On 25 August 1980, the new stage musical 42nd Street opened on Broadway, launching a frequently successful new trend in commercial musical theater: the stage-musical adaptation of films (some originally musicals, such as 42nd Street, some not, such as Woman of the Year, which opened on 29 March 1981). 42nd Street, revived for another successful run in 2001-05, ran almost 3,500 performances in its original Broadway mounting. These were followed, on Broadway and off, by other examples of this development, popularly called “movicals,” a word coined, reportedly, by Detroit Free Press theater writer Martin F. Kohn for a 2002 article on the topic. Some of these adaptations have been more successful than others, such as Little Shop of Horrors (1982); Nine (1982; from Fellini’s 8½); La Cage aux Folles (1983); Grand Hotel (1990); Eating Raoul (1992); Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993); Passion (from Ettore Scola’s 1981 Passione d’amore) and Sunset Boulevard (1994); Victor/Victoria (1995; starring Julie Andrews reprising her 1982 film role); Big (1996); The Full Monty and Footloose (2000); The Producers (2001); Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, and The Sweet Smell of Success (2002); Urban Cowboy (2003); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005); and Mary Poppins and The Wedding Singer (2006); Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010); Hands on a Hardbody and Kinky Boots (2013). Disney contributed to the genre with such long-running adaptations of its animated films as Beauty and the Beast (1994), The Lion King (1997; differing markedly from the 1994 film because of Julie Taymor’s innovative puppetry and masks), and Tarzan (2006). (Disney also came to Broadway with Newsies, a 2011 movical adapted from its 1992 live-action musical film.) Ironically, some of these movies-turned-stage musicals, in turn, were adapted as musical films (Producers in 2005 and Hairspray in 2007).
There are many earlier examples of this form of theater—Carnival, from 1953’s Lili, in 1961 (the first really successful film-to-stage adaptation); Promises, Promises, from The Apartment, in 1967; Zorba, from Zorba the Greek, in 1969; Sugar, from Some Like It Hot, in 1972 and Shenandoah, from the 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, in 1975—but the real trend didn’t start until 1980. (The first movical, according to theater historian Steven Suskin, was Hazel Flagg, adapted in 1953 from the 1937 screwball comedy Nothing Sacred written by Ben Hecht. It was followed later that year by Carnival in Flanders, adapted from the 1935 French romantic comedy La Kermesse héroïque) One British movical import was also a progenitor, of sorts, of another trend that began in earnest in 2001—the jukebox musical: Off-Broadway’s Return to the Forbidden Planet (1991), adapted from the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet (itself loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), with a score of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll songs of 1950s and ’60s. Ironically, movicals also hold another historical distinction: the ill-fated stage musical Carrie opened on Broadway on 12 May 1988—and closed three days later to become the most celebrated musical flop of the late 20th century. (A revised version was presented Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village by the MCC Theater in 2012 for a limited run.)
Mostly, however, before 1980, the road went the other way: Broadway to Hollywood. Musical movies existed pretty much since “talkies” came along in the ’20s. (The first feature presented as a “talking picture,” The Jazz Singer starring singer Al Jolson and released on 6 October 1927, was itself a musical film.) After two outliers—Show Boat, 1927, and Anything Goes, 1934—were made in 1936, the filming of stage musicals began in the 1940s as far as I can find, the earliest one being Cabin in the Sky (1940 stage, 1943 film), followed by Lady in the Dark (1941 stage, 1944 film). But the filming of successful stage musicals didn’t begin in earnest until the next decade, starting in 1950 with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946 on Broadway). This practice waned after 1990, principally because movie musicals are expensive to produce and their popularity has slipped since the ’60s and ’70s. (The last movie musical to win best picture honors at the Oscars was Chicago in 2002, but the last previous one was Oliver! in ’68. The last to be nominated was Les Miz in 2012, but before that, the last to be nominated before Chicago, not counting jukebox movies like Ray and Moulin Rouge or animations like Beauty and the Beast, was All That Jazz in 1979. The last filmed stage musical to be nominated for an Academy Award before Chicago was Cabaret in 1972.) Broadway stopped being the bellwether of the entertainment culture around 1980, anyway—just about the same time that the flow of musical source material started to reverse itself.
