It’s a Musical!

If I were capable of feeling shame, this might be my guilty pleasure, but there’s no guilt involved. I like musicals. It’s just a damn shame that I can’t sing or dance, because I’d love to be in musical theater. I often listen to musicals at work, sometimes old classics like Camelot or Chicago, sometimes more obscure works like Threepenny Opera, or recent shows like Something Rotten, and every so often I go looking for stuff I didn’t know existed. Some of it is on the odd side.

One thing I’ve noticed is just how many recent musicals are based on films. That’s nothing new, of course; Promises Promises; Applause; Silk Stockings; 42nd Street; La Cage Aux Folles, and A Little Night Music were all based on films (specifically, The Apartment; All About Eve; Ninotchka; 42nd Street; La Cage Aux Folles and its American remake The Birdcage, and Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, if you must know), and some of them are better as musicals. But then I run across some of the lesser-known adaptations and have to wonder who thought they were good ideas. (In some cases, it turned out to be a very good idea.) Right now, there’s a musical adaptation of Tootsie playing on Broadway. Here are a few shows you may have missed:

Heathers

Here’s a chipper musical based on the cult film Heathers, in which (SPOILER) Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater happily murder their classmates. Sure, why not?

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day: The Musical is actually better than I expected, due mostly to Tim Minchin‘s brilliant songs. (He also wrote the songs for the big hit Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl book.) Probably my favorite part is the song they give to Nancy, the pretty girl whose manipulative seduction by Phil is a throwaway joke in the film; here she gets to actually be a person. For that matter, so does Rita, the Andie MacDowell character, whose “If I had My Time Again” is a pretty solid number. I will warn you that the Punxsutawney Phil theme song will eat into your brain.

Mean Girls

Mean Girls is another musical that’s better than expected. Of course, Tina Fey’s script for Mean Girls (the film) had some pretty solid story beats, so it makes sense that the show would work. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we get a two-pack of this and the Legally Blonde musical. And then somebody will write a musical version of Easy A and the world will collapse upon itself.

Meet John Doe

Frank Capra’s Depression-era classic Meet John Doe makes for a pretty solid show. Heidi Blickenstaff also stole the show as Beatrice in Something Rotten, with a similarly-themed song, “Let Me Be Your Right-Hand Man.”Unfortunately, it appears this show never made it to a cast album, and there are only a few clips on YouTube. Pity.

King Kong

Unfortunately, it appears the 26-foot-tall leading man was just too expensive to make the show commercially viable. It doesn’t help that there are really only two good songs, “Queen of New York” and this one, “Full Moon Lullaby.” So far there’s no sign of a cast album yet.

Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s silent classic isn’t silent anymore. Too bad the music and lyrics are pretty forgettable. The clip above is from the 1989 London production, but the show was later edited and restaged in Oregon in 2002. The whole show is up on YouTube.

Eating Raoul

Somehow this bizarre cult film about suburban cannibalism became the basis for a musical. Go figure.

The Last Starfighter

The songs are somewhat uneven, but the cast album is pretty good anyway. Possibly one of the more unnecessary shows of recent years, but it has its moments, especially for fans of the great film starring Robert Preston.

My Favorite Year

Tim Curry played Alan Swann in the original 1992 production of the musical adaptation of My Favorite Year, one of my favorite films. KC’s role gets expanded a bit. They even got Lainie Kazan to reprise her role as Benjy’s mother.

Barbarella

Why? Why does this exist? The only clips I could find are in German, but that doesn’t really matter, because none of it’s going to make a lick of sense anyway. It’s Barbarella. It’s not supposed to make sense.

Bring it On

If you ever wondered what Lin-Manuel Miranda was doing in between In the Heights (2005) and Hamilton (2015), wonder no more. Among other things, he co-wrote the Broadway version of Peyton Reed’s 2000 cheerleader movie. Like several others on this list, it’s surprisingly better than expected, and it has some fairly pointed commentary on race, class, and culture clashes.

Silence!

Yep, Silence of the Lambs with songs and dances. Hello, Clarice. Thank God it’s a parody.

*****

Possibly the worst attempt at turning a film into a musical has to be the aborted Batman adaptation by Jim Steinman, based on Tim Burton’s 1987 film. The story goes that Warner Bros, looking at the piles of money Disney was making from their Beauty & the Beast  musical, commissioned Steinman to write the show, but after hearing a handful of demos, they pulled the plug. Naturally, as is his habit, Steinman repurposed, recycled, and cannibalized practically every song for use elsewhere, including his own “greatest hits” jukebox musical, Bat Out of Hell. Here’s a video pairing clips of the songs with scenes from the films. This set of songs is the only thing in my music collection that will make my bride leave the room.

Aside from films turned into musicals, a lot of books have also made the transition, including Camelot (The Once and Future King), The King and I (Anna and the King of Siam), Wicked, Les Miserables, and a bunch more. Of course there would be some oddball literary choices too….

