Fair or not, when I think of movies that made the screen-to-stage transition, two notorious flops come to mind. The great screenwriter Bud Schulberg himself adapted his 1954 classic Brando morality tale On the Waterfront for Broadway in 1995, but neither Brando nor the film’s director Elia Kazan were around to help make the play anything close to a contender. The play lumbered through 24 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
At least Waterfront has been forgotten: Screen-to-stage musical flop Carrie, the $8 million blood bath from 1988, has long since become synonymous with Broadway disaster.
Both productions had their issues — and then some — but commenters at the time and rearview gawkers later were quick to point a finger at Hollywood and raise the question, “Why would anyone want to pay Broadway prices for something they could watch on the late show?”
But times change (uh, late show?). While Broadway critics (this one included) still grumble on occasion about movie rehashes, and audiences aren’t always quick to shell out cash for cinematic nostalgia (Groundhog Day bombed last year without recouping its reported $17.5 million capitalization), recent successes suggest Broadway’s “Hollywood stigma” is as quaint and outdated a notion as Hollywood stars resisting the call of the stage.
Since last spring, a slew of major screen-to-stage productions opened to critical acclaim, commercial strength or some degree of both. Joining a movie-based Broadway roster that already included acclaimed productions of Waitress and The Band’s Visit (though my guess is many ticket-buyers for those two might be hard-pressed to recall the films) were Mean Girls, Frozen, Pretty Woman and King Kong. Closing out the calendar year in smashing fashion, Network and To Kill a Mockingbird are slaying whatever dwindling cynicism about the West Coast remains on the East.
Last spring’s two big screen-to-stage musicals, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen, while not as lauded as Network or Mockingbird, were nonetheless appreciated by most critics and, more so, audiences as lighthearted entertainments that captured the spirits of their well-remembered source material. Mean Girls even managed to do so with a brash updating of the original’s 2004 setting to include social media and cyber bullying.
By the middle of December, eight months into its run, Mean Girls was filling seats at the August Wilson Theatre and grossing more than $1M a week. Disney’s Frozen, in its ninth month at the St. James Theater, was doing similar business – $1.9M for the week ending Dec. 16, pulling in family audiences that resisted the more unconventional and decidedly weirder SpongeBob SquarePants musical (that Tina Landau-directed musical closed in September after less than a year, failing to recoup its reported $18.35 million capitalization).
Though critics were less than impressed with Pretty Woman: The Musical – many, myself included, citing the dated sexual politics of the Businessman Meets Sex Worker, Businessman Loses Sex Worker, Businessman Gets Sex Worker tale that made Julia Roberts a star – ticket sales have been steady at the Nederlander. The most recent numbers available – for the week ending Dec. 16 – indicate a weekly box office take of $1.2M, a solid 86% of potential, with 94% of seats filled and a strong average ticket price of $133. Even holiday tourists seem ok with the racy material – though in the hands of book writers Garry Marshall and original screenwriter J.F. Lawton what could have been a sordid tale is as inoffensive as a ’70s sitcom.
On less sure ground is King Kong, the mixed-reviewed $35 million behemoth that, frankly, could be doing a lot worse given its critical reception. The most recent box office figure (all numbers courtesy of the trade group Broadway League) show that houses at the Broadway Theatre are about three-quarters full, with a $1M weekly gross at about 62% of its $1.6M potential. A $92 average ticket price is more in line with the long-running Kinky Boots than recent attention-getters like Network and Mockingbird.
Indeed, it’s those latter two shows that might do away with Broadway’s Hollywood curse once and for all. Even critics that didn’t love Network were head over heels for Bryan Cranston’s starring role as Howard Beale, and recent weeks have been sell-outs at the Belasco, with weekly grosses easily topping the $1M mark. The limited engagement is set through April 28, 2019, no doubt helping boost the gotta-buy feel.
Then there’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant, eccentric adaptation of the Harper Lee novel that opened Dec. 13 to rave reviews and is keeping Network company in the SRO $1M+ weekly box office neighborhood.
As to whether Mockingbird fits the movie-to-stage theme of this piece, let’s not quibble. While Sorkin and star Jeff Daniels distanced themselves from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 movie – successfully, it must be noted – the title alone can’t help but conjure memories of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in their career-defining roles. (Unlike the limited engagement – for now – Network, Mockingbird is in for the long haul – the cast, including star Daniels as Atticus Finch, is committed for a year).