There are two or three slightly different kinds of movical, depending on how you count and define them. Obviously, they all start with a film, but many critics restrict the field to musical adaptations for the stage of films that weren’t already musicals, such as Hazel Flagg, Carnival, Spider Woman, and the more recent examples such as Catch Me If You Can (2011 stage, 1989 film) and Kinky Boots (2013 stage, 2005 film). I, however, include in the genre stage adaptations of both movie musicals which required considerable adapting and additional songs to fill out a stage production’s requirements such as Singin’ in the Rain (1985, Broadway; 1952, film) or 42nd Street (1980 Broadway; 1933 film), as well as those which necessitated little more than restaging for live performance, like Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s State Fair (1945 & 1962, themselves musicalizations of a 1933 “straight” movie) staged for Broadway in 1996, or High Society (1956, Cole Porter’s musicalization of The Philadelphia Story, 1940, itself an adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1939 stage comedy, presented on Broadway in 1998). I also count in this last category R&H’s Cinderella, currently in its Broadway début, even though its source wasn’t a movie, but a TV broadcast—originally a live one in 1957—because the impulse is the same.
(Adaptations from TV material are still rare, but they do occur, including, for instance, a 2006 stage musicalization in Los Angeles of Happy Days, the 1970s-80s sitcom, and the live staging of Disney’s 2006 High School Musical in Chicago in 2007. The Addams Family, the 2010 Broadway musical, is not in this vein, by the way, because it not only wasn’t based on either of the Addams Family films of 1991 and ’93, it wasn’t adapted from the 1960s TV series; it was based on Charles Addams’s famous cartoons, mostly published in the New Yorker between 1938 and his death in 1988. The popularity of both the TV series and the later films, of course, were still a factor in both the selection of the subject and the marketing of the show: the instantly-recognizable finger-snapping theme of the TV show, for instance, was retained for the stage version and featured in the commercials.)
Obviously not included in my catalogue are non-musical stage adaptations of non-musical films, such as the 2002 Broadway staging of The Graduate, based on the 1967 Mike Nichols-Dustin Hoffman movie and this year’s flop, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on the 1961 film and Truman Capote’s 1958 novella. I also discount musical adaptations such as Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), which had been preceded by the 1938 Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller film Pygmalion, because the musical was actually adapted from the original Shaw play from 1912. I also don’t include musical plays adapted from other sources such as books or graphic novels which may have been turned into straight movies, such as The King and I (1951), based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon and not the 1946 film of the same title, or The Color Purple, the 2005 stage musical, because it wasn’t based on the 1985 Steven Spielberg film, but Alice Walker’s original 1982 novel. So, while The Wizard of Oz, which has played perennially at Madison Square Garden since 1997 and is drawn from the beloved 1939 movie, is a movical, for example, 1975’s The Wiz isn’t because it was based directly, though loosely, on L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
There’s another sort of sub-sub-category of movical, which I’m also not going to cover: musical plays such as Wicked (2003) and Lestat (2006) which, while not strictly adaptations of films (The Wizard of Oz and Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, respectively), share source material with the hit movies (the novels Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Interview with the Vampire) and were clearly hoping to benefit from the association. (These are allied, of course, to the category of movical which is adapted from a film which, in turn, was itself based on a book or other source. It becomes an exercise in hair-splitting whether a stage musical was based more on the film in question or on the same non-cinematic source as the film. It’s a judgment call—and for my discussion, I’m the judge.)
