In defense of the screen to stage adaptation.

While watching Honeymoon In Vegas the other night, I took a twitter poll asking for a quick thumbs up or thumbs down on the idea of making Honeymoon into a musical (a project that is currently in development).

Thanks to my recent linking of my twitter and facebook status, I got a flock of a lot of responses before you could say “Wasn’t Sarah Jessica Parker in that movie?”. Here are a few:

Enough with the “from the screen to the stage” and “remake” crap, please.

There are so many amazing new works we can enjoy… 🙂

I totally agree with this [the above post] in the nicest way possible. 🙂

Aren’t there any original ideas?

I think they need to start bringing originality back to Broadway.

No more musicals that were movies – unless it’s Beetlejuice!

Yikes.  Insert sound of clawing kitty here.

Original sounds awesome.  And it’s what I’d prefer any day of the week.  But it’s not as easy, prevalent or desired as you think.

I’ve written about the rise of screen to stage musicals before, but this time, let’s look at stats on originals:

This season, there will be only three completely original new musicals on Broadway that were not based on any pre-existing source material, movie or otherwise:  13, Title of Show and The Story of My Life.

What do they have in common?  I’ll give you a hint.  They all closed.

Last season, there were only three original musicals on Broadway as well:  In The Heights, Passing Strange and Glory Day (plural cruelly omitted purposefully).  Kudos to Heights, but disappointment for the other two.

Two seasons ago?  No originals.

Three years back?  Two:  In My Life and Drowsy Chaperone.  Chaperone worked in a small window, and then went away.

Four years?  Two:  Brooklyn and Spelling Bee (The Bee was actually based on an improv play, but since the play hadn’t achieved any sort of notoriety, we’ll include it here).  The Bee succeeded but the Brooklyn investors would have been better off buying a bridge.

What’s interesting about these stats is not the winners.  I just named 10 shows and 2 recouped and that’s consistent with the commonly quoted stat that 1 in 5 shows make money.  We’re on par.

What’s alarming is that the other 8 shows were very quick flame outs, resulting in a loss of the entire capitalization or close to it (or in some cases, maybe even more?).

Now, all you tweeters  . . . knowing these much higher risk statistics, are you really surprised that Producers and Writers look to source material before their own brains for ideas?

Flip the analysis around and look at some of the most successful musicals during that same five year period:  Wicked, Jersey Boys, Lion King, Mamma Mia, and so on with un-originals and so on.

In fact, look at the longest running musicals of all time:  Only 2 originals in the top 10 (I don’t count Oh! Calcutta!)

I love an original musical.  Falsettos is one of my favs.  But the fact is that their artistic degree of difficulty is exceptionally high (and those critics that scream about lack of original ideas on Broadway should score them like Olympic gymnasts and give them extra points for the attempt).  The financial risk is the highest, and they have a recent history of lower returns.

The truth is, some of those originals I mentioned above were simply not very good.  And despite the statistical history, a great show can always make this post null and void.  So anyone dissatisfied with the lack of originality on the GWW (Great White Way), should get out there and write a great show and I’ll be the first to line up to produce it.

But we do have to remember that Broadway is a very specific place.  It’s a very thin slice of real estate in the center of the world.  Producing and creating theater is different from producing and creating Broadway theater.  And original just doesn’t always work here, whether we like it or not.

Think about it this way.  Broadway is like a museum.  You know, like MoMA.  Unfortunately, not every painter gets his art hung in MoMA, no matter how good they are.  It’s a museum of modern art.  The people that go there, go to see a specific type.  That’s what they want.  And the curators have to pick shows that are not only going to satisfy their patrons, but are going to thrill them.

That doesn’t mean that painters of other styles should stop painting.  It just means that MoMA might not be the place where their art has the best shot at success (interestingly enough – a heck of a lot of painters adapt their images from subjects or landscapes, don’t they?)

So don’t blame the Curators or the Producers or the Writers.  You might just want to pick a different museum.

Still sticking to your guns and think that what audiences really want is originality?  We wondered that same thing on 13 . . . and then we tested a tag line that called the show the most “original new musical on Broadway” (Title of Show used a similar hook).  The results were as follows:

6% of those surveyed were definitely interested in the show based on that tagline.
15% were intrigued by the tagline.
79% of those surveyed said that this tagline “made them NOT interested in seeing 13.”

These results are another example of what those of us on the inside would prefer is not necessarily what the majority of our audience prefers.

So maybe that Beetlejuice idea isn’t so bad after all . . .

