By Jordan Davis
In our capitalistic society, we operate on the mindset that if something has the potential of bringing in a profit, then we go for it. A massive example of this is the connection between Hollywood and Broadway. Often, when a show (whether it be a play or a musical) becomes a hit on Broadway, a few years later, that show would get the movie treatment. We see instances of this dating back to the 1950s when “The Seven Year Itch” opened on Broadway in 1952, then the film starring Marilyn Monroe came out in 1954. We see this happen again with shows such as “The Music Man” (Which opened on Broadway in 1957, then received the film treatment in 1962), “West Side Story” (Which opened on Broadway in 1957, then received the film treatment in 1961), “My Fair Lady” (Opened on Broadway in 1956, then received the film treatment in 1964). There are plenty modern examples of this, such as with “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” and the upcoming announcements of productions such as “Wicked” and “The Color Purple: The Musical.” While some of these adaptations have experienced success, some have fallen short of recapturing their Broadway success. As a theatre nerd and an aspiring storyteller, I find the biggest reason for success and failure to be summed up in two focal points: The plot and the audience it is being geared towards.
Because our society operates with a capitalistic mindset, a show must provide something that a wide variety of audiences can be intrigued by and sold on. One of the biggest problems with the adaptation of shows that did not work is that the story itself was not marketed to a broader audience. According to a report from the Broadway League, during the 2018-19 season, 65 percent of the people that saw a Broadway show were tourists. Within the 14.8 million people that did, 81 percent were college-educated. To go along with that, the average price of a ticket for a show was $147. The point of these statistics is to show how narrow the Broadway audience is compared to the audience of Hollywood. When people take in a Broadway show, they want to make sure that they will get their money’s worth. Because of this, Producers of Broadway have resulted in making adaptations of movies that have had success in some form or another.
In recent years, Broadway has turned out shows such as “Waitress,” “Mean Girls,” “Beetlejuice,” “Spongebob: The Musical,” and for the upcoming Tony Awards this year, there are shows with preexisting films that are eligible for nominations such as “Beetlejuice,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Mr. Saturday Night.” Producers across the entertainment industry spectrum have been on a trend of playing it safe by recreating existing IP and stories for different formats. While audiences have been primarily receptive to this, it’s only successful if the plot of the existing story is something that has a general interest of the wide audience. When adapting a Broadway show into a film, the creators must figure out how they wish to market it to general audiences or a specific audience within the masses.
The best way to figure out the intended audience for the film is to determine if the plot would be something that a larger audience would be interested in. To emphasize this particular point, I would like to focus on the misfire of the 2019 film “Cats.” One of the primary issues with Tom Hooper’s fiasco of a film is its plot or lack thereof. One of the biggest decisions the creative team must make when adapting shows is if they should follow the stage play beat for beat or readjust it. Sometimes, shifting the music has proven to be the knack (such as in the case of Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning “West Side Story“), or in other cases, the show may need revamping to keep up to date with current trends. For instance, when “In The Heights” was released this past summer, they had to adjust a few lines to be up to date with the current political climate.
However, I fully believe that not every Broadway show needs to be turned into a film. Frankly, “Cats” did not need to happen; it was doomed from the start. Among the many problems that plagued “Cats,” the enormous mistake made by the creative team was making a carbon copy adaptation of the stage play. I find that the reason for this mistake, duplicating the stage play, is due to the mere fact that the stage play is known for not having much of a plot, along with very little character development, which allows for an audience to go on a journey with a specific character(s). Because of this, “Cats” never gained momentum into what the creators had hoped. “Dear Evan Hansen” is another recent example of this. Anyone who was the least bit familiar with the pre-existing Tony Award-Winning musical knew the film adaptation would not translate well to the big screen and the negative reviews reflected that as it got green-lit due to its name recognition alone and not because it would make for a good movie.
Another issue that has a history of plaguing film adaptations of musicals is failing to adjust to the medium of the screen. As a composer and a writer, what I find beneficial is understanding pacing to the degree of mastery. However, the pacing is different based on the medium you are pacing for. For instance, in a theatre, the show is live and happening in real-time, meaning that the show must account for audience reactions such as laughter and applause (especially after big musical numbers). In theatre, all these actions and reactions occur in real-time. On the contrary, in film, things have already been recorded, and everything needs to be edited in a manner that is appropriate for a movie audience. This means that live reactions such as laughter and applause do not necessarily have to be accounted for. The 2005 adaptation of “The Producers” ran into this problem with their stage to screen transfer. There are noticeable points in the film where there are awkward pauses as if there was an audience present when they were filming. Having a good plot is not just about having a good storyline or well-rounded, dynamic characters. A series of things play a part in the plot, such as transitions from scene to scene, the pacing, and the story’s overall direction.
More than ever, studios are having difficulty producing quality adaptations of musicals. In my opinion, I say musicals because when a straight play is being adapted for film, they tend to have a higher success rate (Ex: “Amadeus,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Father,” “Fences,” “One Night in Miami,” “August: Osage County,” etc.). Based on statistics and findings, straight plays have a much higher success rate because of the nature of what they must accomplish on stage. Without music, creators are responsible for maintaining the audience’s interest, with dialogue typically happening in a single location. In the event this feat can be pulled off on stage, then it has great potential to work as a film. This is not to say that all adaptations are poor though. Last year saw some truly amazing movie musical adaptations such as the before-mentioned “In The Heights,” “West Side Story,” plus the beloved “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and under appreciated “Cyrano,” even those were not Broadway productions.
In summary, if Broadway shows are to continue to be adapted for film, it is essential that producers look more into the show’s marketability and adaptability rather than just relying on the popularity of its name; and throwing A-list celebrities into the leading roles. In closing, professionals in the field must be willing to accept the fact that not every show needs a film adaptation. In some cases, it is perfectly fine to allow one form of a story to exist independently as it will enable each medium to keep making new stories rather than telling the same one repeatedly with varying degrees of results.
What is your favorite movie musical based off of a Broadway show? Do you feel there was an adaptation which failed to capture the spirit of the original show? What are your predictions for the upcoming “Wicked” and “The Color Purple: The Musical” movies and which Broadway show will be the next one to be adapted for the big screen? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Jordan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @_jordandav_