Movicals often get a bad rap from critics and sometimes even other artists, disparaged for a number of reasons. In the London Daily Telegraph, David Gritten admits to one of the commonest objections: “Most often, a transfer to the stage lessens a film.” (This is an aspect of “adaptation decay,” which I believe is self-explanatory.) He goes on to elucidate a sense I’m sure many detractors of movicals share:
[I]f I love a film, I’ll stay away from attempts to turn it into a musical. If I’m neutral about a film, I won’t go and see the stage adaptation anyway, so it makes no difference. Legally Blonde? Fine by me. As for adaptations of films I actively dislike, they’re not for me. Kinky Boots is winning Tonys in New York? I still wouldn’t put myself through any version of it again.
“The hatred of movie-musicals is too often based on an ill-considered sense of superiority to the source material,” declares Mac Rogers of Slate. But how is adapting a movie really any different from adapting a straight play? I agree with Marc Shaiman, composer and lyricist for both Hairspray and Catch Me: “I honestly don’t understand why people [keep] harping on this. A great story is a great story.” (As evidence, I offer, along with many of the movie-based musicals I named above, Sweet Charity from 1966, based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 Nights of Cabiria, and A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s great 1973 musical drawn from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night of 1955.) From its earliest days, the American musical was nearly always an adaptation of a straight play. Oklahoma! (1943) was Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), Carousel (1945) was the Hungarian play Liliom (1909; 1921 Broadway), Most Happy Fella (1956) was They Knew What They Wanted (1924), West Side Story (1957) was, of course, Romeo and Juliet (1594-95), and so on. Pal Joey (1940) and Guys and Dolls (1950) were taken from non-dramatic sources (short stories and newspaper columns); On the Town (1944) was based on a ballet (Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free); Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Godspell (1976) were inspired by the New Testament. More recently, Rent (1996) was adapted from the opera La Bohème.(1896). Not until their recent history were musicals written from original material—1776 (1969), I guess, is an early example (though its story is based on mythologized history).
The quality of the play certainly depends on the way the adaptation is handled, but it always sounds to me as if there’s a prejudice against movies as a source, as opposed to plays or prose lit. Is it because movies are pop culture and plays are high culture (though not always in either case)? “A lot of the righteous condemnation aimed at movie-musicals conceals an unfortunate snobbery,” alleges Rogers. That strikes me as elitist prejudice. I have no particular interest in Disney’s animated Lion King, but I took my mother to Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation and was totally bowled over by the whole theatrical experience, its pop-culture source notwithstanding. Even a cursory examination of the genre reveals that some movicals are good and even excellent theater, some are mediocre or middling, and some are bad—just like all musicals, all theater, and, indeed, all art. In fact, David Yazbek, composer and lyricist for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Full Monty, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, asserts that “95 percent of [musicals] are junk! Junk!” (according to the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips—who records that Yazbek didn’t actually use the word ‘junk’).
Whatever you think of its quality as an art form, the movical is here. It’s probably here to stay, at least as long as there are musicals and movies on which to base them—and Peter Marks, former review-writer at the New York Times until he became chief theater writer at the Washington Post in late 2002, calls the cinema an “endlessly renewable resource.” Producers have “discovered” a viable and potentially profitable source—at least so far as any theatrical source is predictably profitable—and they’re unlikely to relinquish it until its usefulness is exhausted. My suspicion is that as movies become more and more technical, more computer-dependent, more action/adventure-oriented, the less they’ll be translatable to live performances. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (2011), however, demonstrates that film technology can be replicated, at least suggestively, on stage. Even though Spider-Man isn’t actually a movical since it’s not based on any particular movie, but rather an original script inspired by the comic book characters, it still uses film imagery (as interpreted, originally, by Julie Taymor but continued by her successor as director) to inform its stage techniques. But there’s probably a limit to that, and I predict that theatrical producers will begin to turn more frequently to television for the source material that has been drawn from films for the past three decades. Furthermore, I think the surge in movie-based plays was generated in part because the current crop of producers and adapter-writers is of the generation that grew up in the heyday of cinema and see movies as a cultural landmark. The coming generation of theater creators will have come of age with TV as their cultural touchstone—note how many movies, produced and written by a traditionally younger crowd than theater, have been retreads of TV shows. (The next stage for musical development after TV would logically be the Internet, though the two may overlap significantly.)
