The familiarity is there, but it still feels like nothing ever seen before. Tina Fey’s smart and sharply amusing Mean Girls is now out on Broadway (and crushing it) and the immersing magic of staged performances is once more powerfully reminding the intangible sense of uniqueness it can bring to any story.
Over the past, many silver screen successes have also had the privilege (or not) of being converted into musicals. While taking a two dimensional piece and turning it into a full-blown visual and auditory spectacle undeniably represents a challenge, some have done it with more flair than others…
The Lion King
Broadway’s third longest-running show in history, the stage adaptation of The Lion King is older than most people think. Result of the collaboration between the beautiful minds of Julie Taymor, Elton John and Hans Zimmer, the visionary musical took the liberty to bring some new elements to the famous Disney story, for example making the character of Rafiki a women (Taymor felt there was no real leading female role in the animated film), or offering more backstory to some others, like Nala. But the show’s most distinctive feature, and what made it so successful, is how it visually translates the movie’s animal kingdom via innovative costumes, allowing its performers to look and move like imposing jungle creatures.
Since it debuted in 1997 (just 3 years after the film’s release), The Lion King has matched the success of its source material by becoming the top-earning title in box-office history, surpassing the record previously held by The Phantom of the Opera. Along with having received numerous prestigious awards, the musical continues to be praised by audiences and critics around the world, and is now considered a theater classic.
Elton John also has something to do with the West End-born musical adaptation of Stephen Daldry’s heartwarming 2000 British movie that launched the career of the talented Jamie Bell when he was just 11 years old. The show, which cost more to put together than the movie, was directed by Daldry and written by original screenwriter, Lee Hall.
Beside introducing brilliant young performers in the role of Billy, it is the winner of many awards worldwide. The now 13-year-old play has been called a “global theatrical phenomenon” that globally moved millions of spectators.
Goofy Buddy made his debut on Broadway just in time for Christmas 2010 and has since been back multiple times to make the joy of enthusiastic audiences. Narrated by Santa Claus instead of Papa Elf in the movie, Elf is a modernized version of the original story (Santa, for example, uses an iPad) that nonetheless remains faithful to Jon Favreau’s 2003 beloved film.
While the role of Buddy was, as Will Ferrell’s character, much-liked by reviewers, not everyone agreed about the quality of the adaptation, defining it as “overwhelming” and “instantly forgettable”.
Based on the 1988 film directed by John Waters, which has since been remade in 2006 and performed live on television 10 years later, the cheerful Broadway spectacle surfed on the movie’s most catchy songs like ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, ‘Welcome to the 60’s’ and ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’.
Cheerful, upbeat and with a strong message of tolerance, the 2002 musical ran for 2,642 performances and closed on January 4, 2009 with mostly positive reviews and 8 Tony Awards under its belt.
In the category ‘I didn’t see this one coming’, the musical adaptation of Waitress opened on Broadway in 2016. The story of Jenna Hunterson, a pie-obsessed waitress in an abusive relationship who falls in love with her gynecologist after unexpectedly getting pregnant, was scored by singer Sara Bareilles and written by filmmaker Jessie Nelson.
Reactions to the adaptation were mixed, some critics finding the show sometimes too cheesy, but all agreeing that its lead actress, Jessie Mueller, was the highlight of the musical.
Even though Bill Murray’s performance in the 1993 movie is hard to match, Andy Karl’s interpretation of pompous weather man Phil Connors in the film’s 2016 musical adaptation came pretty close. First launched in London, the show, written by Danny Rubin, with a score by Tim Minchin, didn’t take long to reach Broadway.
Praised for its dynamism and ability to convey the same day’s events over and over again with creativity and humor, Groundhog Day pleased not only audiences and critics, but also Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray, who portray the main characters in the film and attended the musical (Murray even came back the next night). Sadly, the show closed in September 2017, after just 176 performances.
School of Rock
Andrew Lloyd Webber brought the 2003 Jack Black movie to the stage in 2015. With the desire to dig deeper into what he found was the most interesting element from the film, Webber focused the musical further on the children and their parents. Stating, “you can’t do heavy metal for hours and hours in the theatre – everyone would be screaming,” he also added a few theatrical songs to the mix. With a book written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, School of Rock had its world premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre where it is still performed on a daily basis.
Impressed by the show’s young performers (“ridiculously talented kids”), the press and spectators felt like what worked for the movie worked just as well for its stage adaptation. Some even called it, “The Sound of Music without the Nazis”. Jack Black himself attended the musical, following what he told the cast, “There were so many times I went, ‘I could not have done it that well.’ You made me laugh. You made me cry. You made me rock.’”
One of Broadway’s most disastrous money-losers, Big The Musical, based on the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks, did not manage to live up to Penny Marshall’s work. After its premiere in 1996 in Detroit before opening on Broadway, the show, directed by Mike Ockrent, closed the same year after 193 performances.
In 1998, the musical went through major rewriting for its US tour, redeeming itself by distancing the new version from what was previously considered “a failed musical.” The show made its debut in the UK and Ireland in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The much-awaited stage adaptation of Disney’s huge success premiered on Broadway in March 2018. When asked about how the musical was progressing previous to its opening night, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger, said, “We’re not demanding speed, we’re demanding excellence.” With a tremendous amount of attention around the project, needless to say the studios wanted to get it right. Plus, as the movie only contained 8 songs, composers had to come up with about 20 more!
Taking a “deeper dive into the princesses’ psyches” and aiming at a more adult audience (Disney found that 70% of people coming to see their musicals were adults), the show didn’t succeed as well as the animated film, getting mixed reviews for often being “dull.”
In the works since 2013, the musical version of Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy finally opened in theater in October 2017 before landing on Broadway this month at the August Wilson Theatre. Although it might be too soon to get an idea of how good or bad the adaptation actually is, recent reviews following the show’s opening night on April 8 already suggest that it is, for the most part, satisfying.
The fact that the musical brings more attention to its secondary characters seems to have improved the quality of the story, which has, so far, been deemed a “funnier, smarter, sharper satire.”