  • “No more musicals that were movies – unless it’s Beetlejuice!”
    That is the most typical response on the message boards. No one wants to see another movie adaptation . . . unless it’s the one they’ve been harboring for years. Producers, apparently, aren’t allowed to harbor any titles.
    As Alan Jay Lerner wrote, “No one, neither critic nor public, is clamoring for originality. The only desire is for something good. And to be good is quite original enough.”

  • John says:

    If only the off-Broadway model worked for these types of originals. I think 13, TOS, and Story of My Life could have all done very well off-Broadway, in theory. But because OB doesn’t have the cachet of Bway, nor the economic model for big rewards (to producers, actors, and creatives), it’s been relegated to the realm of quirky shows. OB can work with deeply discounted audiences, which means more opportunity for repeat viewings among an avid fanbase, who will return with their friends for every birthday, girl’s night out, anniversary, Christmas, and Yom Kippur. Broadway can’t bear quite so many discounts, and those same people who complain so loudly about lack of creativity are the most likely to REFUSE to pay full price for a Broadway show. We really need an in-between, where these little gems can have a real chance without the burden of Broadway economics.

  • Gil says:

    Many good points, but I’m curious about this one:
    “79% of those surveyed said that this tagline “made them NOT interested in seeing 13.”
    I’d like to have heard the “why” from them. Because I wouldn’t have been interested in that tagline either, but it’s mostly because musicals that are trumpeted as “original” often aren’t able to cohesively summarize themselves. Not always, but sometimes. What if Rent just kept marketing itself as “original”? They instead marketed it as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals” and that gives you a sense that the vague, uninspired “original” can’t.

  • I though that 13 was loosely based on a book?
    wouldn’t that mean that it was not completely original?

  • themeinmedia says:

    Just because a musical has original source material – something to reference, something that gives it an outline, characters – doesn’t set it up for success. There have been plenty of movie-to-musicals that have failed and plenty that have succeeded.
    With any investment you have to weigh the strengths, weaknesses, risks and opportunities – and let’s face it – something with a built-in audience and a proven (or failed) track record is something better than something coming from thin air. I don’t fault Producers for being more inclined to go with what they think may be a sure bet; I fault them for thinking that’s all it takes to make a musical. Just because it was a success in its original form, doesn’t mean it’s going to get you to recoupment.
    Composers and lyricists, bookwriters and choreographers, directors and actors, work just as hard with a movie-to-musical adaptation as they do with something original – so let’s not discount the effort they put in. All to often there is a lot of negativity surrounding these adaptations when I think they work just as hard to make the show “work.” Whether an adaptation or original, musicals each face their own set of risks, albeit very different – but both with the common goal which is to win over audiences and get them to convince their friends to buy a (full-priced) ticket.

  • Well said, as usual.
    I’m tired of the griping about movie-to-musicals and such. Movies are just another source material, as rich and worthy as books or plays. Some are going to be good, some will be mediocre, some will be brilliantly awful. (“Carrie,” anyone?) All of them will have had a lot of work and creativity and energy poured into them, at least as much as an original would.
    But let’s think about it. How many classic musicals come from other source material?
    South Pacific
    Sweeney Todd
    A Little Night Music (how’s that for an unmarketable movie-to-musical idea?)
    Kiss Me, Kate
    My Fair Lady
    Phantom of the Opera
    Les Miserables
    Sunset Boulevard (well, maybe not classic, but big…it was just the stages that got smaller…)
    West Side Story
    And these are just off the top of my head. I could list even more second-tier musicals from other source material.
    What I’m having trouble doing is naming a classic, well-known or famous musical that’s completely, wholly, from-the-ground-up original. There must be one, right?
    The beauty of such source material is the name recognition. Or the ease of explaining the high concept, ie “Romeo and Juliet in 50’s NYC.” Or “It’s like Sesame Street for adults.” That’s just good marketing.
    As for the truly original musical, the last one I saw was a few years ago at Actors Theatre of Louisville, during the Humana Festival, of all places. I won’t name names, but it involved an alternate 1920’s, some mild stock market satire and–here’s the kicker–the hero was a eunuch. There were some who loved it, gave it a standing ovation even, but all I could think was how much steel wool I would need to stuff in my ears to get the experience out of my head.
    At least it wasn’t a jukebox musical…

  • Courtney says:

    Isn’t the upcoming Next to Normal an original musical?
    What I’ve noticed that is rather interesting is that people have much less of a problem when a musical is based on a book than when it’s based on a movie.

  • Thomas Garvey says:

    Okay, don’t be original. But don’t do “Honeymoon in Vegas” either! Yikes!!!

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