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Second Take: Broadway must ditch musical film adaptations for original stories

(Alston Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

By Reid Sperisen

May 14, 2024 11:32 a.m.

This post was updated May 14 at 8:36 p.m.

Mainstream movie musicals are taking over the theater at an alarming rate, even faster than an Andrew Lloyd Webber hook can weave its way into your psyche.

The stage-to-screen adaptation pipeline has long been a successful path for producing imaginative retellings of popular stories, as evidenced by 21st-century Oscar winners such as “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.” The reverse channel from screen to stage has yet to bear comparable artistic fruit and is exacerbating the increasing obsolescence of contemporary theater.

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In recent years, an overabundance of film-to-stage adaptations has emerged on Broadway, especially among musicals. Two of the five nominees for Best Musical at next month’s Tony Awards – “The Outsiders” and “Water for Elephants” – have previously been presented as films, with both being box office successes packed with A-list stars. The relative absence of original musicals is not exclusive to productions being shown in New York City. A quick scroll through the Hollywood Pantages Theatre’s upcoming 2024 headliners reveals that musicals based on yesteryear’s beloved classics “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Back to the Future,” both of which have debuted on Broadway in the past few years, will take the stage in Los Angeles for several weeks.

At first glance, the presence of more film-to-stage musicals may not seem too worrisome. After all, the majority of this year’s Best Musical nominees are still telling new stories, and films such as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Back to the Future” are both more than 30 years old. What is wrong with imbuing the stage with a well-meaning spirit of nostalgia? The grave problem with this outlook is that without pushing forward original content and encouraging fresh waves of creativity, modern theater will continue to grow even further out of touch with the broader cultural pulse it so desperately hopes to connect with.

Broadway theater at large is in deep trouble in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with attendance for the 2022-2023 season down by 17% and box office revenue tumbling by 27% compared to the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 season. The surge in film-to-stage musical productions may be a reactive consequence by Broadway as it scrambles to find material that the general public is familiar with and may consider paying to see live. It is no secret that the high-brow snobbery of the theater, long considered to be a largely inaccessible art form compared to film and television, has struggled to steadily engage audiences. With ticket prices for the aforementioned “Mrs. Doubtfire” starting around $45, it is undeniably a hard sell for the average American to leave the comfort of their couch and take a gamble on a theatrical production.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that theater definitely needs recognizable titles in its regular rotation to reliably sell tickets and stay financially afloat. For example, “The Lion King” was an adaptation of Disney’s 1994 animated film and has gone on to become the highest-grossing musical in history. Likewise, “Wicked” has developed a fervent fanbase thanks to its fantastical restructuring of “The Wizard of Oz” to tell the story of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Alongside these perennial Broadway favorites, it can be difficult for new, original plays to break through into mainstream culture and find a place in the broader zeitgeist. Easily, the most successful original Broadway musical of the past decade has been the viral sensation “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury debuted in 2015 and has since transcended the limitations of the stage. “Hamilton” was immortalized in a 2020 Disney+ recording and connected audiences who may have never visited a theater through its endlessly catchy hip-hop-infused soundtrack album, which was the 11th most popular LP of the 2010s decade.

On the surface, the runaway success of “Hamilton” may appear to be a beacon of hope for the vitality and viability of new musicals. However, the enormous popularity of “Hamilton” is sadly closer to an anomaly than the norm. Dozens of other productions have been overshadowed by “Hamilton” over the past several years, some of which were undoubtedly worthy of receiving the same degree of frenetic mainstream furor. Unfortunately for live musicals, becoming a slow-burning sleeper hit or a grassroots indie favorite is next to impossible when ticket sales dictate a piece’s potential, and capturing lightning in a bottle will remain an elusive lucky strike.

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Even if new musicals are inherently risk-taking and hold no guarantee of profitability, that does not mean multiple adaptations of one story should be on Broadway simultaneously. Does there really need to be two versions of “The Great Gatsby” on stage at the same time? Even one active reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel seems excessive, especially when the book has already sold more than 25 million copies and been retold in four different film adaptations. Despite the fact that the revisionist musical “& Juliet” is currently on Broadway, another version of “Romeo and Juliet” starring Rachel Zegler will hit the stage this fall. No matter how desperate Broadway is to peddle tickets, it is an egregious miscalculation to present multiple versions of the same story at once.

The only hope for Broadway’s survival is to throw its remaining resources into the cultivation and development of original musicals. The enduring love for “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Hamilton” cements that there is a palpable hunger for musical theater, and as one of the oldest forms of live performance, the stage will always hold some level of entertainment value. With this in mind, Broadway must muster up the courage to take more risks, as the best art is arguably made when swinging for the fences, or at the very least, introducing unique ideas. Broadway needs to prove to theatergoers that it can excel beyond its tired rehashes of other source material.

Originality and creativity will always hold the greatest degree of artistic credibility and respect, so Broadway needs to rearrange its priorities if it hopes to remain culturally relevant.

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