The Wicked Stage: Are movie adaptations the new literary adaptations in musicals?

Dubious. A word I would use to describe my views regarding movies that have been turned into musicals. I have always pegged them as a lesser musical, right up there with jukebox musicals as lacking originality. The West End is currently dominated by movie adaptations: Shrek, Ghost, Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, Billy Elliot, Singin’ in The Rain, Top Hat and, until recently, Legally Blonde. I would also argue Matilda gets a large amount of its audience from people of my generation who were obsessed with the film – whilst the stage show may be based on the book, the film has helped guarantee a fraction of its audience.

I seem to constantly find myself re-assessing my views on musicals, which probably goes with the ever-evolving nature of theatre. So recently I asked myself if adapting films is any different to adapting novels. Many of the great shows are based on novels: Phantom of the Opera, Showboat, Oklahoma! and Les Miserables, to name a few. In fact if you look closely, very few musicals are complete originals. Rodgers & Hammerstein only ever wrote one completely original show, Allegro, and it flopped. They earned their keep in the art of adaptation.

Maybe I simply made a low-brow/high-brow judgement and assumed literary adaptions are better on an intellectual level. However, Hammerstein would change the original stories, such as the musical Carousel which is based on the play Liliom. The play ends with Liliom failing in his quest to help his teenage daughter and is presumably sent to hell. In the musical Billy fails but then redeems himself by admitting his love for Julie and makes it to heaven. I can’t help but wonder if we could get away with such deviation in the plot in film adaptations, or if audiences would be disappointed that it isn’t how they saw it on screen. And it isn’t just me being given food for thought and questioning the current trend – Michael Billington of the Guardian wrote an article earlier this year on the effect film has on theatre: “I worry that theatre today is becoming lazily dependent on cinematic content”.

It isn’t just the form I am re-assessing, but also the shows themselves. Ghost – The Musical is based on the film, yet has a completely new score except for ‘Unchained Melody’. I understand why it was used; I can imagine fans of the film demanding refunds because that song is so synonymous with the film for them. The writers of Ghost don’t let it detract from the rest of the score though – songs like ‘With You’ break your heart just like the film, and its modern staging and special effects are also a draw in their own right. It’s this avoidance of using song and music from the films that has made me re-consider my original viewpoint, as many movie adaptations have a completely original score.

For producers, adapting stories we already know has always given a level of security because you already have a guaranteed audience. This is what helps musicals: We Will Rock You was panned by the critics on opening night but audiences loved it for the popular Queen songs. Film and cinema dominate our cultural identity so it makes sense that we would turn to them for stories to turn into musicals and long will it continue. Yet I will always have a slight initial unease about these musicals despite how good the shows are. For me I think Billington sums it up: “I just wish the writers of new musicals would occasionally look beyond Hollywood hits for their inspiration”.

Image credit: Simon Shek

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.