[In December 2013, two periodicals ran articles on stage musicals based on films. Readers of ROT will recall that on 20 September, I posted my own article, “Movicals,” which traced the history and discussed the dramaturgy of the genre. (Neither of the following articles, republished here from Playbill and the Washington Post, uses the term “movical” for the type of stage play they cover, and both make at least reference to some musical plays that are actually based on books from which popular or successful movies were also drawn.) The connection between these two recent articles and my own blog post seemed strong enough to warrant revisiting the subject and bringing the two newer pieces to the attention of ROT readers.
[The Playbill article, “Lights!
Camera! Action!” by Stuart Miller, who also
writes for the New York Times,
appeared in the December 2013 issue of the program
magazine (the on-line version of the article was dated 25 December) and
spotlights one particular musical play that’s on its way to Broadway: Rocky, based on the 1976 film of the same title, due to open on 13 March at
the Winter Garden Theatre. The second
article, “Live, onstage . . . from the
screen” by Nelson Pressley, was published in the “Arts” section of the Sunday Washington Post on 29 December. It focuses on
productions that were currently on D.C. stages at the time, but Pressley, a
review-writer for the Post, discussed
the movical in general from that viewpoint.
Both articles reinforce some of the same points that I made last
September, but they also update the discussion and raise some issues I
omitted. Together, they’re good
follow-ups to my post, so I bring them to you in the interest of completeness
and continuing coverage. ~Rick]
Broadway’s Newest Musicals Draw Inspiration from the Silver Screen”
by Stuart Miller
Thomas Meehan, Marsha Norman, Susan Stroman and Stephen Flaherty chat with Playbill.com about adapting popular Hollywood movies into musicals for the Broadway stage.
*When Sylvester Stallone first asked Thomas Meehan if he’d write a Broadway musical of Rocky, he said no. Meehan essentially wrote the book on writing the book for films turned into musicals – he scripted Broadway’s version of The Producers, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Young Frankenstein and Elf – but he feared that Rocky was too iconic, still seared in the memories of most Americans.
“Then Sylvester brought me to his house on a mesa at the top of Beverly Hills and we watched ‘Rocky’ together,” he said, “and it reminded me how well the story was constructed, how much it was already like a play. So I said yes.”
Making movies into musicals is nothing new for Broadway – since My Favorite Year in 1992, nearly every season has had one. Just as Hollywood seems increasingly in thrall to superheroes and young adult novels, Broadway is turning with increasing frequency to Hollywood for stories with recognizable brands. This season brings not only Rocky but Bullets Over Broadway and The Bridges of Madison County (technically an adaptation of the best-selling novel). Not to mention the forthcoming Aladdin, from the Disney movie musical, and Ever After, from the 1998 Drew Barrymore film.
“It’s very tricky,” said Marsha Norman, who wrote the Bridges book, when it comes to figuring out what stays, what goes, and where to put the songs. This year’s trio of iconic movies-into-musicals all feature experienced hands: Norman (The Color Purple), Bullets director and choreographer Susan Stroman, (The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Big Fish) and Meehan, who brought in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (My Favorite Year, Ragtime) to write the score.
“The process is similar in that you start with the screenplay and figure out how to re-structure it into a musical,” Stroman said. For starters, movie screenplays build over three acts while plays have two, “and you need a cliffhanger so people come back after intermission.”
Additionally a movie may have 80 locations while a show cuts that down to eight or ten. “Then you have to decide which scenes to keep and how to incorporate them,” she said. “Then you have to identify where the songs [go].”
With Mel Brooks, she would say, “I need you to write a song here called ‘Break a Leg,’“ but Woody Allen is using classic period tunes “so we had to sit and go through the American songbook and find songs that could push the plot forward.”
Meehan said sometimes Flaherty and Ahrens would ask if they could take one of his scenes and make it into a song, using his dialogue as lyrics.
That’s when the transformation really begins. “Once you start down this road of turning it into a musical you never go back to the movie,” Stroman emphasized.
Certain storylines have to be simplified. “Woody [Allen] had to lose a few of the gangsters he loved,” Stroman said, while others were added. “I invented new characters and new scenes,” said Meehan, adding that his early days writing parodies for The New Yorker of everything from James Joyce to “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” has enabled him to capture the voices of Mel Brooks (for whom he also wrote in television and movies), John Waters and now Stallone. (Next up for Meehan is an adaptation of Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve.”)