For the present, though, the studios are gearing up to perpetuate the trend: Disney launched Disney Theatrical Productions, also known as Disney on Broadway, in 1993 to oversee the transfer of the studio’s films to the stage starting with Beauty and the Beast in 1994. The studios are poised, after decades of letting the theatrical producers buy up the rights to their films, to go proactive. In 2003, MGM formed MGM On Stage to shepherd its films into the playhouse, starting with the 2004 Broadway débuts of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, from the studio’s 1988 comedy, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, based on its 1968 children’s classic. In July, 20th Century Fox announced an alliance with a Broadway producer, a film producer, and a film executive to develop stage adaptations of its catalogue of films. (Fox has declined to say which films are being considered, but one speculation is the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 farce There’s Something About Mary. Gritten quips at this notion: “Imagine the lyrics to the song for that infamous hair gel scene: let’s see now, what rhymes with ‘sperm’?”) Before the proposed venture, which is as yet unnamed, Fox movies such as Big (1988), Young Frankenstein (1974), and Nine to Five (1980) transferred to the stage in 1996, 2007, and 2009 (as 9 to 5 ) respectively (none particularly successfully). (To be sure of its footing, Fox has engaged as a consultant Isaac Robert Hurwitz, Special Drama Desk Award-winning executive director and producer of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.) Other studios such as Warner Brothers, Sony, and Universal have Broadway operations, too, and I expect this development will grow as long as there are viable Hollywood products available for adaptation.
In any case, movicals have come. As Marks observed in 2002, “Gaze up at the marquees in the theater district, and you might think you’ve stumbled into a film festival.” (In the 2013-14 Broadway season coming up, of 46 shows, 12 will be movicals, including the TV-based Cinderella. Off-Broadway adds another out of a total of 51 musicals running or scheduled to open in both arenas, making movicals over 25% of all Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals.) Leaving aside the early forays into the genre, what caused that surge since the ’80s? Analysts have offered several plausible explanations. Martin Kohn, the Free Press writer, quotes theater historian Suskin's statement that, first, “there are more movies to adapt,” contending that after talkies appeared in the ’20s, it took 60 years for stage artists to see movies as worthy sources. I’m not sure I buy that argument: that’s a very long time for that idea to gestate, and I’m just not convinced that films weren’t seen as art pretty much from the inception, granting many status equal to popular plays. More plausible is Suskin’s next point: name recognition. The average cost to mount a musical on Broadway is $12-15 million and up. At about 600-800 grand a week to keep a show running, producers have to fill the house for years to see a profit. We know that stage producers are loath to invest money and effort in scripts that have no built-in sales gimmick—a big name writer or composer (Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, Sondheim), a famous director (George Abbott, Gower Champion, Harold Prince), the star(s) (Alfred Drake, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, John Raitt, Bernadette Peters, Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane).
Another grabber would be the title, one already known from a play (Golden Boy, Kismet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, [Two for the] Seesaw, Raisin [in the Sun]), a book ([Tales of the] South Pacific, Oliver [Twist]!, Ragtime, The Color Purple), or other known source (1956’s Li’l Abner and 1977’s Annie were adapted from beloved comic strips; “It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman” from a comic book in 1966). Producers and theater marketers believe that potential ticket-buyers will be more likely to plunk down 90 or 100 bucks for a show with a title they already know than for a pig in a poke. “The familiarity is the draw,” says Mac Rogers. “If it’s based on a title I know,” explains producer Jed Bernstein, formerly the president of the trade group now known as the Broadway League and now president of Lincoln Center, “I’m going to feel a little more confident that I’m going to like it.” So why not a well-known and popular movie, the most recognizable cultural artifact in the modern world? “Everyone’s frame of reference is movies,” asserts the producer Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theatres and chairman of the NEA from 2009 to 2012. Hollywood’s output is known not just across the country but often around the globe—it’s instant recognition and most of the time, instant appeal.
