- New York Columnist
By now, we’re pretty used to Hollywood recycling the same titles over and over again. There are countless adaptations of Jane Eyre, countless reboots of Universal monster properties, and we’ve now had three people playing different versions of Spider-Man in major movies in less than fifteen years. In musical theatre, this is less common. Revivals use the same material to shed new light on themes and characters through new interpretations, but no one has written a completely new version of The Sound of Music or Hair for the stage. There are no “other” musicals about Tevye the Dairyman. There are some famous exceptions: there are two musicals based on Joseph Moncure March’s poem The Wild Party, one by Andrew Lippa (1997) and the other Michael John LaChiusa (2000), though only LaChiusa’s ever played on Broadway; and there are two musicals based on the final days of the life of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and Godspell, by Stephen Schwartz, which both played the New York stage for the first time in 1971. All four of those musicals are cult classics at the very least, twins that are pretty much equally known. Other such pairings have significantly more lopsided reputations.
(Note Bene: I cast no aspersions on the lesser known of these musicals by my use of the term “Evil Twins” in the title. As The Simpsons has taught us, the lesser-known twin is not always the evil one, and musicals by their nature are rarely evil. It’s just a very October-y, Halloween-y, click-bait-y title, and I liked it and I wanted to use it. This has been your insight into blogging for the day.)
5. This Sunday, a history making stage adaptation of Disney’s animated movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which stars John McGinty, the first deaf actor ever to play the deaf hunchback Quasimodo, will close in Los Angeles. Originally intended for a Broadway production, the show darkened the story from the movie, bringing it more in line with that from the original novel. But there was already a dark and gritty, dare I say sexy, faithful musical adaptation of the novel that originated in the city of the novel’s setting, Paris, France, and played in Las Vegas in 2000. This one was by Riccardo Cocciante (music) and Luc Plamondon (lyrics and book), with English lyrics by Will Jennings. Notre-Dame de Paris has played all over the world, including on the West End, but has yet to approach New York. Even if the Disney version, by musical theatre legends Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, never plays Broadway, its association with Disney alone will make it the more well known of the two (and the more often produced around the United States).
4. While we’re on the subject of musicals about disfigured men who hide for years in beautiful old buildings in Paris to avoid being seen and ridiculed by society until they fall in love with women they see performing but have to compete for their affection with more conventionally handsome men, The Phantom of the Opera. There are two. You know what the well-known one is, I don’t even have to say it (hint: by the same guy who wrote one of the Jesus musicals). But there is a lesser-known one, and I’m not even talking about the musical sequel, Love Never Dies. In 1983, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, who wrote the score and book for Nine respectively, were commissioned to write a musical based on the Gaston Leroux monster novel about the subterranean songsmith. Webber had the idea in 1984, and by 1986 his was a hit. Yeston and Kopit kept working despite this, and their version made its debut in Texas in 1991, but never played Broadway. Yeston was skeptical that the story could work as a musical, and they made the Phantom more of a Quasimodo kind of character for their version, which was called Phantom. Fortunately, he was wrong, but unfortunately for him, it was someone else’s fortune.
3. Sticking with monsters, Dracula. Bram Stoker’s ultimate vampire has been on Broadway quite frequently, but only once in a musical based on his own story (and before that, it was the first thing that I ever tried to turn into a musical). The Broadway musical was by the prolific writer of adventure musicals, Frank Wildhorn, with lyrics and dialogue by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. In the case of Dracula musicals, it may be more a case of triplets or quadruplets than twins, but the twin sibling musical I’m going to focus on is the one with music by Carter Cathcart, who has done many voices on Pokémon and the cast recording of Possessed: The Dracula Musical (he sings nearly all of the male parts). In Possessed, Dracula is a record producer named Mr. Webb and his possessed servant, Renfield, is an aspiring rock musician. It’s an alternative take, but the music sounds exactly like the music one would imagine for a Dracula musical.
2. Leaving monsters, but sticking with Frank Wildhorn, the man has written so many musicals that one or two more were bound to overlap, and one other does. Back in the 2011-12 season, Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde played Broadway and Hunter Foster’s Bonnie and Clyde played Laurenceville, Georgia. Yes, Broadway star Hunter Foster, brother of Sutton, wrote a musical about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow with his friend and former Urinetown castmate Rick Crom. It had previously played the New York Musical Theatre Festival. As with the non-Wildhorn Dracula musical, this version, Bonnie and Clyde: A Folktale, was less traditional in its presentation. It played as an annual pageant, in which citizens of a southern town re-enact the story of Bonnie and Clyde as a “historically dubious ‘good ol’ musical about the bad ol’ days.” It was on the ridiculous side. Come to think of it, I haven’t really left monsters: Bonnie and Clyde were pretty monstrous.
1. Now I leave the monsters, but don’t let your guard down yet: here there be pirates. When you read the words “Peter Pan musical,” the version by Jule Styne and Moose Charlap (music) and Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green (lyrics) with dialogue from the original play by J. M. Barrie probably springs to mind like Mary Martin through a large pair of shutters. You probably watched that musical on either the Mary Martin or Cathy Rigby home video versions, or the Allison Williams/Christopher Walken version that NBC broadcast live a few years ago. Maybe you saw it on Broadway, on tour, or at your local children’s theatre, and cringed when the Indians came on stage and started doing their songs. But there is another Peter Pan musical, one that actually did play on Broadway, like its more well-known twin, and here’s the kicker: it came first. The Mary Martin version came around in 1954. The one with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein (dialogue from Barrie’s original) opened in 1950 and closed in ’51. It’s a little weird that it happened that way, but it did. Only five songs were used in the original production, but the whole score is available on a 2005 studio cast recording. Interesting bit of trivia: in the Bernstein version, the dual roles of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling were played by Boris Karloff, who played the iconic version of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the iconic version of The Mummy in 1932. Confound it with these monsters! It really must be October. I had better mention the wolf-man, the invisible man, and the gill-man just for good measure. Guess which one of those three has his very own musical…
So how do twin musicals happen? Well, for one thing, not everybody knows what everybody else is doing at all times. If more than one person has an idea for something, which is common with popular properties, more than one person will make a musical out of it. I was surprised, for instance, a few years ago, after reading Erik Larson’s excellent non-fiction novel about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, The Devil in the White City, that there are already two musicals based on the same subject matter, one by Julia Gytri and Avi Amon, the other by June Finfer and Elizabeth Doyle (the latter one, simply called The White City: A Musical, is not based on the book, just the history the book covers). Great minds think alike. Before Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical based on Sunset Boulevard, Stephen Sondheim gave it a lot of thought, although in this case, if one had written it, the other probably wouldn’t have. As Matilda closes on Broadway and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opens, another musical based on a Roald Dahl book waits in limbo. The Dahl estate has decided to explore more options before allowing Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s adaptation of James and the Giant Peach to move to the big time. Perhaps it will be reworked and move on, perhaps another will be written more to the liking of the estate, and Pasek and Paul’s will become the “Evil Twin.” New and different interpretations keep art vital, so it is a good thing that artists don’t let themselves be intimidated by the success of pieces similar to what they want to do, if they think they can bring something to a known story that’s not already there. It shouldn’t be done to death, like with so many superheroes, but it should be welcomed and explored on the stage.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) on his personal blogs, and has written a yet unpublished musical theatre novel. His writing can also be seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and Medium.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.