Why the Hate For Musicals Based on Films?
In the last ten years or so, there have been a great many musicals opening on Broadway that are based on movies. I have also noticed a wave of disgust for these adaptations, people citing that we need more original story ideas. Though I often find myself frustrated with the results of these adaptations, I can’t necessarily say that I am opposed to musicals being the basis for a Broadway musical. After all, we have received many quality musicals that were based on films: Waitress, The Band’s Visit, Hairpsray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Applause, Carnival!, Sunset Boulevard, The Full Monty, The Producers, Nine, Billy Elliott, Spamalot, Silk Stockings, Dogfight, Grand Hotel, Grey Gardens, Kinky Boots, A Man of No Importance, Promises, Promises, Shrek, and Woman of the Year are all fine examples. So, why all sour faces and crinkled noses (mine sometimes included) for the influx of musicals based on films?
Looking back at the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, many new musicals were based on plays, including a long line of revered classics. Oklahoma! (Green Grown the Lilacs), Carousel (Liliom), My Fair Lady (Pygmalion), Hello, Dolly! (The Matchmaker), New Girl in Town (Anna Christie), Take Me Along (Ah, Wilderness!), Mame (Auntie Mame) and West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet). Others drew from books, including Show Boat (Show Boat), Fiddler on the Roof (Tevye’s Daughters), The King and I (Anna and The King of Siam), South Pacific (Tales of the South Pacific), Damn Yankees (The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant), The Pajama Game (7 ½ Cents), Man of La Mancha (Don Quixote), and Oliver! (Oliver Twist). I would be so bold as to assert that more than half of the musicals that open on Broadway are not original ideas, but draw from source materials that are well-known. If we can accept musicals based on books and plays, why can’t we open our minds for musicals inspired by film?
I don’t think that we are so much bothered by musicals based on films, but we have become jaded by the endless barrage of them that are executed badly. Let’s face it, there have been many, MANY musicals based on films that sound like they were written in a weekend, without a discernible melody or intelligent lyric to show for the effort. We get the sensation that these properties are being churned out with the hope that the title and character/plot familiarity will be enough to entice us into a buying a ticket. What the people behind these musicals based on film forget is that film and musical theatre are two extremely different mediums. Film has the luxury of not being contained within limited space. What might feel light and airy on the screen, due to multiple camera angles and locales, might feel laden or restricted on the stage.
Another reason for our chagrin is, thanks to the availability of films in this age, we watch movies over and over again, practically committing them to memory. When we see it onstage, how is what has been plunked down there ever going to compete with what we remember of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman? And for those who question my logic. Think about any high school or community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz you have suffered through: has anyone sung “Over the Rainbow” and topped Judy Garland or erased your memory of the 1939 classic? It is unlikely.
My final thought, and chief among my reasons why I am dubious of musicals based on film, is that I believe something has to be gained from telling a story through music. To just have favorite characters sing because we think it might be fun is simply not enough. Something in the story or character development must be augmented by the use of musical theatre conventions. What more is there for an audience to learn? What new perspective can be offered by having a character sing their inner thoughts? If this cannot be answered, then nothing can be gained (outside of ticket revenue) from turning a film into a stage musical.
We all love a clever musical with an original storyline, but musicals based on films are not going away anytime soon, nor should they. They have a place, and when they are well-done, they can even take their place amongst the classics. We must cross our fingers and hope that the artists guiding these pieces to the musical stage will find a way to make them melodic, lyrically sound, and bursting with their own originality that set them apart from their source material. No carbon copies please.