In the New York Times, Peter Marks, then a contributor to the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section where his report “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie” appeared, posits that the drive is a “need for new stories for a theatrical form that has always relied on adaptation.” He also supports the suggestion that the motive is largely economic because producers are drawn to material with a built-in “instant visibility and credibility” that’s “often a marketing bonanza.” But Marks also senses a less-than-laudatory rationale in the screen-to-stage trend: “a shallow pool of writing talent, a cadre of producers lacking the know-how to guide the creation of big musicals, and an increasingly tourist-dominated audience.” The Washington Post writer quotes former Goodspeed Opera House associate producer Sue Frost and a past president of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre: “The instinct is to go for what feels safe.” She accuses theatrical producers of being risk-averse.
Marks contends that the connection between the film’s significance and the financial motives for the adaptation is implied by the fact that older movicals usually changed their titles to distinguish them from the movie source—Hazel Flagg for Nothing Sacred, Sweet Charity for Nights of Cabiria, and Promises, Promises for The Apartment—but contemporary ones, from 42nd Street to Bring It On, Chaplin, and Kinky Boots no longer make the distinction. He also notes that many of the advertisements for current movicals “stress the link” between the stage musical and its cinematic forebear. (The tactic doesn’t always work: The Sweet Smell of Success ran for only 109 performances and Sunset Boulevard closed on Broadway without making back its investment even after two-and-a-half years and 997 performances.)
Judith Sebesta, a theater professor and scholar, posits that a main impulse leading to the movical is postmodernism, the artistic and literary movement that started at the end of the last century which Sebesta defines as “an aesthetic and cultural stance shaped by nostalgia, mediatization of culture, suspicion of both the real and grand narratives, intertextuality, pastiche, deferment of meaning, self-reflexivity, dual coding, parody, and fragmentation.” (I’m not going to unpack this definition because, first, my little blog couldn’t handle it and, second, I feel Sebesta’s argument that movicals are essentially a postmodern genre is based largely on assertions and open interpretation and is therefore hardly dispositive anyway. By the way, in her essay, Sebesta presents arguments both for and against labeling the movical a genre of its own in the first place, but I’m not going to recap the positions, which are entirely academic and essentially irrelevant to my discussion. Between you and me, the movical is its own genre—or subgenre of “musical theater,” if you prefer—even if the theater and lit profs want to dance on the head of a pin over the notion. Peter Marks, by the way, agrees that “movie adaptations for the stage evolved into a bona fide genre.” QED.)
Aside from postmodernism, Sebesta reiterates the motivations for the rise in the popularity of the form described by the other authors of discussions of the phenomenon: theater economics and risk-aversion, a dearth of other sources, lack of imagination, instant “brand” recognition. She also offers some additional motives, such as what she calls “Cats-itis,” the reaction to the “British Invasion” led by Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. In addition to revivals of the American musical classics and the mounting of “smart musicals” by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza), Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Caroline, or Change), and Jason Robert Brown (Urban Cowboy, Parade), Sebesta asserts that the movical is “our ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’” tack, “allowing us to capitalize on the spectacle inherent in films that is also a hallmark of the British Invasion musical” like Miss Saigon (1991) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988—and still running). (I’m not convinced of this proposition: it seems to me that not all movicals are any more spectacle-laden than the classical American musical is, or that the genre as a whole is more dependent on spectacle than all contemporary non-movie-based musicals are. But since so many are—Sebesta does allow that some “spectacle” is really no more than a “gimmick,” citing the dance number performed on a giant piano keyboard in 1996’s Big and Thoroughly Modern Millie’s tap-dancing in the elevator in 2002—I’ll let the suggestion stand.)
