The announcement last week of another Broadway musical to be based on a movie raises the question: Is originality dead?
Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow is to write the music when Barry Levinson converts his 1982 movie Diner into a Broadway musical. But who exactly has been waiting for the stage version of this film? Does the plethora of musicals based on movies mean that originality is dead?
The current crop of Broadway musicals read more like a dvd catalogue: Billy Elliot, Catch Me If You Can, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Sister Act are soon to be joined by Ghost and Bonnie and Clyde.
Even Australia is checking the shelves of JB HiFi for musical ideas. Doctor Zhivago, although originally a novel was best known as a film and An Officer and A Gentleman is based on the 1982 Richard Gere movie.
Like Diner, An Officer and A Gentleman fits into the category of movies that weren’t crying out to be made into musicals in the first place. Back in 1985, few would have imagined Steven Spielberg’s epic drama The Color Purple as a rousing musical. The same could be said for Billy Wilder’s The Sweet Smell of Success and Sunset Boulevard. Composer David Yazbeck has been known to seek out an unusual movie title for a musical, with show’s based on Frank Oz’s comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the gritty English drama The Full Monty.
Other musicals that were not obvious on first viewing of the movie include The Light in the Piazza, Grey Gardens, 9 to 5, Little Shop of Horrors and Legally Blonde.
The Full Monty strays into the category of movies where the prospect of musicalisation was at least partly evident. Dance elements are a dead giveaway in this regard, and this is surely what led to the stage versions of Billy Elliot, La Cage Aux Folles, Footloose, Flashdance and Dirty Dancing.
The next most logical category of movie that is quite understandable on stage is one that contained plenty of songs in the first place. The Sherman Brothers’ Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins were expanded admirably as stage musicals. White Christmas, Singin’ in the Rain and the camp classic Xanadu came to the stage with plenty of music already written. Thoroughly Modern Millie needed many new songs and won the 2002 Tony Award for its troubles. Sister Act bravely replaced the hit pop songs of the film with an all-new score by Alan Menken.
A successful musical based on a particular source doesn’t guarantee a winner a second time. The Tony winning musical based on John Water’s Hairspray was a massive hit, completing the circle by being made into a movie again, but the follow up tuner Cry-Baby was a dismal flop. Mel Brooks struck Tony gold with his adaptation of his movie The Producers but ran into allsorts of trouble with his overblown follow up Young Frankenstein.
Of course, all these musicals based on movies are arguably preferable to that other fountain of unoriginality – jukebox musicals. The massive success of Mamma Mia! has a great deal to answer for, leading as it did to the ever expanding list of shows with unoriginal scores. The trend nearly imploded in 2005 with Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), Lennon (John Lennon) and All Shook Up (Elvis Presley) until a little show called Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) came along at the end of that year. The boundaries have expanded recently so that all songs do not have to come from the same artist, giving us Rock of Ages, Baby It’s You! and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (a double winner for unoriginality being a juke box musical and based on a movie).
Australia also doesn’t mind a jukebox musical, having churned out The Boy from Oz, (Peter Allen), Shout! The Legend of the Wild One (Johnny O’Keefe), Dusty (Dusty Springfield) and the recent Flowerchildren (The Mamas and the Papas).
Other occasional sources of relatively recent musicals include books (Ragtime, Jane Eyre, The Woman in White) and even operas (Rent (La Boheme) and Aida).
At this point you may be bemoaning the death of originality but fear not, there are actually some gems of originality in recent times. Robert Lopez, being common to both projects, is to thank for two of the most recent Tony winners of the past decade, possibly making him one of Broadway’s most original writers of the moment. Lopez was part of the writing team for both Avenue Q and the current mega-hit The Book of Mormon. 2009’s Tony winner Memphis came across like a jukebox musical but actually had an original score and story. The Drowsy Chaperone was a delightful original confection. Next to Normal could have been a dramatic movie to begin with but wasn’t. In the Heights was suspiciously reminiscent of Fiddler of the Roof but was technically an all-original from the pen of Lin Manuel Miranda. Urinetown was certainly a highly original piece, making its writers’ new musical Yeast Nation all the more highly anticipated.
In conclusion, the question really comes down to trends. It’s easy to blame lack of originality on movie sources, but what was the case in days gone by? Some of the most beloved musicals of all time were based on…plays. Rodgers and Hammerstein turned Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! and Liliom into Carousel. Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! was based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story harked back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate was based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
Maybe all the really great ideas have been thought up already. Maybe audiences crave familiarity when shelling big bucks for tickets. In the end, the movie, play, book or hit parade is only the spark that sets off inception of the musical. Creativity abounds from set and costume designers, composers and lyricists and of course directors and actors. Whatever the source of the show, the musical itself is a blessing that we all continue to gratefully adore.