Norman said her favorite part of Bridges has been expanding the viewpoint to include the remote father, quarreling teenagers and a secondary couple in the model of Fred and Ethel Mertz, who “give the viewpoint of the community looking in, raising the question of how you live your own life with everyone watching you.”
Everyone emphasized that movies don’t translate straightforwardly to the stage because they speak different languages. “I remember in the movie of ‘Bridges’ there’s an incredible moment when Meryl Streep is in the truck seeing Clint Eastwood in the rain through the windshield wipers,” Norman said. The theatre can’t recreate that, but “what the movie lacked – and what only a musical can do – is let people sing the size of their emotional life. The real power of music is that it fills you up and expresses what’s inside you.”
Flaherty said the music replaces the movie close-up. “I wrote a song for Adrian that goes beyond the movie – it’s about what she doesn’t say, it’s her interior life,” he said, adding that even in the musical’s climactic fight scene, the team wrote songs so the audience hears what the titular character is enduring.
Rocky presents several challenges that go beyond the typical screen-to-stage adaptation. For starters, so many scenes are part of our collective pop culture landscape. When Flaherty first saw the movie, “my best friend and I came home and started pounding ground meat in my mother’s kitchen.” That famous meat-punching scene is about to be parodied in Stallone’s latest movie, “Grudge Match.”
Additionally many of the most memorable scenes are actually intimate moments more suited to an Off-Broadway play. Meehan insisted on sticking with those scenes. “It’s a big musical with a huge set and cast and millions being spent but there’s a row of them in Act I that last 15 minutes,” he said referring to the Thanksgiving scene, Rocky and Adrian ice skating and their first time alone in his apartment.
The showstoppers were challenging, too. It took a week of watching boxers in a Brooklyn gym for Flaherty to “crack the nut of how to write the music for the prize fight and to figure out how to fit the vocals in there.” He and Meehan heaped credit on fight choreographer Steven Hoggett and director Alex Timbers for figuring out how to re-imagine the fight scene itself as realistic, soulful and theatrical.
Then there was Bill Conti’s soundtrack, still unforgettable nearly four decades later.
Meehan – who had persuaded Stallone to forgo Hollywood tunesmiths for Flaherty and Ahrens – insisted the show have an original score... and include Conti’s music.
“The music is part of the movie’s DNA,” Flaherty said. “To deny it exists would be crazy. I had to find ways to weave it in and out of my score, to embrace it yet to stay ahead of the audience. Sometimes I disguise it, sometimes it’s just in the rhythm or in a harmonic progression – it is there but I use it surprising ways.”
Yet Flaherty said, “Rocky is in an odd way my most personal score ever.” As a teen, he was struck by how much Stallone’s characters were like the people in his working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, so “I wrote this imagining my neighbors watching it and any time I felt the writing getting too fancy I’d crumple up the paper. I wanted a gritty urban score.”
Flaherty said after he and Ahrens wrote the first four songs, they journeyed to Philadelphia where Stallone was filming “Rocky Balboa” to see what he thought. “Lynn sang Adrian’s part, but I’m 5-foot-4 and I didn’t have the guts to sing the part of Rocky for Rocky himself, so I brought an actor along,” Flaherty said.
They started with the defining number, “Fight From the Heart,” and when they finished Stallone slammed his fist down hard on the table.
“I didn’t know why he did it at first,” Flaherty recalled. “Then he said, ‘That’s it. You’ve nailed it.’“
[This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Playbill.]
* * * *
“LIVE, ONSTAGE . . . FROM THE SCREEN”
by Nelson Pressley
How extreme is the craze for adapting movies into musicals? Consider what’s singing out at the Kennedy Center:
“Elf the Musical,” based on the 2003 Will Ferrell hit, is currently hopping through the Opera House. “Flashdance – The Musical,” an expansion of the hugely popular 1980s movie, is also running in the Eisenhower. Last month, a tour of “Sister Act” wimpled through.