One of the explanations for the trend toward movie-based plays from the artists’ viewpoint, according to producer Margo Lion, who helped bring Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, among many other straight and musical presentations, to the stage, is that “to try and create something from your head as a writer is really too tall an order.” (Really?) Slate’s Rogers states that “the writing process is simplified if a strong story already exists,” and Terence McNally, a Tony Award-winning playwright and the librettist for The Full Monty, points out, “You’re asking [the audience] to take in plot, character” and using familiar material “takes a little bit of the pressure off the audience to follow the story.” Affirms Lion, “That’s why I turn to a movie.” Now, Lion’s point denigrates writers, I think, but McNally’s rationale, if it’s even true, I find insulting to spectators (of which I happen to be one!)—that we can’t follow complex structures easily. So much for Shakespeare and other classical authors, not to mention Tony Kushner or the late Horton Foote. In fact, I’d be very surprised if either producer Lion or dramatist McNally (and especially McNally, whose Kiss of the Spider Woman is far from one-dimensional) actually hold that simplistic view of playwrights and theatergoers. Though, as Rogers bluntly declares: “A musical doesn't need to be original to be worthy, it just needs to not suck.”
Additionally, Sebesta presents Rebecca Ann Rugg’s notion that a driving rationale for plays based on familiar material, obviously including movicals, is simply nostalgia (a characteristic of Sebesta’s description of postmodernism). This becomes even more significant, Sebesta adds, when Rugg, a writer and teacher of theater as well as a dramaturg and producer at such theaters as New York’s Public and Chicago’s Steppenwolf, observes that “Hollywood’s myths . . . have replaced American/historical myths”: Shenandoah has displaced 1776, say, as the touchstone of America’s past. Or, as Peter Marks put it, “Movies are today’s cultural connective tissue.” Both the nostalgia and seeing movies as the new American mythology are really aspects of the phenomenon which I noted earlier—that today’s movie-makers are part of the premier movie generation. But, as Slate’s Rogers warns: “Excessive nostalgia can be a hollow pleasure, and one with diminishing returns.” Caveat creator, I guess you could say.
From the studios’ side, the Telegraph’s Gritten, “already pretty grumpy on the subject of films being turned into stage musicals,” posits that the main motivation “looks more like pure business than an aching desire to create great work.” The studios own the film “properties,” as Gritten cynically supposes the industry would call them, and they’re “looking for ways to squeeze even more earning potential from them” (a motive the New York Times’ Patrick Healy reiterates). With so many of them getting into the act directly, initiating the process themselves, it’s hard not to credit Gritten’s suggestion. Indeed, Healy emphasizes in the Times that “the stage adaptations may simply be too financially rewarding for the studios and Broadway to cut back.” (Money-grubbing in Hollywood? Really? Who’da thunk it?)
Stylistically, movicals cover the field. (This is a principal argument against calling the form a genre: they have nothing in common but their source material.) Some resemble old-fashioned musicals of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, like The Producers and Woman of the Year, while others, like The Lion King, have innovated within the musical theater form. In between are shows like Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman which, while still recognizable as traditional—if (post)modern—musical plays, take stances outside the theatrical mainstream (Chicago, with its cynical stance on crime and punishment) or treat subjects that wouldn’t have been touched by the old-time musicals (Kiss, with its focus on homosexual love and prison life).
Also all over the map is the success rate for movicals. Some have bombed, like Carrie and Sweet Smell, some have become box-office and even critical hits, like 42nd Street and Hairspray. Like all plays, more movicals are bad (or just unsuccessful) than good (that is, hits); I don’t know if the success rate is greater or smaller for movicals than for non-film musicals. For every Producers or Lion King, there are a handful of Footlooses and Sweet Smells, and probably two or three Carries. (Without doing an actual survey, I’d guess that more jukebox musicals fail on average than movicals. Over all, for every musical hit, there are three failures.) In the top 20 Broadway runs at the time this article was published, four are movicals (Chicago, 1996 revival, #3, nearly 7,000 and counting; The Lion King, #5, over 6,500 so far; Beauty and the Beast, #8, 5,461; 42nd Street, #13, 3,486); only two are a jukebox shows (Mamma Mia!, #10, nearly 4,900 at publication; Jersey Boys, #17, over 3,000 to date). (Only two of the remainder are straight plays and one is a comedy revue. The longest running Broadway play of all time is The Phantom of the Opera, still running after over 25 years, at 10,607 performances as of 28 July.) Of course, a long run is no proof of quality, as demonstrated in these statistics. The third-longest running play on the Broadway record is a revival; the original run of Chicago, the same play but a different production, was only 936 performances between 1975 and 1977. Long runs, however, will generate imitators (and more revivals, of course), so they are a gauge of what might be coming down the pike in the near future.
