Movie: The Musical

03.17.14

Is Broadway Being Destroyed by Hollywood?

‘Rocky’ is now a musical, along with countless other movies. Whatever happened to theater producers taking a risk and making a big hit that didn’t rely on big-screen familiarity?

Rocky has just opened as a Broadway musical. Yes, he not only swings—he sings! The theatrical version of Sylvester Stallone’s tale received wildly mixed reviews: The Wall Street Journal called it “a knockout hit,” The New York Times referred to it as “leaden” until its climactic fight scene, during which the audience suddenly finds itself ringside. Now, it is up to audiences to decide.

If the recent past is any indication, there is no guarantee that those who loved the little movie will run to see the living spectacle. Nevertheless, everyone is seemingly getting into this film-to-stage act. Even movie mega-impresario Harvey Weinstein is turning one of his films, Finding Neverland, into a stage musical. Visit the Great White Way and you can see not only Rocky, but The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets Over Broadway, Once, Kinky Boots, Matilda, Newsies, The Lion King, and Aladdin.  Still to come are Honeymoon in Vegas, Diner, The Bodyguard, Back to The Future, Beaches and so many more.   

This adds only more fuel to the accusation that originality and risk on Broadway have virtually disappeared. Discounting the “Jukebox” shows, (Mama Mia, Beautiful, Motown, and Jersey Boys) which are basically box sets surrounded by paltry story lines, the only current original musicals are If/Then, starring Idina Menzel, and The Book of Mormon. The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder may sound entirely new, but is, in fact, a musicalized reincarnation of the Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets. Yes, Wicked endures, but that is 11 years old and basically a spinoff of The Wizard of Oz.

The Jukeboxes, at least, have been mostly successful, at a time when both Broadway attendance and grosses are down about 6 percent from last season. But the playlist isn’t infinite, so theater producers have taken to poring through every studio catalogue for familiar titles. This despite the fact that the track record of popular movies aspiring to become stage staples is … well, rocky. Carrie melted down not once but twice. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Big Fish flopped last season and other recent failures included Catch Me If You Can, High Fidelity, The Wedding Singer, Bonnie and Clyde, Far From Heaven, and Ghost. Little Miss Sunshine just had a ho-hum run off-Broadway. And, of course, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark failed spectacularly.

Still, having watched potential audiences scatter to the much-less-expensive multiplex (not to mention Netflix and the Internet), the theater world’s unhealthy dependence on Hollywood is somewhat understandable. Nervous investors in multi-million-dollar theatrical productions say the kind of written material that used to translate well to stage (when I Am a Camera begat Cabaret, Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story, Pygmalion morphed into My Fair Lady) just isn’t there. Or if it is, generations who have been raised on what they see on their screens just aren’t that into it. (Even the current best-seller lists tell the story: three of the top four books are Monuments Men, 12 Years a Slave, and Lone Survivor) “As contemporary literature has become more internal, the strong narratives over the last decade or so have been in film,” says Tony award-winning producer Margo Lion.

Remember the old days when it was the other way around? When Broadway shows were inventive, regularly breaking new ground, and then ultimately, became movies? West Side Story, Carousel, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Chicago, Mame, Gypsy, How to Succeed In Business, and Cabaret all started on stage. There were also trailblazing and often star-making dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, The Heiress, Driving Miss Daisy, Sweet Bird of Youth, and A Raisin in the Sun.

(Even the casting game in those days could get viciously fun. Would the stage star be overlooked for the screen version? Think of the chain set off when Audrey Hepburn, and not Julie Andrews, was cast as Eliza Doolittle. Walt Disney quickly came to the rescue and cast Andrews as Mary Poppins. She got the Academy Award while Hepburn was shut out altogether.)

Getting hold of a known quantity is one thing, but—as evidenced by the results thus far—making it work is another. Arguably the most successful transfer of recent years was The Producers, for which Mel Brooks adapted his own movie and wrote every word spoken and sung in the stage version. Woody Allen has written the book, though not the lyrics, for the adaptation of his movie Bullets Over Broadway.

One who hopes to follow their lead is Andrew Bergman, who wrote and directed the movie Honeymoon in Vegas. Bergman’s quirky voice has managed to stay intact on stage, despite a decade of starts and stops. It is worth noting that Bergman, Allen, and Brooks all had some background in theater, so it is not an entirely new medium.

The same is true for Iris Dart, who has adapted her book Beaches (later a popular film) for the stage. She has long been a “theater geek,” she tells me, and has worked on several productions. “I felt that not only did I want to write the book for the musical but the lyrics as well, since lyrics are text,” she says. Barry Levinson, in contrast, has adapted his movie Diner for the stage, but that one has been stalled in workshops for years. You tell an Oscar-nominated director to let someone else take over.

The few film-to-stage musicals that have worked contain some organic reason why characters might break out into song.  Once, for example, makes sense since it is about musicians. Andrew Bergman believes Honeymoon in Vegas works because music plays a leading role: “Even as a film I always thought it was like a musical, and the Elvis songs we used—either his originals or covers—drove the action.” The Bodyguard deals with a pop star, and we all know the tunes Whitney Houston made famous. But, according to Alex Dinelaris, who adapted it to stage, that can also be a trap. “I am not allowed to change one lyric, and the songs now have to make seamless transitions in the story in a way they don’t on film.”

Hairspray, which some feel started this film-to-stage trend, managed to take a movie’s musical backdrop and actually enhance it. Original songs were added and the play powerfully tackled the issue of race in rock and roll. “I like to think we did it for all the right reasons, because not that many people really knew the movie,” says Margo Lion, who produced the stage hit. That was not how Legally Blonde film producer March Platt felt when Broadway came calling: “The question is not ‘can this film be musicalized for stage?’ but ‘why should it be?’” says Platt. “I didn’t know how to improve upon the film experience.” It turns out, neither did those who tried.

Broadway is not alone in seeking familiar screen titles. London’s West End currently features Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (directed by Sam Mendes), The Bodyguard, and musical productions of (I kid you not) From Here To Eternity and American Psycho. All may eventually hit American shores. Though by then, theatrical producers may have moved on, to the medium even more creatively exciting at the moment than movies. Yes, it’s quite possible we are only a few years away from Breaking Bad: The Musical.

Lyricists, start thinking: What rhymes with meth?

Michele Willens is a journalist and Theater commentator for NPR station Robin Hood Radio WHDD.