How extreme is the craze for adapting movies into musicals? Consider what’s singing out at the Kennedy Center:
“Elf the Musical,” based on the 2003 Will Ferrell hit, is currently hopping through the Opera House. “Flashdance — The Musical,” an expansion of the hugely popular 1980s movie, is also running in the Eisenhower. Last month, a tour of “Sister Act” wimpled through.
That undeclared mini-festival is just the tip of an iceberg that may be sabotaging ingenuity in one of America’s proudest native art forms. And while the run on Hollywood titles may suggest a gold rush, the formula for success is inscrutable. Offbeat triumphs were nabbed by minor movie titles such as “Once,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Grey Gardens,” while such Hollywood blockbusters as “Ghost” and “Catch Me if You Can” — the latter by “Hairspray” songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who would seem to know how these conversions work — flamed out fast.
The one sure thing: Like a Netflix menu, the titles keep coming.
“Big Fish,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” all lifted their newly musical voices lately in New York. Big musicals due on Broadway this winter and spring: “Aladdin,” “The Bridges of Madison County” (a successful novel made even more popular by the Clint Eastwood-Meryl Streep film), “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Rocky.” Just announced for off-Broadway in March: “Heathers.”
The fad is international: “American Psycho,” “The Bodyguard,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “From Here to Eternity” are all running in London’s West End.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” is in the works. So is “Dirty Dancing” (now on U.S. tour, and playing in London), “Ever After,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” and even “King Kong,” a rock spectacular that has already conquered Australia and stars a one-ton gorilla puppet 20 feet tall.
Even the most highbrow composers can’t resist the lure of musicalizing movies. The property Stephen Sondheim kept saying he’d like to get around to in the past decade or so but never did? “Groundhog Day.” And what has “Light in the Piazza” composer Adam Guettel been working on since the plug was pulled on his unfinished version of “The Princess Bride”? “Days of Wine and Roses” and the 2004 Danny Boyle movie, “Millions.”
Michael John LaChiusa’s “Giant,” first seen here at Arlington’s Signature Theatre several seasons ago, finally made it to new York (briefly) last year. That LaChiusa worked from the Edna Ferber novel is moot, marketing-wise: Audiences hear “Giant” and think Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Likewise Signature’s premiere musical next spring, based on the Iris Rainer Dart novel that became the Bette Midler screen smash, “Beaches.”
Isn’t this dependency on Hollywood-branded titles strangling Broadway’s originality? According to the composers of the musicals scrolling through the Kennedy Center, it ain’t necessarily so. (That’s from “Porgy and Bess,” touring through the National Theatre this month and adapted by George Gershwin from the DuBose Heyward novel.)
“With ‘Sister Act,’ I was resistant,” says composer and uber-adapter Alan Menken, whose first stage hit was 1982’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” and who owns eight Oscars for songs and scores of the movies “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas” and “Aladdin.” He helped convert “Mermaid” and “Beast” into stage hits, and his new musical of “Aladdin” just opened in Toronto en route to its first Broadway performances in February. Last year Menken won his first Tony with “Newsies,” adapting his own score from the 1989 Disney film; a January workshop is scheduled for Menken’s new musical of the Disney film “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“People were saying, ‘Oh, my God, everything’s coming from film, it’s getting uncreative,’” Menken says by phone from his home in the New York area. “But I think it depends on where it comes from, and what you do with it.”
The “Sister Act” title “felt tired,” Menken said, but he warmed to the challenge of revitalizing it for the stage. The 1990s story was relocated to 1970s, allowing Menken to pen disco songs and R&B tunes.
In the end, he says, “I loved it. Once you throw that gauntlet down, you find yourself doing it.”
Menken argues that movies are a natural source for musicals, just as books and plays were for so many standards written in Broadway’s Golden Age, from “My Fair Lady” to “South Pacific.”
“Most of those hit shows were based on things they read, or based on plays,” Menken says. “We’re in a different culture,” he adds, wondering if adaptations of TV series will be next.
“Elf” composer Matthew Sklar suggests that “The Producers” in 2001 was a turning point. The tidal wave of 1980s and 1990s megamusicals finally crashed, and “The Producers” reintroduced the world to musical comedy.
“After 9/11, I think people wanted to laugh,” says Sklar, whose musicals with lyricist and book writer Chad Beguelin include “The Rhythm Club” — an original show that premiered at Signature Theatre but never made the Broadway leap — and the short-lived 2006 Broadway musical of the Adam Sandler comedy “The Wedding Singer.” (Beguelin is currently writing the book and additional lyrics for “Aladdin.”)