(The jukebox musical, a form that began life about the same time as the movical, has its own history and description, including subcategories and variations. As I’ve noted, there are occasional crossovers and hybrids. 2005’s Spamalot, like Return to the Forbidden Planet I mentioned above, is both a movical and a jukebox musical since it’s adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975, and its score is drawn from the Monty Python songbook. Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to ROT, wrote an analysis of the form, posted on 7 October 2012.)
Not everyone sees the trend toward movicals as a benefit to the theater. “To some in the theater business,” admonishes Marks, “the Broadway musical is becoming an appendage of Hollywood.” While so many young creators of musical theater are developing plays drawn from films, Sue Frost, who ran NAMT, an organization that promotes the development of new musicals and presents an annual festival of new musicals in New York, sees “a disconnect,” as Marks reports it, between what these artists are doing “and what makes it to Broadway.” Says Frost, “What’s not healthy is how difficult it is for us to take risks.” In other words, as I understand the warning, the creative artists, in their obsession with films and Hollywood, are making work that’s wrong for the market they’re aiming at. Frost’s example is that one of the rare movicals NAMT featured in a festival was Summer of ’42 in 1999 and it ran Off-Broadway only for one month between 2001 and ’02, performing 11 previews and 47 regular shows. (Some believe it was a victim of the downturn in theater business that followed the terrorist attacks of September 2001.) I’m not altogether convinced this is a valid concern, based again on my impression that movicals are no more nor less successful than all musicals or, indeed, all shows. Marks says that “for every ‘Producers,’ there is a string of shows that do not catch on or recoup their investment,” which is demonstrably true, but not for movicals more than non-film-based shows. If there’s a market problem with musicals, I think it’s across the board and based on two causes unrelated to the sources of the shows: the tickets cost one hell of a lot, out of the reach of most younger buyers, and the audience for theater, especially commercial theater (that is, Broadway and its kin), is shrinking in general. If anything, it seems to me, shows based on films would be more attractive to that potential younger audience, especially ones made from movies that appeal to kids and families, like Newsies (557 performances and counting as of 28 July, since it opened on Broadway in March 2012) and Billie Elliot (1312 performances in 2008-2012).
Clearly the fundamental explanation for why some movicals have been received better than others, why some succeed more than others, is how well the adapters do. Obviously, as Mac Rogers instructs, the team has to start with the right movie, but “it’s not the source of the adaptation that’s important, it’s the execution.” There are other distinctions, however, which have some effect on the outcome, too, or at least its reception or esteem. One, which Peter Marks describes as “artful,” is treating the source material like Sondheim treated Smiles of a Summer Night when he crafted A Little Night Music or, I’d add, the way McNally adapted Hector Babenco’s Brazilian film of Manuel Puig’s novel for the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. Both plays ran respectably (601 performances in 1973-74 for the première of Night Music and then another 425 for the 2009-11 Broadway revival; 904 performances in 1993-95 for Spider Woman), but they’ve both been accorded success status as theater art. Other movicals, as I observed earlier, are little more than stage transfers of movie musicals, depending more on technical skill to make the transition than artistry to recreate the film script into a new art form.
According to Mac Rogers, one reason some movicals have a hard time rising to the level of “artful” recreations is that they are too closely allied to the film’s creative team. The movie adaptations that succeed, says Thomas Viertel, producer of, among other movicals, The Producers, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, and Chaplin, are “the ones that depart from the movies in various and significant ways.” He adds, “The ones that seem to work less well tend to be more slavish.” “Stage adaptations of movies are often spearheaded by producers or creative personnel from the original film,” warns Rogers, “but if they're smart, they will hire a fresh group of collaborators to bring the show to Broadway.” In the Times, Healy reports “that most filmmakers don’t really know how to make great stage musicals” without the intervention of outside theater pros.
