The "Source" of Our Concerns: Top-Ten Musicals that Illuminated Their Source Material
Every season, we are inundated with a long list of musicals that are in development and that are based on famous source material. We speculate about their potential and wonder if they will work, often resigning ourselves to the fact that they will never live up to the movie, play or book that we adore. Sometimes, we are surprised when we enter the theatre and find that the music and lyrics, along with a fresh viewpoint, concept and/or casting choice can illuminate the piece in ways we hadn't imagined. This article is a valentine to the musicals that DID work and either captured their source material beautifully, or improved upon them. I am limiting my list to pieces that I personally saw AFTER I had read the play, book or watched the movie from which they derived.
Top-Ten Musicals that Illuminated Their Source Material
Grand Hotel (1989)
Anyone who has seen the 1932 film on which this musical was based, or who has read the book by Vicki Baum, may have been skeptical about how Grand Hotel would translate to the musical stage. Indeed, an attempt to bring Grand Hotel to Broadway was tried in 1958 under the title At the Grand, which met with disastrous results. In 1989, under the guidance of Director/Choreographer Tommy Tune, some of the material from the George Forrest and Robert Wright score for At the Grand was cobbled together with new songs by Maury Yeston, and featuring a new book by Luther Davis, set it sights on Broadway. I entered the theatre with a great deal of trepidation, not sure how this twenty-four hour, slice-of-life in a Berlin hotel of the 1920s would unfold. Grand Hotel was magnificent; it is truly one of the great musicals of the end of the twentieth century. Tommy Tune created a seamless piece of artful musical theatre, where the dancing never stopped and a dreamlike quality permeated the proceedings, Characters emerged on the multilevel set, each under dire, time sensitive circumstances, and wove in and out of the action like phantoms of fate.
The Secret Garden (1991)
Critics and audiences alike were polarized by the stage adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel about a disagreeable, orphaned child who is sent to the moors of England to live at the country manse of her morose uncle, and who finds her salvation in resurrecting the beloved garden of her deceased aunt. For me, The Secret Garden onstage was exquisite. It probed the character development opportunities of the book, the character's emotions and their situations in a way that the written piece did not explore. The Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman score is evocative of the time and place, and conjured up a spectral chorus of ghostly voices to comment on the action.Songs such as "Lily's Eyes," "Race You to the Top of the Morning," and "How Could I Ever Know" breathed deeply-felt emotion into the piece. Everything from the glorious set-design, intelligent direction by Susan H. Schulman, and a cast that included Mandy Patinkin, Robert Westenberg, Rebecca Luker, Alison Fraser, John Cameron Mitchell, and Daisy Eagan came together in a finely stitched quilt of theatrical perfection.
The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
Robert James Waller's best-selling novel was popular in 1992, but written without flair or even much in the terms of plot. It reads more like a situation than a story. The film adaptation with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was a snore, lovely to look at, but hardly compelling. Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown somehow managed to mine much more substance out of the piece than it probably deserved. Indeed, his score delicately navigates the tale of an Iowa housewife (Francesca) of the 1960s, whose life is forever changed when she has an affair with a National Geographic photographer who comes to town to photograph covered bridges while her family is off visiting the state fair. It's the story of an affair, and the idea of cheating is not particularly palatable, even when set to glorious music. The Broadway production, however, was gut-wrenchingly tragic in its intimate portrait of Francesca and the sacrifices she had made along the way, reducing her from a unique, spirited woman to a reserved housewife, imprisoned in a life of the mundane.
The Color Purple (2005)
Of all the titles on this list, The Color Purple has always been one of my favorite books and among my favorite films. I had always seen the musical potential of the piece. I was, however, reticent to get my hopes high on any musical adaptation of Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a black woman named Celie, whose journey of courage and strength to self realization wins out, despite her being subjected to incestuous rape, emotional abuse, and a life of brutally hard work. Onstage, the piece ignited and, especially through a carefully nuanced performance by La Chanze, served the novel well. Celie's climactic number "I'm Here" was like a tidal wave hitting the audience, as this quiet woman finally opens up and claims her place as someone of value.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005)
Nothing about the 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine film said "make me into a musical," and yet the stage production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels worked and worked well. The film is a broad comedy about two scam artists who seduce women out of their money, one a high society dandy and one a low-life slob. The two are vying for the same territory in the French Riviera and when an American heiress comes to town, they both set their sights on her fortune. It's a race to the finish to see which of them can pull off the heist. Again, not exactly material that we automatically see as fodder for musicalization. Fortunately, it didn't matter, because Dirty Rotten Scoundrels onstage did what the film couldn't: it gave its characters heart. David Yazbek's score is full of humor, capturing the film's zaniness with songs such as "Great Big Stuff," "All About Ruprecht" and "Dirty Rotten Number," but it also finds sincerity, subtlety, and a quiet beauty in pieces such as "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True" and "Love Sneaks In." The production also featured a powerhouse trio of performers: John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, and Sherie Renee Scott who kept the audience laughing, guessing, and properly scammed through the curtain call. It's the only musical I have ever seen on a matinee, walked out of the theatre, and bought another ticket for that night. Pure joy!