Perhaps most surprising about the screen-to-stage successes are the differences each takes in approaching the source material. Producers intending to put a movie on the boards could have a tough time mining Broadway’s latest crop for hard-and-fast rules. Critics and industry folk might snark about plays and musicals that stick to close to the old screenplays – or snark when they don’t, as I did with Network – but movie favorites have an undeniable pull. Tinker at your own peril.
Some changes are necessary, of course. The producers of the new King Kong musical had little choice but to eliminate the 1933 movie’s racist portrayal of the Skull Island jungle inhabitants, and the recasting of Ann Darrow from screaming victim to plucky heroine was, if not always convincing, at least palatable.
Other adaptations of other movies , though, kept faithful to their primary sources in telling ways. The red ball gown worn by the title character of Pretty Woman, made famous by the film, makes an appearance in the musical that gets its very own round of applause.
“There’s a double edge in adapting a piece that audiences know and have feelings about,” says Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, the company that’s home to such screen-to-stage fare as Mean Girls, Frozen, Kinky Boots and the upcoming Moulin Rouge!. “It’s a very fine line where you want to be true to the things that audiences love in the source material, but also take us to a new place. That could be down to the very specifics, like what a character wears – Pretty Woman – or what a character says – Mean Girls. There’s a huge population that knows exactly what those lines in Mean Girls are, they know exactly what intonations were used to say them, and they have a very deep and real emotional connection to those lines.”
When I mentioned to Roth that Mockingbird audiences don’t seem to mind the considerable re-thinking that Sorkin has visited upon that work (nor did critics), Roth pointed out something I hadn’t considered: Today’s audiences, at least the younger theatergoers, just might be more familiar with Harper Lee’s book than with Robert Mulligan’s movie. Teachers can order a class to read a book, while parents can only beg the kids to sit through a black and white movie. And Sorkin’s adaptation, though revisionist in significant (and thrilling) ways, contains characters (Link Deas) and elements (old Mrs. Dubose’s virulent racism, for starters) that Mulligan dumped for the film.
Still, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone not knowing every beat of that film, from “good morning Mr. Cunningham” to “Hey Boo” (just as I’d be hard-pressed to recall exact intonations from Mean Girls – though, believe me, I have more than a few friends who’d have no trouble whatsoever).
Point being, turning a beloved film into a viable stage production is, at best, a gamble, critically and commercially, even when trends and recent successes suggest otherwise. When Clueless, The Musical opened Off Broadway earlier this month, reviews were mixed (particularly stinging: The New York Times‘ “affable but limp”). Despite the star appeal of lead Dove Cameron and the imprimatur of writer Amy Heckerling, the New Group production has yet to announce a Broadway transfer from the Off Broadway Pershing Square Signature Theater, where it runs through January 12.
Whether or not Clueless moves to Broadway, the lessons learned from screen to stage are tough to pin down. And the stakes are high, as producers of an upcoming batch of movie-turned-live projects know all too well. Whatever approach they’ll take – faithful, revisionist, sentimental or startling, the following list of high-profile Broadway productions will test whatever movie-to-stage wisdom exists. For now, they’ve at least made it past the rumor point (and so bid adieu to purgatory dwellers like Bull Durham, The Flamingo Kid, Beaches, All About Eve, Magic Mike, Dog Day Afternoon and A Star Is Born).
Beetlejuice: The reportedly $21 million musical Beetlejuice, directed by Alex Timbers with a score by Eddie Perfect, and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, begins previews at the Winter Garden on March 28, with an opening night set for April 25.
A pre-Broadway engagement at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., this fall didn’t conjure the sort of reviews that producer Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures might have hoped. The Washington Post was especially harsh, though Variety wasn’t much more embracing – both publications took star Alex Brightman to task for his over-the-top take on Michael Keaton’s 1988 movie performance, a situation that isn’t un-fixable with some reining in, said Variety.
Both publications noted a movie carry-over, though to different ends: The film’s classic “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” scene is recreated on stage to “delightful” effect, said Variety, while WaPo thought it “less funny” than the movie scene.