That undeclared mini-festival is just the tip of an iceberg that may be sabotaging ingenuity in one of America’s proudest native art forms. And while the run on Hollywood titles may suggest a gold rush, the formula for success is inscrutable. Offbeat triumphs were nabbed by minor movie titles such as “Once,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Grey Gardens,” while such Hollywood blockbusters as “Ghost” and “Catch Me if You Can” – the latter by “Hairspray” songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who would seem to know how these conversions work – flamed out fast.
The one sure thing: Like a Netflix menu, the titles keep coming.
“Big Fish,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” all lifted their newly musical voices lately in New York. Big musicals due on Broadway this winter and spring: “Aladdin,” “The Bridges of Madison County” (a successful novel made even more popular by the Clint Eastwood-Meryl Streep film), “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Rocky.” Just announced for off-Broadway in March: “Heathers.”
The fad is international: “American Psycho,” “The Bodyguard,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “From Here to Eternity” are all running in London’s West End.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” is in the works. So is “Dirty Dancing” (now on U.S. tour, and playing in London), “Ever After,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” and even “King Kong,” a rock spectacular that has already conquered Australia and stars a one-ton gorilla puppet 20 feet tall.
Even the most highbrow composers can’t resist the lure of musicalizing movies. The property Stephen Sondheim kept saying he’d like to get around to in the past decade or so but never did? “Groundhog Day.” And what has “Light in the Piazza” composer Adam Guettel been working on since the plug was pulled on his unfinished version of “The Princess Bride”? “Days of Wine and Roses” and the 2004 Danny Boyle movie, “Millions.”
Michael John LaChiusa’s “Giant,” first seen here at Arlington’s Signature Theatre several seasons ago, finally made it to new York (briefly) last year. That LaChiusa worked from the Edna Ferber novel is moot, marketing-wise: Audiences hear “Giant” and think Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Likewise Signature’s premiere musical next spring, based on the Iris Rainer Dart novel that became the Bette Midler screen smash, “Beaches.”
Isn’t this dependency on Hollywood-branded titles strangling Broadway’s originality? According to the composers of the musicals scrolling through the Kennedy Center, it ain’t necessarily so. (That’s from “Porgy and Bess,” touring through the National Theatre this month and adapted by George Gershwin from the DuBose Heyward novel.)
“With ‘Sister Act,’ I was resistant,” says composer and uber-adapter Alan Menken, whose first stage hit was 1982’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” and who owns eight Oscars for songs and scores of the movies “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas” and “Aladdin.” He helped convert “Mermaid” and “Beast” into stage hits, and his new musical of “Aladdin” just opened in Toronto en route to its first Broadway performances in February. Last year Menken won his first Tony with “Newsies,” adapting his own score from the 1989 Disney film; a January workshop is scheduled for Menken’s new musical of the Disney film “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“People were saying, ‘Oh, my God, everything’s coming from film, it’s getting uncreative,’” Menken says by phone from his home in the New York area. “But I think it depends on where it comes from, and what you do with it.”
The “Sister Act” title “felt tired,” Menken said, but he warmed to the challenge of revitalizing it for the stage. The 1990s story was relocated to 1970s, allowing Menken to pen disco songs and R&B tunes.
In the end, he says, “I loved it. Once you throw that gauntlet down, you find yourself doing it.”
Menken argues that movies are a natural source for musicals, just as books and plays were for so many standards written in Broadway’s Golden Age, from “My Fair Lady” to “South Pacific.”
“Most of those hit shows were based on things they read, or based on plays,” Menken says. “We’re in a different culture,” he adds, wondering if adaptations of TV series will be next.
The turning point
“Elf” composer Matthew Sklar suggests that “The Producers” in 2001 was a turning point. The tidal wave of 1980s and 1990s megamusicals finally crashed, and “The Producers” reintroduced the world to musical comedy.
“After 9/11, I think people wanted to laugh,” says Sklar, whose musicals with lyricist and book writer Chad Beguelin include “The Rhythm Club” – an original show that premiered at Signature Theatre but never made the Broadway leap – and the short-lived 2006 Broadway musical of the Adam Sandler comedy “The Wedding Singer.” (Beguelin is currently writing the book and additional lyrics for “Aladdin.”)
