by setting the action largely within an onstage (operational) bar, and having the actors double as musicians. That trope is used everywhere these days, but it’s never so effective as in this story of a painful non-romance between a busker and a flower seller. As the bare-bones story seems to be heading for a painfully cliche ending, it pulls the rug out from under us and amplifies the already incredible ache of the indie-folk score. Fun fact: I used to live with a friend who was acting in the Broadway cast at the time, and he would play these songs during the day before going off to perform them at night. He never got tired of them, and neither did I.