Tootsie: In for a less stressful winter are the producers of Tootsie, director Scott Ellis’ musical staging of the classic 1982 Sydney Pollack-Dustin Hoffman comedy, with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actor Santino Fontana earning critical raves for his lead performance as the cross-dressing Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels during the show’s pre-Broadway Chicago engagement this fall. With music and lyrics by David Yazbek (Tony winner for The Band’s Visit) and book by Robert Horn, Tootsie begins Broadway previews at the Marriott Marquis March 29, opening April 23.
Chicago reviews were ecstatic. “By the time he is done, I’ll wager this will go down as a truly great Broadway performance,” said the Chicago Tribune of Fontana. Wrote Variety, “Most everything here comes off with a vibrant musical-comedy zeal…”
Interestingly, the Tootsie creative team made a decision to tinker, modernizing the story and ditching the soap opera setting altogether (makes sense, given that soaps ditched New York years ago; still, dumping “How do you feel about Cleveland?” had to hurt). Instead, the struggling Michael finds success as Dorothy in the musical theater.
“Fans of the film Tootsie will find all of the elements that made it a classic comedy in the musical version,” lead producer Scott Sanders told Deadline. “A difficult, desperate actor creates a fictional character, Dorothy Michaels, to get a job because no one will hire him, and has to deal with the hilarious complications when the stunt goes better than even he expected.
“But the creative team has changed key aspects of the story – including updating the action from 1982 to modern day and setting the story backstage at a Broadway musical instead of behind the scenes at a soap opera – that make the musical feel like something entirely new. In our Chicago tryout we found that audiences who were not familiar with the title loved the musical as much as those who were huge fans of the film.”
Moulin Rouge! The Musical: Directed, as is Beetlejuice, by Alex Timbers, the reportedly $28 million Moulin Rouge! scored some fantastic pre-Broadway critical buzz during a Boston try-out last summer, with The New York Times‘ Ben Brantley coming back from Beantown with money-in-the–box-office quotes (“smart, shameless and extravagantly entertaining” and “This Moulin Rouge! captures the sensibility of a movie-loving movie in a theater lover’s language.”)
Based on Baz Luhrman’s 2001 Oscar-nominated movie musical, Moulin Rouge! begins previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theater June 28, opening July 29. Starring Aaron Tveit, Karen Olivo and Danny Burstein, the musical, like the movie, features hit songs, this time around including the likes of Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine, OutKast, Lorde, Sia, Beyoncé, Pink, Britney Spears, Adele and Katy Perry.
Here are my picks for the best Broadway productions of the calendar year. And note what a strong year it’s been for newly staged plays – The Ferryman and Harry Potter to Lobby Hero and To Kill a Mockingbird all provided solid drama. Any other year would have been happy to land a couple of them. Even The Lifespan of A Fact, an interesting if flawed work, was made memorable by its starry, convincing cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale; the play recouped it capitalization recently. Carousel was the sole musical that made my Broadway Top 10 list, with worthy, well-performed contenders like My Fair Lady, Mean Girls and Frozen getting edged out by an unusually strong roster of dramas. (Keep reading, though, for a ringer from Off Broadway).
- The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes
- Harry Potter And The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, directed by John Tiffany
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin from the Harper Lee novel, directed by Bartlett Sher
- Three Tall Women by Edward Albee, directed by Joe Mantello
- The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lila Neugebauer
- Angels In America by Tony Kushner, directed by Marianne Elliott
- Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Trip Cullman
- Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, directed by Jack O’Brien
- Travesties by Tom Stoppard, directed by Patrick Marber
- The Boys In The Band by Mart Crowley, directed by Joe Mantello
Since this list is limited to Broadway (and since I missed some notable Off Broadway productions including Broadway-bound Oklahoma! and What The Constitution Means To Me, I’ll mention in this p.s. that the New York Theatre Workshop’s provocative Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O’Hara and running through Jan 13, was a surprise through every minute of its two hours, and the Public Theater’s haunting Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson with a score of Bob Dylan songs, was easily the best musical I saw in 2018.
So why no Network? Because other than Bryan Cranston’s performance as Howard Beale, the Ivo van Hove staging was a massive disappointment. What can I say? I loved the movie.