Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Rating the Underrated: Musicals Based on Movies

I have long been a champion of Broadway. As off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and regional theater continue to grow in acclaim, many people have claimed that Broadway is becoming irrelevant. The problem with this thinking is that Broadway is not meant to be in competition with regional theater-- the ideal is for both to be impressive and thriving-- not for one to be better than the other. And while Broadway is certainly struggling, it's never going anywhere. As long as people are making theater, Broadway will be around and will be at the forefront of the American theater scene.

That's not to say that there are not flaws with Broadway. There are so many flaws. Works by female playwrights are still largely unproduced even as the number of prominent female playwright grows nationwide, there is still an emphasis on commercialization, there is a lack of accessibility as student discounts seem to disappear and ticket prices rise to all-time highs, and many more problems which would be more than worthy of a discussion. But I want to address one of the most common complaints that I hear about Broadway-- one which I've heard mentioned far more often than the far more valid ones I listed above. And, frankly, I've never understood why it's so problematic for so many people: the complaint that all Broadway shows are based on movies.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers: which won the most Tony awards in Broadway history and also happens to be based on a movie.

The idea behind the complaint is that it seems like every show coming to Broadway is based on a movie-- which generally leads to the follow-up question of "aren't there any original ideas out there?" I can definitely understand, in theory, where people are coming from. The theater community prides itself on its creativity, and so the idea that there are previously told stories taking up space on Broadway marquis can be troubling. Especially when those stories are taken from a medium like film, which has not been around for as long as theater. I think that this complaint comes from a certain sense of superiority-- the idea that theater is supposed to be more sophisticated than film. And that's a problem. Theater and film are two different art forms-- neither is better or worse. I think it would be fair to say that film borrows from theater just as much as theater borrows from film. Since 2000, six of the winners of the Tony Award for Best Play have been made into films. Film, in fact, celebrates the act of adaptation. Since 2000, nine of the winners for Best Picture have had screenplays adapted from other works as opposed to being original stories. Yet no one is complaining that film as an art form is lacking in originality. Just because a story is pre-existing doesn't mean that there can't be creativity. In his entire career as a playwright, William Shakespeare only wrote one original story (The Tempest) and the rest were all adaptations. The truth is that there are plenty of beloved musicals out there which are drawn from films. While people may complain about this trend when discussing, say, Mary Poppins, few people are bringing it up when discussing better-accepted best musical winners such as The Lion King, The Producers, or Once. In fact, the four nominees for Best Musical last year were all inspired by films: Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Matilda, and the winner, Kinky Boots.

A scene from the dark and delightful Matilda the Musical

Of those nominees, I think that Bring It On is the most interesting case, and the one which best exemplifies the thesis of this post. I will admit that when I went to see Bring It On, I didn't expect it to be that good. I thought it would be fun, and I was sure it would have some great choreography, but I didn't expect it to be great theater. The reason? Well, because it was inspired on the film Bring It On. But, in reality, there was a lot to suggest that it would be good. It was written in part by Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeff Whitty, who helped write Next to Normal, In the Heights, and Avenue Q respectively-- three of the most innovative shows to run on Broadway in recent years. With a pedigree like that, why shouldn't this be a really solid show? And, it was. I enjoyed Kinky Boots, and absolutely loved Matilda, but when it came down to it, Bring It On was my favorite new musical of that year. It featured a great script and score (although I do like Matilda's score more) and was simply an outstanding production. Rousing, inspiring, and with some really great messages hidden in there for good measure (the supporting character of La Cienega might have been one of the best and most respectful representations of a transgender character I've seen written for the stage). On Tony night, Bring It On was not a real contender to win the award for Best Musical. And many people were scoffing at the fact that it was nominated at all. But I can bet that these people never saw the show at all-- they dismissed it simply because it was a film adaptation (as a sidenote, the musical had very little to do with the film Bring It On-- while both had to do with cheerleaders, they had different plots and a completely different set of characters).

The diverse and incredibly hardworking cast of Bring it On performs on of the show's many showstopping numbers.

The first show which I think fell "victim" to this trend is Shrek the Musical in 2008. That's the first  time I specifically recall people being angry at a show that was adapted from a film. People were livid-- "Really, they're making a musical based on Shrek now?" I maintain that if Shrek the Musical had been released just a couple of years earlier, it would have been a huge hit-- but at that point, people were simply tired of this trend and wouldn't see it out of principle. But, like Bring it On, Shrek had a lot going for it. The music was by prolific composer Jeanine Tesori, with book and lyrics by beloved playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Plus, it starred Broadway stars Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster, and Christopher Sieber. Unfortunately, nobody saw it, and it closed all too soon. While it wasn't a perfect show, it had some absolutely clever moments, and some great songs (the act one finale "Who I'd Be" was a standout, for me). Perhaps most notably, the show featured some absolutely brilliant and clever staging in regards to the villain: Lord Farquad. In the film, a recurring joke was Farquad's diminutive height and the stage production took full advantage of this. Sieber performed the role almost entirely on his knees, in a special costume that made him look much shorter than he is. It was a gimmick, but an absolutely brilliant one-- and one of the best performances I've ever seen on Broadway. That he lost the Tony to Gregory Jbara in Billy Elliot was, frankly, criminal (Jbara is a great actor, but his role in that show simply didn't compare to what Sieber did). Check out this performance from the Tonys and tell me that this show doesn't look like it was fantastic. Yet, again, this musical suffered because of some stigma against adaptations from movies. And-- as beloved as the film is-- the fact that it's a kids movie didn't help its chances.

As Tony host Neil Patrick Harris sang, "Chris Sieber, please, performing on your knees? That only gets you Golden Globes."

I think the same stigma is being applied towards the Broadway musical Rocky. When it was announced that Rocky was coming to Broadway, there was a similar uproar of disbelief. It was thought that Broadway was really scraping the bottom of the barrel to be making a musical out of Rocky. But...why? What makes Rocky so unsuitable for being a stage musical? It's certainly a rousing story, and offers the chance for really creative choreography. But, more than anything, Rocky is a film which already incorporates music into it really well. It has one of the best scores in the history of film-- why shouldn't it be a musical? I have not yet seen the show-- although I already have tickets to see it soon-- so I can't speak firsthand, but everyone who I've spoken to has said they were surprised at how great it was. And coming from director Alex Timbers-- behind some of the most original Broadway shows of recent years, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher-- I have no doubts it will be an underrated gem. While it didn't get a nomination for Best Musical at the Tonys, it has been recognized by most other awards shows. Yet, it's struggling financially, and I have no doubts that this is due in part to those who have written it off without seeing it. If any such person is reading this, give the show a chance.

Andy Karl as the titular character in Rocky the Musical

My point is that just because a lot of Broadway musicals are based on films doesn't mean that Broadway, and certainly not the theater scene at large, is lacking in creativity or originality. There are still original stories being shown on stage every day, and the stories that have already been told are still creative in their own right. There are many criticisms one could throw at Broadway-- this particular one is incredibly misguided.

But despite everything I've just said, I'm really dreading the upcoming stage musical of School of Rock. This is a film which I have said for YEARS would translate really well to the stage. And I stand by that. But, who's decided to take it upon themselves to bring this vision to life? Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew. Lloyd. Webber. This is the worst news I've ever heard. He must be stopped.

Math is a wonderful thing. Yes, math is a really cool thing.

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