Movies Moving into Musicals: Why So Many New Broadway Hits Started Out on the Screen

Santino Fontana and company in "Tootsie" at the Marquis Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

Santino Fontana and company in "Tootsie" at the Marquis Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

  • Eli Azizollahoff

“Lights. Curtain. Action!”

Besides being a bad pun, this silly play on words has begun to feel like an all too poignant reality when looking at the shows currently running on Broadway. One of the major draws of Broadway is the creativity and effort that goes into every stage of producing a show; from writing, to set, to costume, to lights, everything takes thought and effort to make it looks as seamless and magical as it does once it hits the stage. It's odd then, in an industry so centered around individuality and creativity, why over half the shows currently running on Broadway are adaptations of some other work, and almost a third of the shows are based on movies. In a world to dedicated to unique art, why lie on the laurels of another work’s success?

One of the first stops for anyone visiting New York is Times Square. It was about ten years ago when you could walk down 44th street and see massive billboards featuring In the Heights, Guys and Dolls, and Memphis: A New Musical. The only notable movie adaptation in 2009 was a stage rendition of 9 to 5, the film that originally starred beloved country singer, Dolly Parton. Ten years before that, there were a handful of shows based off of books running, but none notably based off of movies.

Today, though, if you venture down Sixth Ave. You are bound to be faced with a thirty-foot hot pink sign advertising Mean Girls, another billboard for Frozen, and yet another set of flashing light advertising Pretty Woman, to name a few. In fact, almost a dozen film-based musicals are set to premiere in 2019 alone. These shows include titles like Tootsie, August Rush, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Devil Wears Prada, and Clueless.

Clueless: The Musical, starring Disney’s Dove Cameron, recently completed an off-Broadway run as a jukebox musical (a musical made up of pre-existing songs organized and rewritten to fit a plot. Think Mama Mia!). Upon its rise to Broadway, this show will be completing the cult-classic-pink-popular-girl-rom-com movie to musical quad-fecta, with Heathers, Mean Girls, and Legally Blonde as its cohorts. These movies were each individually cult classics with a similar energy of pink, blonde, and empowered female leads and received phenomenal success on the Broadway stage, once adapted.

It may be exciting, hearing these names of films and stories you recognize hitting the stage, and that is some of the appeal to the theater industry that drives them to do this. Broadway has a very niche demographic; there are only so many people who fully appreciate all the talent and effort that goes into two hours of people singing and dancing around a stage in over-the-top costumes.

Movies fall on the opposite end of that spectrum; they are beloved by almost everyone and reach international acclaim because they are not confined to halls of a theater. It is by tapping into the fame and success of these stories that are already so beloved, and the recognition that goes along with that, that the Broadway world is able to attract an audience who wouldn’t generally be drawn to a musical.

To many who are not engrossed in musical theater, showtunes are a nerdy niche, theater is an obscure high-brow experience, and seeing a musical is very rarely something someone wants to fit into their time and budget. When you draw on the recognition of successful films though, it draws in the people who grew up watching them, because they want to see how their favorite movie thrives in such a different medium. This is a similar motivation as the one behind all the movies based off of dystopian YA fiction; if the book has readers, the movie will have viewers, even if it is just to see what the filmmakers did wrong or right.

The rise of these musical adaptations can possibly be attributed to the rise of social media and a culture of instant gratification. In a society where every book or movie you want is at the tap of a button, where a face to face conversation is one chat away, and where you have all the world’s knowledge, music, and entertainment at your fingertips, it has gradually become harder and harder to convince people to venture out of their homes and to shell out a good deal of money, in order to come watch live theater. The Broadway world has tried to keep up with these societal shifts the best it can, using screens and visuals on stage, running active social media campaigns, and releasing the cast albums for streaming, but that isn’t necessarily enough to actually bring people in and finance the continual production of such high-budget entertainment.

What will compel people to come see a show though, is if they recognize it? If they have listened to the music or are familiar with the plot, they will be more likely to venture out and see this entertainment in a medium that isn’t their general choice. The theater fandom is a strong and incredible community, but it is not financially strong enough to keep all of Broadway running on its own. The theater world looks to its fans to spread the love for the lesser known shows so that Broadway isn’t exclusively filled with film titles.

The beautiful thing about this trend in Broadway though, is that, despite the lack of originality in new stories, the theater world is filled with some of the most talented creative minds on the planet; people who would not stand idly by and sit on the laurels of the movies’ previous successes. That is why, in this theatrical world that honors unique ideas and the seeking of individuality, all of these adaptations have been worked by the loving hands of these wonderfully creative minds into entities that do not just do honor to the original title’s name but often surpass them.

In cases like Heathers, many young Broadway fans will have heard of the show before learning of the 80’s classic film and will then venture to watch the movie after falling in love with the musical. Along with this, many people, myself included, will come back from seeing a musical based off a movie and will immediately go re-watch the film in order to see which parts were different, how they transferred movie magic on to the stage, or if the stage production changed anything distinctly from the movie. In these ways, the success of the films and the success of the musicals actually benefit each other in a communitive way.

Despite the critics who say Broadway has lost its unique spirit by producing less entirely original content, this trend is worthwhile because it takes these genius movies and makes them all the more dazzling by adding the detail and nuance only found on the stage. It does not strip away the wonder of theater, but rather adds that three-dimensional brilliance to the two-dimensions of a movie. Movies being turned into musicals makes great entertainment even better, and it gives people the motivation to come see a show they may have missed out on because they don’t usually turn to theater as their major source of entertainment.