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Stage Left: Originals vs. Adaptations

One theme that comes up over and over again in conversations about the State of Musical Theater Today is the tragic lack of original musicals on Broadway. The way everything is an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation. No one's having new and creative ideas anymore!

Well, to be blunt, I kind of think this is bullshit. It's a false dichotomy and it's predicated on some assumptions I find pretty flawed. Namely, why can't an adaptation be great? Why can't an original show be, well, kind of awful?

The idea behind this complaint, I think, is that it takes less creativity to adapt something than to create something new. It's certainly true you can do a stage adaptation without taking a fresh approach to the material, but what I usually see is, if anything, the opposite. I see people taking risks. These don't always pay off, but when they do, they can be breathtaking.

Let's take the poster-child for successful stage adaptations: Disney's The Lion King. On paper it seems like the kind of idea that is destined to produce a humdrum, literalistic translation to stage—a children's movie about lions, with a full catalog of songs already written—the person staging it barely has to do anything! It's ready-made!

But when you put the material in the hands of a gifted director, in this case, Julie Taymor, you can end up with, among other things, one of the most arresting opening numbers I know:


[video: An audience video of the Broadway cast of The Lion King performing "The Circle of Life"].

This is not to say that more traditional adaptations do not also work well! One of my favorite stage musicals is Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on the novel El beso de la mujer araña by Manuel Puig and the 1985 movie adapted from the same source. Here is Chita Rivera performing, along with the chorus, the number "Where You Are", from that show.

How anyone can say either of these shows, or any of any number of others I could name—Passion, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors—is less worthwhile than, say, Glory Days, which was wholly original and closed on Broadway the same night it opened, or bare (which while I enjoy it is hugely pedestrian) is...bizarre to me.

Adapting an existing work is a process that takes skill. Different media have vastly different requirements, and being able to successfully transfer something from one medium to another is, well, hard! It's a different kind of skill than crafting something from wholecloth, certainly. Some people have both; some only have one.

But frequently people speak as though a show being adapted from a movie (shows adapted from plays or books never seem to attract the same ire) is less-than, solely because of that fact. And that is something I strongly protest against.

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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

It's true that

It's true that original=good/adaptation=bad is a false dichotomy. But that's because there's nothing ACTUALLY all that original on Broadway, or Hollywood, or pop music, or whatever. Everything is based on, or at least inspired by, something else. Even Shakespeare retold stories he didn't invent.

That being said, I think The State of Musical Theater Today is kind of a joke. It's not because the typical shows aren't new stories, it's that the adaptations are uninspired versions of something else that has already proved to be a commercial success. Yes the Lion King is amazing, but it's amazing because the stage version TRANSCENDS the animated movie to become a wholly independent work of theater. Based on that success, Broadway spewed out stage musicals of Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Shrek, and more I'm probably forgetting that were all critically panned.

You list Little Shop of Horrors as an example of a stage adaptation, and while it's true that Little Shop is based on a movie, it's not based on the popular Rick Moranis 80's movie- THAT movie was based on the stage musical. The original inspiration was an obscure 40's film noire that the creators reworked into a musical, radically changing the plot, characterizations, and themes. You absolutely cannot say the same for something like Legally Blonde: the musical.

In my opinion, Little Shop of Horrors is original. The Lion King is original. West Side Story is original. Legally Blonde? no. The Addams Family? no.

There are far too many people who go to Broadway to see a movie star they know perform in a stage version of a movie they already know, and that is sad.

Well yes, but as I say in the

Well yes, but as I say in the post there are lazy, unoriginal musicals that aren't based on any particular source as well. And while Legally Blonde doesn't reinvent the source material, it is an enjoyable show in its own right, as is, say, The Wedding Singer. The Addams Family, based on Addams' original cartoons, is awful, but not because it's an adaptation--because the people who wrote it apparently had no grasp on the characters, created a cliche plot, and crafted forgettable music--all of which are problems that can befall an "original" show as well.

And yes, I do in fact know what movie Little Shop was based on. Please do give me some credit.

Largely agreeing

Yeah, I largely agree (as you may have guessed from the subject of this comment!). I suspect what may lie behind the frequent complaint about adaptations, at least in its more coherent form, is the worry that shows are (increasingly) getting funding and getting audiences on the strength of being versions of already well-known and successful films / books / whatever. That doesn't mean that those shows are bad, but it may mean — and I say 'may' because we'd really need to do some sort of systematic study to be confident either way — that equally good or even better shows, whether entirely original or adaptations of less high-profile originals, are not getting anywhere because producers stick with adaptations.

If people are making that criticism, then of course they shouldn't really frame it as 'adaptation versus original' but as 'cash-in adaptation versus other things'. Kiss of the spider woman, Passion, Little shop of horrors, and other examples you could have mentioned like Carousel, Sweeney Todd, Cats, and Wicked are all adaptations but you couldn't accuse them of being attempts to cash in on the success of a massively popular and lucrative original in the same way that Billy Elliott and Shrek plainly are. Even adaptations of fairly well-known originals like Phantom of the opera, Rent, or West Side story, although trading on the high profile of the original, are not in the same category of what does appear to be the currently booming category of stage versions of things that have very recently made a lot of money in another medium. There may (again I wouldn't go further than 'may') be legitimate reason to worry that this current trend could be reducing the over-all creativity (slightly different from originality) of Broadway and the West End. But, like you say, it certainly isn't a reason to criticize the quality of the individual shows.

PS: 'The lion king'

Having said all that, on the specific topic of The lion king I'll just say that I was a little frustrated that it wasn't more original. The staging, costumes, orchestration, choreography, puppetry, &c were brilliant and were without doubt much more inventive and novel than they could have been if the creative team had just been going for a quick cash-in on the film. But the plot, songs, and characters were all extremely closely based on the film, and even the costumes of the main characters looked very similar to their animated counterparts. For me that wouldn't have been a problem in itself — I like the film — except that it sat really uncomfortably in the very different visual and aural context the creative team had conjured up for the show as a whole. You start with that amazing opening that you've included a clip of, which creates this atmosphere with the graceful, stylized movements of the puppet-animals and the southern-African-sounding instrumentation and vocal harmonies and the way everything's made of loose-weave fabric and carved wood, and it's all so different from the original cartoon and very exciting, and that comes back from time to time throughout the show and is always sort of present in the set and the incidental stuff, but for most of the show what you're actually being asked to focus on are these brightly-coloured cartoonish characters singing what are very obviously Anglo-American pop songs. It just left me feeling frustrated. I wanted to see the show that the director and designer and choreographer and musical director would have made if they hadn't had Disney breathing down their necks.