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.