A young man I know, one who’s determined to make a life as a writer of stage musicals, published on an online site called StageBuddy a strong piece of advice on how to improve today’s musical theatre scene: “Stop trying to adapt blockbuster movies into blockbuster [stage] shows. There are tons of original, audience-friendly ideas out there -- they just need a producer's confidence to bring them to life.”
He’s right, but if you skim the list of what’s hot on Broadway, you’ll discover how much of it is derived from material with a movie connection. At one time, Hollywood looked to Broadway as a source of major musicals that could be successfully translated to the screen. Check out the Sixties and early Seventies, when some of the biggest movie hits included big-budget adaptations of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. Today, the occasional stage musical gets the screen treatment, but usually without much success. Case in point: Clint Eastwood’s muddled attempt to make a movie out of the delightful stage hit, Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Also in 2014, Rob Marshall and an all-star cast worked hard to film the challenging once-upon-a-time musical, Into the Woods. There are some lovely moments in this movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s intertwined fairytales, but no one would call it a blockbuster. About the yowling 2012 screen version of Les Misérables, the less said the better.
When I was last in New York, it was remarkable how many Broadway musicals had taken their inspiration (and much more) from original film versions of the material. I’m thinking, of course, of such current Disney extravaganzas as The Lion King and Aladdin, as well as recent hits Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast. Also on today’s Broadway roster are stage musical adaptations of An American in Paris, Finding Neverland, School of Rock, and The Color Purple. Sometimes these Hollywood-meets-Broadway transitions inspire bold new staging ideas, like those director Julie Taymor brought to The Lion King , using the magic of puppetry to replace Disney animation. But generally audiences who choose to see, let us say, the stage musical version of Legally Blonde (which ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2008 before doing extensive touring) want a fairly exact copy of everything they loved in the film. Which requires less creativity than a form of cloning.
My son Jeff Bienstock was recently fortunate enough to have a new stage musical on display at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s annual New York festival. Legendale, for which Jeff wrote book and lyrics (with Andrea Daly supplying the music) takes the audience into the wacky world of fantasy video games, featuring trolls, ogres, bog-monsters, and cow-maidens. These characters are set against such real-life types as a bored IT guy and a mousy office temp. The NAMT festival also presented six other totally original musical works: I saw a film noir musical with elements of old radio drama, an ominous piece about dead souls arising from a Southern cornfield, and an end-of-the-world phantasmagoria whose leading characters included Marie Antoinette and the inventor of the hot-air balloon. The only plot that was not wholly a product of its writers’ imagination was a hip-hop do-over of Shakespeare’s Othello. In other words, in the rarefied realm of musical theatre, originality is hardly dead. Today on Broadway audiences are cheering a rap musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. So let’s hope originality continues to flourish on the musical stage, whether or not movies are involved.