Pipe Dream

Steinbeck wrote Sweet Thursday, his sequel to Cannery Row, specifically to be adapted to the stage by Rodgers & Hammerstein. The producers got squeamish when it came to having the leading lady be a prostitute, so they chickened out and worked so hard to hide her profession that it pretty much made the whole plot incomprehensible and pointless.

Red Ranger Came Calling

My all-time favorite Christmas book, Red Ranger Came Calling, was turned into a musical by Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre, which exists to adapt literature into stage plays. Somebody find me a theater. I want to play the elf.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Recently, after having re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (what the hell are you waiting for? Go read it! I’ll wait. Hell, the audiobook is only like 5 hours), I went looking for some quotes to cut and paste instead of re-typing for my Tomorrowland post; in my googling, I was reminded that there’s a musical.

It seems that way back in 1979, a young songwriter named Howard Ashman wanted to adapt Vonnegut’s book, somehow got permission, and went looking for a composer to work with. He found a guy by the name of Alan Menken, and they wrote their show. It ran a little over 60 performances and disappeared, probably because the national mood at the time was not receptive to hopeful stories about people being kind. So the two sat down and wrote another show, an adaptation of a really cheesy low-budget horror movie called Little Shop of Horrors. This darker, more cynical story, being more in keeping with the zeitgeist, became a big hit musical, Disney came calling, and the rest is history.

Scene from 'God Bless You, Mister Rosewater' production.
“Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade, thank Christ for the crime of arson….”

Some three decades and change later, the show was restaged as part of the Encores series, and a cast album was finally recorded. Santino Fontana does a great job, and the songs are perfect.

Okay, what musicals have I missed?

7 Comments

  1. Probably the weirdest concept is for a musical I’m aware of os Scottsboro Boys, based on the infamous case from the 1930s. I only know because we have Sirius Broadway in the car (which gives my wife something to mutter about when I’m in control of the dial). Which makes me aware of a lot of the ones here.
    Well, that and the 1970s musical The Lieutenant, about My Lai.
    Also weird, but much better, is the HP Lovecraft Society’s parody, “Shoggoth on the Roof.” Hysterical, particularly if you know Fiddler on the Roof (“To life, to life I bring them/I bring dead people to life!”).
    My theater-loving niece and I watched a DVD of “Legally blonde” back when she was a kid. When the sorority sisters announced they’d be appearing in fantasy sequences to comment on what was happening I immediately said “Oh, they’re a Greek chorus.” Paige looked at me like I was psychic (“HOW did you guess?”).
    For Metropolis they could do worse than the Moroder soundtrack for the 1980s re-release.
    The musical I most wish I could find the soundtrack of is “Angry Housewives,” a 1980s show about four housewives who find success as a punk band with the song “Eat Your Fucking Cornflakes.” My old theater group did it some years back, and I really like it.
    I’ve been in a few musicals but only chorus or (once) a small singing role.

  2. Le Messor

    I used to go through the soundtrack sections at local CD stores when I was trying to collect up the soundtracks to all the movies I own (I stopped because, well, I got all the ones it’s possible to get).

    I started to wonder if Broadway was going through IMDb from A-Z. Apart from some of the ones you’ve listed (most of which I hadn’t heard of, and am amazed exist) I saw soundtracks for stage musicals of:
    Xanadu (okay, fair enough, it’s already a musical)
    Ghost
    Shrek
    Edward Scissorhands
    Was there a Beetlejuice as well? Don’t rightly remember.

    I also have a friend who says, if they insist on re-making The Princess Bride, they should do that as a stage musical. The big love song will be As You Wish, there’ll be a song called Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya, the titles just write themselves.
    It opens with the houselights going down, and the spotlight hits a grandfather and grandson in the audience, the grandson complaining about being dragged to this musical…

  3. My brother played the duke in a community theater production of Shrek. He was great, but I don’t love the musical version itself.
    Le Messor, I love your idea for a Princess Bride musical.
    Maybe my dream of writing Beowulf — the Musical isn’t as meshuggah as I always thought.

  4. humanbelly

    Yep, Beetlejuice was (is?) a very recent Broadway offering.

    BAT-BOY: THE MUSICAL has been such a successful “cult” hit that it’s very nearly a mainstream musical at this point– and it really is quite entertaining with a wide mix of pop/rock/musical theater song styles.

    Another one that is largely overlooked– and is COMPLETELY brilliant and delightful– is BY JEEVES– based on PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves&Wooster stories. Music by. . . (get this) Andrew Lloyd Weber–!! If you see the cast CD, pick it up, as it embraces the “recording” convention, and is wonderfully entertaining in its own right.

    Not particularly a fan of musicals that are written seemingly to cash-in on the popularity of a film or television show, me. Although it doesn’t mean the talent involved is lacking or that the finished product is poor. I also can’t bear the Disneyfication of the current Broadway firmament. . . leaves me stone-cold. (Although again– not that I fault anyone doing it or working on it—)
    (I have a daughter who could very well end up in that genre of production–)

    HB

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