But it was Disney and the 1994 “Beauty and the Beast” that really unlocked Pandora’s Box. That show ran 13 years and paved the way for “The Lion King,” which has been an unrelenting smash since 1997. The first week of this December, “The Lion King” grossed nearly $2 million for its eight performances on Broadway alone, filling 93 percent of the 1,597 seats in the Minskoff Theater and averaging $155 a ticket. National and international tours continue, sweetening the pot.
Even though Menken asserts that the lure of Hollywood dates to Gershwin and Irving Berlin, the aggressive theatrical arm of Disney in the 1990s plainly paved a new avenue for Hollywood execs to tread. Film studios increasingly opened their own theatrical divisions after the Disney hits and the next decade’s successes of “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Wicked.”
“Now you literally have heads of studios coming in wanting to be deeply and directly involved,” Menken says. “By film standards, it’s practically dirt cheap to put up a musical.” (The new musical “If/Then,” which recently finished its five week pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theater, cost $10 million.) “If a show is successful, they go, Wow! Then it’s like a streetwalker with a Cadillac: ‘Hey, honey, want a title?’ I get that all the time.”
“Flashdance” composer Robbie Roth confirms. “I am most often approached by people interested in adapting movies,” he says from his home in Toronto.
Roth is new to musicals, and he is emphatically not what the producers are hawking. “Featuring the No. 1 Hit Songs You Love,” the “Flashdance” ad copy promises. Living up to a familiar story, characters and maybe even sound can be tricky.
“People come in and are excited to hear ‘Maniac,’” Roth says of “Flashdance,” which made its 2010 debut in London and has been retooled for its ongoing U.S. tour. He has written over a dozen original songs for the show, which is aimed for Broadway but hasn’t clinched a date yet.
Roth, 40, likes writing for the stage after years of penning pop tunes and working in rock bands. He has an original show in the works — but also another adapting gig with “Drumline.” For “Flashdance,” he says, “My job is keep it in the world of ‘Maniac’ and ‘Gloria’ and all those songs so it didn’t feel like a cross section of eras.”
“You have to manage the expectations and hope people enjoy your show,” Sklar says. For “Elf,” the tasks were to make the cast smaller and get the story off the North Pole and into New York faster. The upside, Sklar says from Manhattan, was being able to compose a relatively traditional score with big band overtones.
Still: Aren’t all these adaptations trumping fresh ideas?
“There are a lot of original musicals being written,” Sklar contends. He points to producers who have shepherded new material to success: Kevin McCollum of “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights,” David Stone of “Next to Normal” and perhaps “If/Then.” “There are a few producers on Broadway that get them there. But it’s a difficult thing to do.”
“There is still an excitement and an urge to write original material,” Roth says. “Whether it has the same opportunity to be heard, I don’t know.”
If not, is the obstacle producers who won’t bankroll something they haven’t heard of? Or audiences leery of paying $100 and up for tickets to something they know nothing about?
“Those things feed each other,” Sklar says. “Producers are reluctant to put money into something if they have no idea who the audience is going to be. It’s just so expensive these days.”
Menken, who pleads guilty to signing on for a cynical project or two during his career, says, “There are certain titles where you roll your eyes: They did it because of the title. But that’s probably true of any number of musicals going back through time.”
Then Menken notes one of the silver linings for composers: royalties, and the fact that songwriters have a hard time getting paid now in the age of digital sharing. “ ‘A Whole New World’ made me a lot of dough,” Menken says of his 1992 “Aladdin” ballad with lyricist Tim Rice. “Live theater is one of the few viable ways for a composer to actually make any money. That’s why so many rock musicians are coming to Broadway. I’m sure Elton John makes more from his theater projects” — “The Lion King,” “Aida,” “Billy Elliott” — “than from his albums.”
Menken recalls what it’s like to start from scratch, pushing uphill to get backing for something brand-new. These days, he’s mainly interested in work that can actually get done. So he likes the support of a producer — Disney — with the infrastructure to develop a show and put the result onstage. And that may well mean working with established titles and ready-made projects.
As Menken says, “There’s a ton of those things around.”
book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin. At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 5. Tickets $35-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
book by Robert Cary and Tom Hedley, music by Robbie Roth, lyrics by Robert Cary and Robbie Roth. At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Dec. 25 through Jan. 19. Tickets $45-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.