Hollywood is doing its best to kill the musical.
But not in the way you might think. Once upon a time, the popularity of moviegoing was seen as a threat to the viability of theater. The fear that audiences would be lured away entirely, though, has long since passed. No, the harm being done by film to a homegrown theatrical form these days is of an even more insidious variety.
It’s murder by adaptation.
The latest example of the neutering of the American musical, by way of a well-known movie with a built-in following, had its official Broadway opening Thursday night. “Pretty Woman,” the 1990 romantic comedy that featured Richard Gere and a luminous Julia Roberts, as a streetwalker with a laugh to light up Santa Monica Boulevard, is now a demonstrably lesser property. At the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street, Andy Karl and Samantha Barks have been assigned the impossible task of glowing in the stars’ wake, and of trying to mint new treasures out of pop cultural recyclables. On this occasion, as on so many others like it, the results are pretty leaden.
This kind of business-driven decision has been going on for years, of course. Not the transforming of material from another medium into musical theater: Movies, plays, novels, even nonfiction books have always been useful sources of a proudly hybrid American — even parasitic — form of entertainment. I am referring to the practice of essentially pulling a movie title of proven earning power out of some studio catalogue or other and slapping it on a Broadway marquee. Oh, yeah, a few pop songs are added, music that usually sounds exactly like the pop songs concocted for other musicals piggybacking on famous movies.
“Rocky,” “Legally Blonde,” “Groundhog Day,” “Ghost” and “Sister Act” are just some of the beloved live-action movies that have transformed into desultory musicals over the past decade, in a trend that has been accelerating, as movie studios and other producing entities chase potential revenue streams to Broadway. Two years ago, Disney tried out a cheery, harmless stage version of “Freaky Friday” at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, and, this summer, Arena Stage was the proving ground for an uneven musical adaptation of the 1993 movie comedy “Dave.”
Among the projects still to come are musical versions of “Tootsie,” with a score by David Yazbek (“The Band’s Visit”), which premieres in Chicago next month, and “The Devil Wears Prada,” by Elton John, Shaina Taub and Paul Rudnick. In October, Washington’s National Theatre is tryout territory for “Beetlejuice,” featuring the music of Eddie Perfect and direction by Alex Timbers, who just marked a critical triumph — rare in this genre — with the Boston world premiere of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film.
For some musical writers, a movie can truly be inspirational, in ways that lift up audiences, too: Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, for instance, took Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy “Smiles of a Summer Night” — hardly a household title — and turned it into the luscious “A Little Night Music.” This year’s Tony winner, “The Band’s Visit,” is based on a small Israeli movie, too, but like many musicals adapted from indie films, the translations didn’t end up feeling as though they are quite so slavishly devoted to the original.
What distinguishes this burgeoning crop of popcorn films transplanted from Tinseltown to Broadway is the degree to which they do the opposite: They put the brakes on imagination. Their primary goal is to get you into a theater with the assurance that you’ll experience something like a Xeroxed afternoon or evening. A guaranteed rerun experience.
Consider the lengths that the creative team behind “Pretty Woman” has gone to for winning your approval, simply by annotating the movie. Anyone who saw the late Garry Marshall’s film — and he’s credited here as having co-written the musical’s book, with the film’s screenwriter, J.F. Lawton — will remember one of its sweetest scenes, in which Gere’s Edward playfully closes a box containing a diamond and ruby necklace on the fingers of Roberts’s wide-eyed Vivian. Roberts’s response, an exuberant burst of giggles, is one of those movie moments that can’t be replicated. Remember, too, how stone-faced Gere and radiant Roberts made the interlude feel so giddily spontaneous?
Well, now, Andy Karl and Samantha Barks, in the same roles in the flat Broadway facsimile, try gamely to reenact the scene and manage only to make the moment seem canned and awkward — a bit of formula-mandated shtick, in a stage production directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell that regurgitates much of the movie script verbatim. Even the hooker costume that Barks wears is an exact duplicate of Roberts’s, down to the hot pants and hip-high vinyl boots.
The Pavlovian responses demanded of audiences by this “Pretty Woman” correspond to the reflexes that are expected to be triggered by the scenes from other popular movies re-created in musicals of this kind. The takeaway on evenings like this one is that great musicals are born in a brain, not a box office.
Pretty Woman, book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, music by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music supervision, Will Van Dyke; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, John Shivers; fight direction, J. Allen Suddeth. With Orfeh, Ezra Knight, Eric Anderson. About 2½ hours. $99-$169. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. ticketmaster.com or 877- 250-2929.