As an example, the Slate writer records that Tim Herlihy, who wrote the screenplay for 1998’s The Wedding Singer, also co-wrote the movical, which played 285 performances on Broadway over a scant eight months in 2006. It’s Rogers’s opinion that “Herlihy is too protective of his own dialogue” since he left so much of the movie dialogue intact in the stage version. The Internet journalist contrasts this arrangement with Hairspray, from the stage adaption of which John Waters, the original screenwriter and director, kept his distance to allow composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman, co-lyricist Scott Wittman, and librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan the freedom to re-conceive the script as an original musical. For Thoroughly Modern Millie, composer Jeanine Tesori, working with lyricist Dick Scanlan, avoided seeing the film altogether, acknowledging, “I find the images too hard to shake. They're written in permanent ink.” After completing the adaptation, Scanlan felt “complete ownership of” the new work because he’d invested so much of himself in it. The lyric writer saw the movical as an entirely separate creation even though he’d begun working with Richard Morris, the writer of the 1967 screenplay, who died in 1996, before work on the stage adaptation was completed.
Separation from the screen version was also significant in the staging of The Full Monty. As reported by Peter Marks, director Jack O’Brien, who shepherded the play from San Diego’s Old Globe where he was artistic director, to Broadway, and his choreographer Jerry Mitchell, moved a sequence that had been an iconic moment in the British film because O’Brien felt it was “a film setup.” They hinted at it in a later scene on stage, giving “an affectionate acknowledgment” to the sequence without making “a meal out of it.” This is what Mac Rogers calls “making your own moments,” and he describes an example from The Wedding Singer (which in Rogers’s opinion had already failed the “pick the right movie” test) where the adapters slavishly tried to reproduce a bit from movie that was dependent on that milieu and its star, Adam Sandler, and ended up with a flat, shadowy reflection. In the up-coming Big Fish, an adaptation of the 2003 film fantasy that’s slated to open on Broadway in October 2013, there’s a scene in the movie where the flow of time is suspended, but Patrick Healy reports that composer Andrew Lippa has turned it into a musical moment that’s intended to accomplish the same effect on the audience in musical-theater terms. (It remains to be seen, of course, if the new strategy is effective, but it follows Rogers’s advice.) As Marks points out, “Ultimately, a work of art has to stand on its own” as a sui generis piece of theater, without obvious ties to the play’s cinematic parentage, too much of which, admonishes Marks, “imbues the musicals with a borrowed feel.” It’s an unquantifiable element, this “artfulness” Marks feels, one of those things you know when you see it (with apologies to Justice Potter Stewart and not intending to ally movicals with . . . ummm pornography) but can’t define in such a way as to be able to use it as a measuring stick for all movicals. But I feel that this is the key, however it’s generated or ignited, that makes the difference between the good movicals like A Little Night Music, The Lion King, and 42nd Street, and the mediocre and crappy ones like Footloose, Carrie, and Big. (If you disagree with my examples, just put in your own. It’s not as if I can ever prove my contention—it’d be like nailing Jell-O to a tree!)
Nevertheless, I’m not ready to dismiss so early in their history the new forms that writers are working with, including the movical, as well as the emerging dance play (Dancin’, Contact) and the jukebox musical (Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys). They deserve time to shake down. Kiss of the Spider Woman, for instance, with book by Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Terence McNally and music and lyrics by Tony-winners John Kander and Fred Ebb, not only deals with a pretty brave topic for a Broadway musical but does so while “celebrating the theatrical impulse and its ability to remake the world.” That was David Richards in the New York Times, and he went on to say:
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” doesn’t just assert [the show’s creators’] collective belief in the transforming and redemptive properties of theater. It embodies that belief. What the musical does and what it says are one and the same. Work and thesis are indissolubly wedded.
That’s a pretty strong endorsement of . . . well, any work of theater, but a movical in particular.