The Sad and Sordid Saga of Stage Adaptations

The Sad and Sordid Saga of Stage Adaptations

The time has come (the walrus said) to look around the artistic realm during this lull between New Year’s and every other special occasion and discover what new pieces of culture burst into the foreground for consideration of their enrichment in a society thirsty for something fresh upon the palate; or, as some choose to label it, the time to ask, “is it worth my time.”

This comes at a great time now that a friend inspired me to look at the world of theatre and literature through a new lens: adaptations.  We often think of the word “adaptation” and immediately conjure up the image of a movie that divides the world between two: those who enjoyed it because it was a unique expression never before heard, and those who chastise the former group as Philistines for liking it since the film version clearly obliterated the book, leaving the story a ruined, bloody corpse.

But not many people discuss the merits of a stage adaptation of someone’s story.

“How dare you say that! You don’t know what you’re talking about until you’ve actually read The Help!!”

I would definitely like to discuss book adaptations, so I’ll get it out of the way before getting to theatre. The trouble is that the book is usually where everyone starts; someone pens a complex, intriguing narrative that a Hollywood producer exploits to make exorbitant amounts of blah, blah, blah, on and on and on.

It’s really a discussion for a blogger who discusses movie adaptations (*cough* Reel Fitness *discretionary cough*). Besides, we already tried making novelizations of movies, and America has since learned from the tragic mishap; a lesson hopefully learned by taking the jerk that came up with the idea and sentencing him to being drawn and quartered.

I will also save a little more time in this post by pointing out that while there are many musicals out there in this world that are adaptations of other stories, rarely (and believe me, I can’t emphasize “rarely” too much) does any story whatsoever get adapted into a straight play. Don’t ask me to explain why because I’ll simply lump it into the category of universally unsolved mysteries like Stonehenge or Kristen Stewart’s career.

NASA scientists are hard at work trying to discover how her eyes feign life. Via Getty Images

Through my dealings with the theatre (and the joys of the internet), I have boiled things down to four basic labels for musical adaptations:

The Award-Winning Book into a Musical

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s your garden-variety book that was given stage time. Many musicals are prone to this kind of treatment and see fairly good returns on invested time. They may be the wildly-popular-with-anyone-who-breathes-air show (i.e. Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables). Several of these adaptations go down in theatrical history with Tony awards and deep respect such as Ragtime, The Secret Garden,  Man of La Mancha, or the much talked about Matilda.

Other times, these shows align a little closer to “why did we do that?” I’m talking about shows like Jekyll and Hyde or Oliver. Sure, they saw a modicum of success, but was it really necessary? Needless to say, if you’re looking to adapt a story for the stage, your best bet lies with picking up your favorite book and finding a piano.

The Updated Story

We all know at least one story or play that gets set to song and dance. West Side Story takes the story of Romeo and Juliet and updates it as a struggle between two New York gangs in the fifties. Kiss Me Kate is the retelling of The Taming of the Shrew which gave us songs like “Too Darn Hot” and “So in Love.” Back in the nineties, Once on This Island came out as the story of The Little Mermaid with the French Antilles as a backdrop.

Musicals such as these tend to polarize as either stunningly effective (like meshing fairy tales to create Into the Woods) or less popular and overlooked (Sorry, Lysistrata Jones. Better luck next time.) Whichever side they take, however, the process generally results in innovative theatre that no one saw coming. I dare you to watch Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and not have your mind blown.

Andrew Jackson portrayed as a punk rocker frat boy? Yes, please. Via NY Times

The Movie Turned Musical

After the rebirth of the movie musical in the nineties as brought on by Moulin Rouge, a strange trend emerged: if musicals can become movies, why can’t the process be reversed? With this notion came vastly different, surprising, yet often disappointing musicals. Theatrical pieces such as Catch Me If You Can, Ghost, and Big came along and deservedly hung their personified heads in shame. Flashy and entertaining, maybe, but these kinds of musicals tend to let down the audience. You will find exceptions to the rule if you watch Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Xanadu, or Little Shop of Horrorsbut you stand to gamble pretty heavily when writing your favorite movie as a new musical. My advice: don’t go trolling Netflix for stage ideas.

“Look! It’s our favorite musical Tron!” Via Nintendo Life

The Jukebox Musical

Last and perhaps least in the adaptation canon is a subject of much controversy: the jukebox musical. A long-standing method of theatrical creation, a jukebox musical strings together disassociated songs to create a musical story. Common examples include the songs of ABBA that make up the score to Mamma Mia, or the separate Gershwin numbers that, when linked together, produced Nice Work If You Can Get It. A good idea in theory but in practice has the propensity to create a fairly hokey show. You can only imagine the level of cheese generated by All Shook Up, the musical consisting entirely of Elvis songs. Special caution must be taken if you want to produce American Idiot (Green Day) instead of Copacabana (Barry Manilow).

All in all, you have the ability to make Broadway history with a well-treated adaptation. I’m certainly not completely against the idea. The world craves more shows like Jersey Boys or Tommy and we deserve them.

However, like any adaptation, approach with care.

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