Adaptation: Stage and Movie Musicals in the 20th and 21st Century

Inspiration for the creation of films can come from just about anywhere, but over the decades Hollywood has consistently borrowed stories from its sister entertainment world – Broadway. Stage musicals especially have been the fodder for film since the 1930s, with movie musicals existing for at least a decade before that. So what came first? The musical? The movie? The musical that became a movie? The movie that became a musical? Or, in at least one case, the movie, that became a musical, that became a movie musical.*

Movies have exhibited musical numbers since the advent of sound in film. Song and dance were an easy way to entertain and engage audiences, but in many cases in the early years of movie musicals, the numbers did little to further the story and rather served as spectacles to highlight the actors’ talents and the studios’ set budgets. However, it was different for the adaptation of stage musicals such as Show Boat, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story – these were already successful, money making productions with engaging stories, drama, pathos, zingers, romance, humor, and sweeping, memorable music already crafted for audiences that loved them. Lights, camera…action!

West Side Story souvenir program featuring the characters Anita and Bernardo, 1957. Broadway souvenir programs collection, C0182, Box 5, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Anita and Bernardo, played by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris respectively, in 1961’s West Side Story film adaptation. Image source.

Some musicals that have been adapted into films are classics in their own right. Today’s audiences are more likely to hold Natalie Wood lip syncing “I Feel Pretty” in the 1961 adaptation of West Side Story more dearly to their heart than Carol Lawrence singing the exact same number on the original cast recording. Movies musicals have the advantage of wider viewing and better accessibility, with the same songs and stories available for a nominal fee, rather than an often impossibly expensive and hard-to-get Broadway ticket. In some cases, this accessibility trumps the actual quality of the adaptation. Take 2008’s film adaptation of the hit ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia! Critically on the fence, and with questionable singing talent from the actors involved, Mamma Mia! is now a modern cult classic, even spawning a (questionably necessary, albeit very fun) sequel film in 2018 (a sequel stage musical does not exist). Sometimes, the film adaptation of a musical irrevocably influences the original stage version. The 1978 film version of Grease became so popular, that original music was cut and songs which only existed in the film were added into the 2007 Broadway revival.

Photograph of “Casting of Grease Performing on Stage,” October 30, 1975. Broadside Photograph collection, R0135, Box 11, Page 66, Item 2, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Behind the scenes on the 1978 film Grease. Featured are Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta performing “You’re The One That I Want.” Image Source.

In many cases, stage musicals are just begging to be adapted to film. The other way around, however, is another story. Movie musicals adapted into stage musicals – even beloved films, such as Gigi and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – are generally not as successful as the reverse (with the big exception of Disney’s myriad film-to-stage productions). For instance, the films of Italian surrealist auteur Federico Fellini are the furthest kind from direct musical adaptation. His films – without a musical number in sight – are gritty, disturbing, grotesque, romantic, hilarious, sexy, and stylistically singular. It would take a brave soul to adapt a Fellini film into a stage musical, especially one of his most beloved and important films, 8 ½. But, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit chose to do just that, and in 1982 Nine premiered on Broadway and won five Tony awards that very year, including Best Musical. In Nine’s tradition, it does seem that the best film-to-stage musical adaptations were risky ones that didn’t immediately lend themselves to musical theatre adaptation, such as Monty Python’s Spamalot (adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, The Color Purple, and Sunset Boulevard. Even the 1980 roller skate fantasy film flop Xanadu was adapted into a critical and commercial stage musical success.

Nine : the Musical, 1983. Yeston, Maury., Fratti, Mario, and Kopit, Arthur. ML50 .Y48 N5 1983, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Three Guidos – Clockwise are Marcello Mastroianni in the original film 8 1/2, Raul Julia in the Broadway production of Nine, and Daniel Day-Lewis in the musical movie adaptation of Nine. Source: Google Images.

Regardless of the origin, movie musicals and musicals derived from movies are now some of the most beloved objects of entertainment in the world. I would wager that as long as both mediums exist, we will continue to enjoy these unique and sometimes Russian Doll-like adaptations for decades to come.

*Rob Marshall’s movie-musical Nine is itself an adaptation of the stage musical Nine, which is itself an adaptation of the film 8 ½.

“Showing Us Our Own Face”: Performing Arts and the Human Experience will be on display until May 2020 in Fenwick Library, 2FL.

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