Over the last few years, I’ve been asked to consider writing a few musicals which would have been adaptations – from books, movies, etc. Some I was excited about – the source material seemed rife with possibilities for musicalization. Others, I didn’t see working out. As it turns out, I’m not working on any of those proposed projects, but I have thought alot lately about musicals that started out as something else.
I want to be clear on this from the start – I see nothing fundamentally wrong, bad or distasteful about a musical being adapted from another source. It’s been going on for a long time and, when it is done well and wisely, it can lead to a really wonderful musical. In fact, one of my favorite musicals of all time, Little Shop of Horrors, was based on a movie. But in that oddball little show lies what I regard as the key to adaptations – imagination.
Take a look at the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors – certain characters and plot points will be familiar, but the musical is a very different animal from the movie – and that’s a really, really good thing. It’s not a good movie! The writers of the musical – Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman – were able to see imagine and create an entirely new musical world. If they had lacked imagination – or lacked sufficient imagination – they might never have written the show or, worse yet, they might have written a straight “musical version” of the film without adapting it at all! Horrors indeed!
There are other more recent examples of well-done adaptations, but there are also – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – plenty of examples where it didn’t go so well. Writing a musical is never easy, but, when it comes to adaptations, it sure is easier to regurgitate a movie on stage with some songs thrown in. It might even be successful – depending on how you measure success that is. (Sadly, laziness is no guarantee of failure nor is imagination a guarantee of success!) But when laziness trumps imagination, we get lazy shows, lazy producers, lazy actors and, eventually, uniformly lazy audiences.
So am I suggesting that, from now on, we do nothing but original musicals, not based on any source material? Of course not! If a show is well written and works on stage, it doesn’t matter where it came from. But we need to care more about the quality of the shows being done – big shows, little shows, cheap shows, expensive shows – all kinds, all musical styles and all types of stories.
It is a sad bit of irony that, in the entertainment industry, creativity and imagination are often valued less than what I will charitably call “the easy road”. We need, as an industry, to try harder, aim higher and do better. And making that level of work the norm will take the most imagination and be the biggest adaptation of them all!