In Defense of Musical Adaptations of Films

Lewis Baird

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, there are some god awful musicals out there that are based on motion pictures that have no justification as to why they have been created. However, there are some musical adaptations of films that are magical and we totally did not see the transfer working well at all.

The theatre is a place where many people expect to enter and be entertained with something that is different from their average soap opera they see on TV or a huge blockbuster they see at the cinema. Well for the last few decades, the theatre has been welcoming in hundreds of musical adaptations of films. Which is making some productions seem unoriginal and when we watch these musicals we get a sense of déjà vu.

Déjà vu isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, I mean if they were so successful the first time then why not use it again and just add onto it? The Lion King definitely worked in that aspect. This musical had pretty much the same script as the feature film, however, the Disney creative team and Julie Taymor added onto the gigantic hit based loosely on Hamlet, set in the African savannah. This musical could have been a massive flop. I mean how the hell can you get humans to look like animals from the African bush? Taymor came up with the idea of masks and puppets, and some mechanic props to transfer a stage into pride rock and the areas that surround the setting of this hit Disney film. There was also some brilliant additional music created only for the stage show, such as Grasslands Chant, The Morning Report, Chow Down, One by One, Shadowland, Endless Night and they brilliantly included He Lives In You from the lion king sequel Simba’s pride they even created a brilliant reprise which still gives me goosebumps to this date (it’s been thirteen years since I first  saw the show). The Lion King needed to be created into a musical, it is better than the film and definitely an extraordinary piece of theatre.

Other adaptions that stick very closely to their films are Billy Elliot The Musical, a brilliant show which is highly successful with the same director Stephen Daldry, music by Elton John with music and lyrics by Lee Hall. It is hugely successful due to the way it sticks very closely to working-class views from northern England within the 1980s, Billy’s journey to become a dancer is intensified on stage and the music is so diverse, it’s glorious. It felt like it had a purpose within a theatre and fitted in perfectly. Monty Python’s Spamalot is based on the hilarious classic film Monty Python and the holy grail, that was a film nobody seen being transformed into a musical. Even though it is cheesy and at some a bit tacky, it is hilariously brilliant with a script very similar to the original motion picture and a fantastic list of comedic music by Eric Idle and John DuPrez. This is what I would call a spoof musical, another film which was transferred into a musical with pretty much an identical script just with additional music was Shrek the musical. The same story but with a brilliant score of music which is definitely satirical, with references to several other hit musicals. Shrek the musical was an alright production, there were some aspects of it which worked well and some which didn’t.

But as a piece of theatre for families, it worked excellently, many children and adults who had never seen a musical or stepped foot in a theatre were booking tickets. Or thanks to Warner Bros, they were able to enjoy this musical on their TV through Netflix or DVD. The production was fairly successful therefore I would say it worked well as a musical, definitely didn’t expect it to be a hit but hey ho! Another musical which was very much alike its film is of course Legally Blonde the musical! Yes, the hit chick flick starring Reece Wetherspoon got a musical adaptation and it was fabulous! The music by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe is fun, flirty and bursts with girl power at points. It’s possibly the best chick flick musical out there (second to Mamma Mia! Of course!). I must admit the main reason I love this musical is because Sheridan Smith played the role in the UK and listening to her in the original west end cast recording, really does the show justice. These musical adaptations all stuck close to their original films that burst into cinemas, and they transitioned into theatres very successfully, which made their flip of the medium have purpose.

Mary Poppins is a brilliant film, starring the wonderfully elegant Julie Andrews and the hilariously energetic Dick Van Dyke. Many people did not see the purpose for a musical as it would be unable to compete with the film based on P.L Travers’ bestselling children’s books. Well, not when you’ve got Downton Abbey writer, Julian Fellowes doing the book for the musical! The story from the original film was reworked to be made more suitable for stage, which worked stunningly. The story was basically the same however the adapted the storyline by making the children, Jane and Michael, naughtier, Mr. Banks sterner, Mrs. Banks lonelier, the staff funnier, Bert lovelier and Mary Poppins, well she was sassier! With all the original musical with some extras from the original musicians, Robert B. Sherman, Richard M. Sherman with newbies to the team, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. This motion picture definitely works better as a musical, seeing Mary Poppins fly was breath taking and just added to the spectacle.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory/Matilda (both based mainly on books by Road Dahl, The Bodyguard, The Wizard of Oz, 9 to 5, Finding Neverland, Sister Act and Hairspray are all based on motion pictures, all of these musicals are/were highly successful. They are all also critically acclaimed, (apart from Charlie on Broadway, I have no idea what's going wrong there, the west end production was great). There are many more musicals based on films, some of them may be flops but a large proportion of them are successful because they are adding on to something that was successful in the first place. Even with major changes, with a good creative team, a fantastic score and characters that can be transferred onto stage well, they won’t fail to attract an audience.

Many theatregoers will say that they are unoriginal and needless, however, all of the above productions prove that musical adaptations of films, work within theatre!

P.S any producers reading this, Polar Express the musical should be a thing. That is all.