Hollywood Beginnings

by Russell M. Dembin

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for Hollywood Beginnings

Christopher Patrick Mullen as Fredrik Egerman and Patti-Lee Meringo as Anne Egerman in Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Little Night Music. Photo by Mark Garvin.

In the weeks leading up to the Tony Awards ceremony earlier this month, there was much discussion among journalists and theatre enthusiasts regarding the proliferation of Broadway musicals based on films: After all, each of the four nominees in the best-musical category was either adapted from a movie or from a work of literature already translated into a well-known screen version.

Critics and bloggers have noted that adaptations have always been a staple of musical theatre fare on the Great White Way. The title page of the Playbills for nearly every best-musical Tony winner between 1949 and 1970 included words like “adapted from,” “based upon,” and “suggested by.” The 1960s, in particular, witnessed a variety of film-indebted stage musicals with staying power: Lili starring Leslie Caron (1953) became Carnival! (1961), Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) became Sweet Charity (1966), and The Apartment with Jack Lemmon (1960) became Promises, Promises (1968). In 1970, Applause became the first musical explicitly adapted from a film (1950’s All About Eve) to win the top prize at the Tonys. It’s noteworthy that, as Peter Marks explained in a 2002 New York Times article on this topic, such works took on titles that distinguished them from their cinematic predecessors. In that era, musicals intended to lure in audiences by offering them something they hadn’t experienced before. Those shows, unlike most screen-to-stage projects in recent years, often departed from their source material in major ways. Whereas Nights of Cabiria depicts a prostitute in Rome, for example, Sweet Charity portrays a dancer in New York City.

The trend changed in the 1980s. Film-based stage musicals were still plentiful—think of 42nd Street (1980), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) and Singin’ in the Rain (1985)—but now the idea was to attract theatregoers to already-familiar titles. (Even so, many of the period’s blockbusters—such as Cats (1982), Les Misérables (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988)—had a literary rather than cinematic pedigree, and presumably succeeded because of their use of spectacle rather than their source material.) During that era, Grand Hotel: The Musical (1989) embodied two qualities that have since become typical of Broadway musicals adapted from movies: It added music and lyrics to material that was originally non-musical; and it was the first piece with the subtitle “The Musical” to receive a best-musical Tony nomination. As Howard Sherman mentions, the designation prevails, even though it was “brilliantly parodied years ago by The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!).” The appellation has become so widespread that three of this year’s four Tony nominees for best musical had “The Musical” in their titles.

Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was active when these tendencies were developing, but his approach to adaptation is more in line with the previous generation. Ben Brantley, in observing that adaptations have always been predominant on the Rialto, stressed, “Even Stephen Sondheim, whom one thinks of as conceiving shows out of air with his collaborators, has looked to the movies for his Passion [1994] and A Little Night Music [1973].” Brantley is right that Sondheim’s penchant for adaptation is frequently overlooked, but Sondheim picks sources based on their stories and how well they would translate on the stage: The films he selects are comparatively obscure, which is one of the reasons why, as Brantley indicates, audiences might not even realize those musicals are adaptations. The 1981 Italian film Passione d’amore (which inspired Passion) is generally unavailable, to such an extent that the CSC Bacchanalians, Classic Stage Company’s group for theatregoers in their twenties and thirties, held a screening of it in conjunction with their 2013 production of the show.

A Little Night Music, which is playing through June 30 at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company (featuring Christopher Patrick Mullen, who appeared on the cover of American Theatre magazine’s May/June issue), represents a method of adaptation that is distinct from the now common practice of constructing shows so that they resemble their source material. In fact, Sondheim comments in Finishing the Hat, the musical is so different from Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the Ingmar Bergman movie on which Hugh Wheeler based his libretto, that when the Swedish filmmaker saw the show on Broadway, Sondheim was concerned Bergman would dislike what its creators “had done to his beautiful movie.” Instead, Sondheim recalls, Bergman told him, “I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story.” The Arden’s staging, designed by Thom Weaver to make striking use of shadow and silhouette effects, emphasizes the extent to which Sondheim and Wheeler were inspired by cinema to create something distinctly theatrical.

Merging the live experience with familiar material, Disney on Broadway provided a transition between the shows of the 1980s and today: Properties like Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion King (1997) incorporated tunes from their respective films but added new songs. These days, Broadway’s musicals inspired by movies almost always follow the same “add-songs-and-stir” recipe as Grand Hotel—not surprising, considering the decline of the once-popular movie musical genre. With the new millennium came The Full Monty (2000) and record-breaking Tony winner The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical, which were followed by such pieces as Hairspray (2002) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005). Compared with their counterparts from a half-decade ago, most of these shows have a greater interest in building familiarity through the retention of the original title and established character traits and plots. Marks’s Times feature points out that “an increasingly tourist-dominated audience” was one major reason that producers became more interested in setting films to music, so that there would be a heightened recognition factor. The wish for recognition has even led to a crop of musicals that spoof popular movies, such as the long-running Silence! The Musical.

However, this shift in the way theatremakers write musical adaptations doesn’t necessarily confirm Ethan Mordden’s notion in The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen that Broadway no longer has depth. Of course, many of today’s shows are inventive: The key is for creative teams to commit to originality even when their work strives to evoke a well-known source. Jordan Roth, producer and president of Jujamcyn Theaters, asserted in a 2012 TEDxBroadway talk that whether presenting adaptations or wholly new work, theatre will be original as long as it takes advantage of its liveness: “If we do, we’ll thrive on our cultural primacy. Not because we do it better than any other medium, but because we do what no other medium can do. We do it live, and that’s original.” Moreover, Sondheim advises that writers should only create a musical adaptation when doing so will improve upon the original material: “The biggest hits, even the most execrable ones, have generally been written by people who loved the story they were telling and how they were telling it.” 

Russell M. Dembin, the editorial intern at TCG’s American Theatre magazine for Summer 2013, is a theatre educator and freelance dramaturg, as well as an associate editor of The Sondheim Review. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @Dramaturgs.