A little over a month ago, I read an article on this site about how completely original musicals should not be held up above musicals based on pre-existing material, and I do not disagree. It did, though, renew my own thinking on the matter of original vs. adapted musicals, and also plays, which are not as frequently based on other works, but sometimes are. I wouldn’t trade Fun Home or Hands on a Hardbody for the world, but there is something thrilling about an In the Heights or a Curtains.
I like to read or view the pre-existing material of adapted musicals so that I can see how the transition was made, but I also love to see a completely original story unfold before me, for the first time anywhere, as a musical. There is room for both, but there should be distinct ways of recognizing them. In short, there should be Adapted Play and Adapted Book of a Musical categories in the Tonys and other theatre awards.
In that sense, they should be more like the Oscars, which has awards for Adapted and Original Screenplays. Several screenwriters have won both, including Joel and Ethan Cohen, and well-known Broadway writers Horton Foote and Alan Jay Lerner. At this time when Tony categories are being omitted from the telecast and retired all together, why should we add new ones? Incentive and insurance. Maybe there aren’t enough new plays or musicals in a season of these types to fill two categories, but perhaps the increased likelihood of a reward because of split competition would encourage an increase in entries.
Producers and writers of completely original material wouldn’t have to worry about competition with perhaps more popular/financially successful adapted productions, and producers and writers of musicals and plays adapted from popular properties wouldn’t have to worry about competition from wholly original works that industry insiders may favor for their originality, as Caleigh Derreberry’s article fears.
There is no need to worry about the score category. While a score might certainly be adapted for a musical, which is part of the process of creating jukebox musicals, it’s not the same as adapting spoken dialogue scenes, which are essentially the same in books, screenplays, and stage works. And while “Eye of the Tiger” may appear in the Rocky musical, most of the songs are written specifically for the stage production, which is already part of the qualifications for the Original Score Tony category. Coming up with an original story and dialogue that has never been exchanged in any form is different than putting a new spin on pre-existing material, just like writing songs to serve the story and dialogue is a distinctly creative process. Acknowledgement of these things at an official level, like distinct categories of Tony Awards, is perfectly fair.
Perhaps there is worry that one will become more prestigious than the other, namely the original category. That may well happen, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt the movie industry. There may also be some tough calls as far as which is which, especially where historically based material is concerned. That call is for the Tony committee to make. Tony Kushner was nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category for his work on Lincoln, and there was controversy. Lin-Manuel Miranda won’t have to face that kind of thing for Hamilton, since there is only one Book of a Musical category this time around, but he’d probably just win both anyway.
As Derreberry writes, adapted musicals are some of the most important musicals in the history of musicals, but there is nothing wrong with giving a little push to the completely original stage work genre. Things need to be shaken up every so often, on Broadway as much as anywhere.
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog at http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com, which features both completely original musicals and musicals based on pre-existing material, and loves them equally.