But it was Disney and the 1994 “Beauty and the Beast” that really unlocked Pandora’s Box. That show ran 13 years and paved the way for “The Lion King,” which has been an unrelenting smash since 1997. The first week of this December, “The Lion King” grossed nearly $2 million for its eight performances on Broadway alone, filling 93 percent of the 1,597 seats in the Minskoff Theater and averaging $155 a ticket. National and international tours continue, sweetening the pot.
Even though Menken asserts that the lure of Hollywood dates to Gershwin and Irving Berlin, the aggressive theatrical arm of Disney in the 1990s plainly paved a new avenue for Hollywood execs to tread. Film studios increasingly opened their own theatrical divisions after the Disney hits and the next decade’s successes of “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Wicked.”
“Now you literally have heads of studios coming in wanting to be deeply and directly involved,” Menken says. “By film standards, it’s practically dirt cheap to put up a musical.” (The new musical “If/Then,” which recently finished its five week pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theater, cost $10 million.) “If a show is successful, they go, Wow! Then it’s like a streetwalker with a Cadillac: ‘Hey, honey, want a title?’ I get that all the time.”
“Flashdance” composer Robbie Roth confirms. “I am most often approached by people interested in adapting movies,” he says from his home in Toronto.
Roth is new to musicals, and he is emphatically not what the producers are hawking. “Featuring the No. 1 Hit Songs You Love,” the “Flashdance” ad copy promises. Living up to a familiar story, characters and maybe even sound can be tricky.
“People come in and are excited to hear ‘Maniac,’” Roth says of “Flashdance,” which made its 2010 debut in London and has been retooled for its ongoing U.S. tour. He has written over a dozen original songs for the show, which is aimed for Broadway but hasn’t clinched a date yet.
Roth, 40, likes writing for the stage after years of penning pop tunes and working in rock bands. He has an original show in the works – but also another adapting gig with “Drumline.” For “Flashdance,” he says, “My job is keep it in the world of ‘Maniac’ and ‘Gloria’ and all those songs so it didn’t feel like a cross section of eras.”
“You have to manage the expectations and hope people enjoy your show,” Sklar says. For “Elf,” the tasks were to make the cast smaller and get the story off the North Pole and into New York faster. The upside, Sklar says from Manhattan, was being able to compose a relatively traditional score with big band overtones.
A silver lining
Still: Aren’t all these adaptations trumping fresh ideas?
“There are a lot of original musicals being written,” Sklar contends. He points to producers who have shepherded new material to success: Kevin McCollum of “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights,” David Stone of “Next to Normal” and perhaps “If/Then.” “There are a few producers on Broadway that get them there. But it’s a difficult thing to do.”
“There is still an excitement and an urge to write original material,” Roth says. “Whether it has the same opportunity to be heard, I don’t know.”
If not, is the obstacle producers who won’t bankroll something they haven’t heard of? Or audiences leery of paying $100 and up for tickets to something they know nothing about?
“Those things feed each other,” Sklar says. “Producers are reluctant to put money into something if they have no idea who the audience is going to be. It’s just so expensive these days.”
Menken, who pleads guilty to signing on for a cynical project or two during his career, says, “There are certain titles where you roll your eyes: They did it because of the title. But that’s probably true of any number of musicals going back through time.”
Then Menken notes one of the silver linings for composers: royalties, and the fact that songwriters have a hard time getting paid now in the age of digital sharing. “ ‘A Whole New World’ made me a lot of dough,” Menken says of his 1992 “Aladdin” ballad with lyricist Tim Rice. “Live theater is one of the few viable ways for a composer to actually make any money. That’s why so many rock musicians are coming to Broadway. I’m sure Elton John makes more from his theater projects” – “The Lion King,” “Aida,” “Billy Elliott” – “than from his albums.”
Menken recalls what it’s like to start from scratch, pushing uphill to get backing for something brand-new. These days, he’s mainly interested in work that can actually get done. So he likes the support of a producer – Disney – with the infrastructure to develop a show and put the result onstage. And that may well mean working with established titles and ready-made projects.
As Menken says, “There’s a ton of those things around.”
[The article above was originally published in the “Arts” section of the Washington Post on Sunday, 29 December 2013.]