From Screen to Stage

How to turn a movie into a musical.

Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti

When The Wedding Singer opened on April 27, it became the fifth musical running on Broadway that was adapted from a movie, joining other screen-to-stage adaptations like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Monty Python’s Spamalot (based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Hairspray, and The Producers, the mega-hit that probably launched the current wave of movie-to-musical transformations. Several other Broadway offerings like Lestat, Wicked, and The ColorPurple, while not strictly adaptations of films, share source material with hit movies and are clearly hoping to benefit from the association. The trend shows no sign of flagging; Legally Blonde opens on Broadway in April 2007 and if the musical adaptation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a hit in Sydney, there’s no doubt it will be headed for Times Square next. In the last week alone, singing-dancing versions of Gladiator and Secondhand Lions (a 2003 box-office turkey starring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) were announced.

It’s easy to understand. Mounting a Broadway musical is riskier than ever. With marketing costs figured in, the average budget to open a musical on Broadway is about $10 million. It costs in the neighborhood of $500,000 a week to keep a show running. At prices like that, producers need to pack the house for years to see a profit, which makes investors understandably nervous. Hiring stars like Julia Roberts and Hugh Jackman can help boost attendance in the short run, but these stars are expensive and usually head back to Hollywood after a few months, leaving producers struggling to find an audience when they’re gone. Another draw is needed, something intangible that will last for the duration.

A smart Broadway investor knows that the prospective audience member is also making a risky financial investment. An idle moviegoer might throw away 10 bucks on a movie that might be good, but a theatergoer looking at spending up to $115 for two hours of entertainment wants to be sure they’re going to have a good time. The beauty of the movie-musical is that the branding is already in place. You need a Broadway-nerd buddy to explain what The Light in the Piazzais about, but everyone’s seen—or at least heard about— The Full Monty, so they know what they’re in for. It’s like finding a Starbucks in a foreign country: The familiarity is the draw. This is hardly limited to Broadway. The top four movies in the country last weekend were: an adaptation of a book, a remake of an adaptation of a book, a sequel to an adaptation of a TV show, and an adaptation of a comic strip. Familiarity sells.

The prevalence of movie-musicals causes a lot of hand-wringing among critics, musical-theater devotees, and the know-it-alls who post on Broadway message boards. Their fear is that Broadway is becoming an adjunct to Hollywood, that in the desperation to reach a mass audience raised on movies and television, cherished musical-theater traditions are being suborned to serve a disposable mass culture.

As usual, the reports of theater’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Musicals are nearly always drawn from other source material. Some of the most famous and enduring works of recent decades are adaptations. Think West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar,Les Miserables, or Man of La Mancha. Want highbrow? Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was based on a controversial satire of the same name by playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart didn’t want to come up with an original story, so he seized on one that already existed. His choice of Figaro was a shrewd and simple one: The material was both strong and notorious.

It’s not just the heartless money men who love movie adaptations. Creative teams like them, too. It’s hard to write a musical. It’s not just a matter of sketching a few melodies and poring over the rhyming dictionary; the greater challenge is figuring out how to tell a coherent story through a series of songs. Most musical writers start with a novel, a movie, a play, or a historical incident because the writing process is simplified if a strong story already exists. The quality of the finished product is determined by the artfulness of the adaptation. A musical doesn’t need to be original to be worthy, it just needs to not suck.

Let’s return to The Wedding Singer, whichultimately fails the “don’t suck” test, to glean a few simple rules for movie adaptations:

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore

Pick the right movie. You can see where the producers went wrong here. The 1998 movie is a love story that features several musical performances, so it must have seemed like a stage musical waiting to happen. But a movie with songs isn’t necessarily Broadway material. More important is a strong story with strong characters, since the story and the characters are usually the only elements that will be transferring from one medium to the other. The Wedding Singer barely has any story. It’s a threadbare romantic comedy padded out with an irrelevant ‘80s theme that became a hit thanks to the charisma and surprising romantic chemistry of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. The stronger grifters-in-love story line of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels offers a more compelling hook, with two con-men heroes who are so interesting as characters that their appeal isn’t limited to specific performers. This allows the show’s current stars, Jonathan Pryce and Norbert Leo Butz, to re-create the roles with gusto. The leads of Broadway’s The Wedding Singer, Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti, are hamstrung by their obvious mandate to re-create the performances of their cinematic counterparts. (A much better candidate for a musical adaptation would be Sandler and Barrymore’s other joint vehicle, 50 First Dates. The story of a man tying to build a relationship around his girlfriend’s amnesia is interesting enough to work in multiple media with multiple sets of actors.)  

Hire a new creative team. Stage adaptations of movies are often spearheaded by producers or creative personnel from the original film, but if they’re smart, they will hire a fresh group of collaborators to bring the show to Broadway. Tim Herlihy, the writer of the film of The Wedding Singer, is also the co-writer of the musical, and way too many of the significant conversations from the movie have been transferred to the musical intact. A crucial task for making a story into a musical is setting the key emotional moments to music, but Herlihy is too protective of his own dialogue. By contrast, John Waters stayed out of the adaptation process for Hairspray, leaving Marc Shaiman and his collaborators free to re-conceptualize the story as a proper musical. *

Make your own moments. Partway through Act 1 of The Wedding Singer, a bedroom set is briefly wheeled out so that Lynch can perform “Somebody Kill Me Please,” an original Adam Sandler song from the film. This is a bad choice for several reasons. The song doesn’t fit the ‘80s tribute aesthetic of the rest of the score, and the song isn’t funny without Sandler’s singular delivery or Barrymore’s sweetly appalled reaction shots. But it’s one of the moments everyone remembers from the movie, so the writers must have felt compelled to include it. Sure enough, a few people sitting near me in the audience shrieked with delight. But they weren’t delighted by what was happening right in front of them; they were laughing at their memory of enjoying something in the past. A similar spectacle occurs every night at Spamalot, as audiences thrill to an evening full of jokes they heard 20 years ago and have been reciting to one another ever since. Excessive nostalgia can be a hollow pleasure, and one with diminishing returns. It’s entirely possible to tell a familiar story with surprises and fresh moments. David Yazbek and Terrence McNally took a big risk in transplanting The Full Monty’s Northern English story to an American blue-collar setting, but the payoff was a sparkling retelling with all-new dialogue and all-new moments.

A lot of the righteous condemnation aimed at movie-musicals conceals an unfortunate snobbery. Why does no one make a fuss when an adaptation of a book like Jane Eyre or Little Women opens? A novel is, if anything, much less suited to the demands of the stage. A movie, after all, is already a tale told through dialogue and action that lasts about two hours. A novel requires much more truncating and condensing. Adapting movies makes more sense. The hatred of movie-musicals is too often based on an ill-considered sense of superiority to the source material. A Broadway musical, the thinking goes, should be better than an Adam Sandler vehicle. With a well-rendered adaptation, it can be. In the end, it’s not the source of the adaptation that’s important, it’s the execution. The Wedding Singer had a chance to be a better musical than the movie it was based on and failed. Legally Blonde doesn’t have to.

Correction, May 25, 2006: This story originally and incorrectly misspelled Marc Shaiman’s name. Return to the corrected sentence.