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B’way craze: from big screen to stage

Flashdance is one of a handful of movies made into musicals.
By Nelson Pressley
The Washington Post

Is it lack of creativity that prompts producers to rehash movies as musicals?

WASHINGTON — How extreme is the craze for adapting movies into musicals? Consider what’s singing out at the Kennedy Center:

Elf the Musical, based on the 2003 Will Ferrell hit, is currently hopping through the Opera House. Flashdance — The Musical, an expansion of the hugely popular 1980s movie, is also running in the Eisenhower. Last month, a tour of Sister Act wimpled through.

That undeclared mini-festival is just the tip of an iceberg that may be sabotaging ingenuity in one of the proudest native art forms in the US. And while the run on Hollywood titles may suggest a gold rush, the formula for success is inscrutable. Offbeat triumphs were nabbed by minor movie titles such as Once, Kinky Boots and Grey Gardens, while such Hollywood blockbusters as Ghost and Catch Me if You Can — the latter by Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who would seem to know how these conversions work — flamed out fast.

The one sure thing: like a Netflix menu, the titles keep coming.

Big Fish, Far From Heaven and Little Miss Sunshine all lifted their newly musical voices lately in New York. Big musicals due on Broadway this winter and spring: Aladdin, The Bridges of Madison County (a successful novel made even more popular by the Clint Eastwood-Meryl Streep film), Bullets Over Broadway and Rocky. Just announced for off-Broadway in March: Heathers.

The fad is international: American Psycho, The Bodyguard, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and From Here to Eternity are all running in London’s West End.

Coal Miner’s Daughter is in the works. So is Dirty Dancing (now on US tour, and playing in London), Ever After, Honeymoon in Vegas and even King Kong, a rock spectacular that has already conquered Australia and stars a one-ton gorilla puppet 20 feet tall.

Even the most highbrow composers can’t resist the lure of musicalizing movies. The property Stephen Sondheim kept saying he’d like to get around to in the past decade or so but never did? Groundhog Day. And what has Light in the Piazza composer Adam Guettel been working on since the plug was pulled on his unfinished version of The Princess Bride? Days of Wine and Roses and the 2004 Danny Boyle movie, Millions.

Michael John LaChiusa’s Giant, which made its début at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, several seasons ago, finally made it to New York (briefly) last year. That LaChiusa worked from the Edna Ferber novel is moot, marketing-wise: audiences hear Giant and think Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Likewise, Signature’s premiere musical next spring, based on the Iris Rainer Dart novel that became the Bette Midler screen smash, Beaches.

Isn’t this dependency on Hollywood-branded titles strangling Broadway’s originality? According to the composers of the musicals scrolling through the Kennedy Center, it ain’t necessarily so.

“With Sister Act, I was resistant,” says composer and uber-adapter Alan Menken, whose first stage hit was 1982’s Little Shop of Horrors and who owns eight Oscars for songs and scores of the movies The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Aladdin.

The Sister Act title “felt tired,” Menken said, but he warmed to the challenge of revitalizing it for the stage. The 1990s story was relocated to 1970s, allowing Menken to pen disco songs and R&B tunes.

Menken argues that movies are a natural source for musicals, just as books and plays were for so many standards written in Broadway’s Golden Age, from My Fair Lady to South Pacific.

Elf composer Matthew Sklar suggests that The Producers in 2001 was a turning point. The tidal wave of 1980s and 1990s megamusicals finally crashed, and The Producers reintroduced the world to musical comedy. But it was Disney and the 1994 Beauty and the Beast that really unlocked Pandora’s Box. That show ran 13 years and paved the way for The Lion King, which has been an unrelenting smash since 1997. The first week of this December, The Lion King grossed nearly US$2 million for its eight performances on Broadway alone, filling 93 percent of the 1,597 seats in the Minskoff Theater and averaging US$155 a ticket. National and international tours continue, sweetening the pot. Even though Menken asserts that the lure of Hollywood dates to Gershwin and Irving Berlin, the aggressive theatrical arm of Disney in the 1990s plainly paved a new avenue for Hollywood execs to tread. Film studios increasingly opened their own theatrical divisions after the Disney hits and the next decade’s successes of The Producers, Hairspray and Wicked.

Flashdance composer Robbie Roth confirms. “I am most often approached by people interested in adapting movies,” he says from his home in Toronto.

Roth is new to musicals, and he is emphatically not what the producers are hawking. “Featuring the No. 1 Hit Songs You Love,” the Flashdance ad copy promises. Living up to a familiar story, characters and maybe even sound can be tricky. “People come in and are excited to hear Maniac,” Roth says of Flashdance, which made its 2010 debut in London and has been retooled for its ongoing US tour.

Roth, 40, likes writing for the stage after years of penning pop tunes and working in rock bands. He has an original show in the works — but also another adapting gig with Drumline. For Flashdance, he says, “My job is keep it in the world of Maniac and Gloria and all those songs so it didn’t feel like a cross section of eras.”

Still: aren’t all these adaptations trumping fresh ideas?

If not, is the obstacle producers who won’t bankroll something they haven’t heard of? Or audiences leery of paying US$100 and up for tickets to something they know nothing about?

Menken, who pleads guilty to signing on for a cynical project or two during his career, says, “There are certain titles where you roll your eyes: they did it because of the title. But that’s probably true of any number of musicals going back through time.”

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