The 1988 John Waters film set in the 1960s about the pleasantly plump teen Tracy Turnblad, who creates a civil rights revolution in Baltimore by protesting a local television station's segregation policies, was equal parts heart, camp and corn. Beloved for its cult status (and the divine performances by drag queen Divine as Tracy's mother Edna and introducing Ricki Lake as the robust Tracy), Hairspray had all of the ingredients necessary to craft a lively musical. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman devised a tuneful, plucky score that was all about finding the joy in life and loving who you are. These positive messages of the film were magnified through music, and it was hard not to get caught up in their energetic pulse and dance-inducing rhythms. The show's climactic number "You Can't Stop the Beat" was the Broadway anthem of 2002, invigorating audiences and inviting them night after night to celebrate their uniqueness.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993)
Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spider Woman is dark, gruesome, and almost entirely confined to one, small jail cell in a South American prison. I don't know about you, but there is nothing like torture, defecation, and brutal killings to get my toes tapping. Only a lunatic would attempt turning this into a musical, since the only thing inherently musical about the source material is the lyrical title. Thank goodness director Harold Prince, book writer Terrence McNalley, and the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb stuck by their vision and saw the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman to fruition. A gay window dresser named Molina is captive in a jail cell for a morals charge and his cellmate Valentine is a straight revolutionary harboring secrets that the government is after. Valentine needs to get word to the outside and knows Molina is coming up for parole, so he cozies up to the man, gaining his trust by becoming his lover. To pass the time, Molina tells stories of his favorite movie musicals, all of which starred the glamorous Aurora. Only one role he never cared for was when the glamour gal portrayed the Spider Woman, an angel of death whose kiss sealed your demise. As Molina's release is imminent, he begins seeing the Spider Woman around the prison, climbing through the bars as if they were her enormous spider web. Valentine gets Molina to agree to take his secrets to the outside, only with the result that the window dresser is followed by the government, and ultimately executed with the show culminating in a tango of death with the Spider Woman, who plants her lips upon his as the curtain comes down. What seemed impossible to sing about, suddenly was, and the movie musical sequences, seductions, intimate moments of friendship, and the campy glory of the Spider Woman were all launching points for character development and plot thrust. Chita Rivera in the role of Aurora/Spider Woman and Brent Carver as Molina also made the show a must-see experience.
The only reason to even bother watching the 1980 cult classic film Xanadu starring Olivia Newton John is to marvel at how deliciously bad it is while simultaneously being horribly memorable. I guess we all smelled disaster when it was announced that the film was being adapted for the musical stage. How wrong we all were. Book writer Douglas Carter Beane wisely chose to satirize the film, spoofing it with tongue-in-cheek mockery and blatant camp, resulting in a multilayered experience for those who knew the film inside and out. Xanadu was glorious. The plot, about a muse leaving Mount Olympus to inspire a young, handsome artist is negligible at best, but that only added to the possibilities that Beane could use to skewer the source. Just by looking at a source material from an entirely different point of view, the musical not only improved upon the original, but actually made it good!
E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about America at the turn-of-the-century is both marvelously complex and emotionally distant. Told in the third person, it is hard to get to the core of any of its several dozen characters. Still, its labyrinthine story of three ethnic groups: WASPS, African Americans, and Jewish Immigrants is compelling as their stories begin to melt together like the Great American Melting Pot. Turning it into a musical would be no easy feat, yet playwright Terrence McNalley and composing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty managed to keep the third-person narrative and still infuse the characters with the emotional journeys and internal conflicts that come with the changing with the times. The expansive opening sequence, as well as the hauntingly perfect "Journey On" economically juggled several storylines, while remaining surprisingly intimate in character development throughout.
Less an adaptation of any one book or movie, but rather a gathering of source materials including newspaper articles and trial transcripts, the musical Parade takes these sapless sources and finds the emotional flow of their experiences and the inherent drama of this tragic true-story. In 1913, Georgia factory owner Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the rape/murder of thirteen-year-old employee Mary Phagan. Despite a great deal of evidence pointing to Frank's innocence, he was vilified, most clearly due to a streak of anti-Semitism that haunted his case right through his eventual lynching. Composer Jason Robert Brown and book writer Alfred Uhry took these primary sources and knitted together a musical that took what was essentially a courtroom drama at its heart and stretched it, opened it up, and found resonating wells of emotion within its darkness to tell the poignant love story of a husband and wife, a deplorable tale of discrimination, a grievous exploration of a loss of innocence and life, and a fiery indictment of the sensationalist press. Harold Prince's direction of the Broadway production was ominous and foreboding, but allowed for short respites into crannies of humanity and light.