Are Film-to-Stage Adaptations Lazy?

This past season, in response to the arrival of shows like Frozen and Mean Girls to the Great White Way, it seemed that there was a bit of blowback in the theatre community. On Tumblr, Twitter, and the musical-centric forum Broadway World, I saw many posts bemoaning the future state of Broadway. “Is Broadway becoming an amusement park attraction?!” fretful theatregoers cried. “Is true art being pushed aside in favor of lazy popcorn flick adaptations?!”

Comments like these usually come with the attitude that film-to-stage adaptations are inherently... well, lazy. Often brushed aside as soulless cash grabs, movies as musicals cause the discourse in the theatre community to flair up every time they open, allegedly taking up space that could have instead been occupied by new, inventive shows that change the game in theatre. Is this discourse warranted? Should movie-to-stage musicals have a place on Broadway? depends.

For starters, we need to acknowledge that films are not the only medium to have ever been adapted for the stage; in fact, musical theatre has always been swarming with shows adapted from other source materials. My Fair Lady is adapted from a little play called Pygmalion. Carousel is adapted from another play called Liliom. Les Misérables is adapted from the famous novel of the same name. Annie began as a comic strip. Jesus Christ Superstar is obviously from the Bible. The list could go on forever. Most of our favorite musicals are, in some way, translated to the medium from books, operas, cartoons, and even documentaries. If these are all valid adaptations that warrant endless praise and “classic” status for such musicals, then what makes the journey from screen to stage any different? Surely if a book being adapted for the stage is grounds for respect, then a film being adapted should have the same chance for success.

On the surface, that’s what I believe, because any musical that has a fighting chance of being a good piece of art should have its place on Broadway. However, I will also admit that I can see where film-to-stage adaptations have earned their “cashgrab” stigma compared to other kinds of adaptations. To explain my point, I’ll briefly take a look at a company that just may have the biggest reputation of cashgrabbing there is: Disney.

In the 90’s, Disney premiered Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, two Broadway musicals that went on to become smash hits, both in the United States and all over the world. In 2012, Newsies opened on Broadway, and the show became so successful that it changed its limited engagement into an open-ended run. These three musicals are good examples of shows that played around with the source material and worked hard to add something new to the stage, both in a way that ensures audiences won’t get the same product from just watching the film at home and in a way that keeps audiences satisfied with the knowledge that they just watched something worth the outrageous ticket price. The Lion King incorporated puppetry into the set and costumes that drew audiences into the theatre from all over. Beauty and the Beast made clever adjustments to the story, characters, and songs that justified its existence as a separate entity from the film. Newsies went through a major rehaul in its journey between mediums, switching out characters and taking pains to restructure the numbers and script into a style that best fits the large, over-the-top nature of a theatrical setting. In the case of all three of these shows, each offered a unique experience that couldn’t be found in other musicals, and each also made sure that the stage show wasn’t just a boring, carbon copy of the film it was based on.

However, while Disney had its fair share of hits, the company is also known for a few critical flops, as well. The Little Mermaid famously did poorly on Broadway, opening to lukewarm reviews and shuttering after less than two years. Tarzan is another failed show, closing on Broadway in even less time. And, while not doing terribly financially, Frozen is a recent example of a Disney musical that seems to not have charmed the critics the way its more kingly predecessors have in the past.

These flops didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but the most damning reason is the underlying feeling that each respective show didn’t offer a worthwhile theatre experience. Most criticisms of Frozen I’ve seen lie in the fact that the show just doesn’t do the work needed to justify audiences paying high ticket prices instead of watching the film at home, with many people pointing out that the story makes minimal and confusing changes, and the new songs just don’t have the same magic that was present in the film. The Little Mermaid, on the other hand, went through many story changes, but the set and costumes were presented in a cheap way that gave audiences the impression that they were watching a third grade pageant. Why spend money to see something with little effort when you could just pop in a DVD with gorgeous animation and catchy songs?

I think that, when the vitriol against movies-as-musicals comes up, it’s because people have musicals like The Little Mermaid in mind, not The Lion King. Popular movies-to-musicals that flop tend to do so because they either offer nothing new to the table, or they somehow make the quality of the source material worse. A show like these fails because, instead of taking advantage of the magic that theatre as a medium brings and taking the steps needed to adapt to the stage, it does no work to adapt successfully and only relies on the assumption that people will see the show if there’s a famous title slapped on the marquee. And, considering film is easily the most popular form of entertainment these days, it makes sense that lazy attempts to appeal to the nostalgic yearning of the masses will more often appear in the form of soulless adaptations of films that audiences love.

In summation? I don’t think movie-to-stage adaptations are inherently lazy, but I do think the medium has an unfortunate potential for lazy adaptations. Broadway could always use more beautiful and thought-provoking pieces like Waitress and The Band’s Visit, both of which are highly successful musicals based on thought-provoking films. If a musical has the potential to entertain audiences in a way that can’t more easily and cheaply be done in the living room, then I say that musical has every right to find a home on theatre’s most famous street. However, if a musical comes across as merely a clone or a cheaper product than its source material, then perhaps the producers should consider going back to the drawing board.

(Photos by Matthew Murphy and Joan Marcus)