David Gritten, in a recent article in the UK Telegraph, bemoans the trend towards creating stage musicals from well-known films. I am fighting my instinct to go all Pollyana on him and flail about defending the Kinky Boots and Once-s of the world. But in truth, what gets my Irish up is not his opinion - he's absolutely entitled, and welcome, to it. What sets my theater-loving teeth on edge is the closed mind it reflects. My plea with respect to the arts, theater especially, is to try to avoid saying never when it comes to broad generalizations like "films made into stage productions." That's a pretty broad swath to cut.
Most often when I use the term "never" while talking about shows, it's to say "I never thought it would work, but it does!" Or "I never thought I'd be interested in that genre/story/style but I loved it!" I have walked into theaters with trepidation, and walked out floating from the experience and/or or laden with unexpected emotion. I openly own my eclectic taste, but much of that is born of making a real effort to face my biases and challenge them.
The fact that a film-to-stage project doesn't work does not lead me to the conclusion that it's a bad idea to look to films for inspiration. And who's the judge of whether it worked? What's the measure? If you use financial success it will often argue in favor of the transfer! I will passionately argue that if you attract a new audience for future theater works because the attendee used to say "you could never get me to a musical!" and then experienced a movie they loved successfully (to them) done on stage, then you've moved the stage and the story forward, not diminished the value of the film.
Last season's new musical Hands on a Hardbody was based on the documentary film of the same name; and the story about contest participants trying to win a truck presented some challenges for staging, to say the least. For example, the contestants needing to keep their hands on the truck at all times. It called for creative choreography, interesting songs and compelling performers, all of which the show had in abundance. The original score was written by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, and it didn't sound like any other show on Broadway...in a good way! While not a commercial success, it did many things right; especially in telling us some wonderfully human stories. I would hate to think that David Gritten would never even have given the show a chance based solely on its former life as a film.
I realize that financial gain is the motivation behind many a stage production put forward by the film studio that owns the rights, but that motivation doesn't guarantee a bad show. For-profit theater is just that...for profit. I do agree with Mr. Gritten that greedily pushing film-to-stage musicals without consideration for the art form, for the original film, etc. does all of us a disservice. But the very fact that a show started its life on screen can't be the sole criteria relevant to whether it should or shouldn't be re-imagined on stage, from either perspective. Gritten says that if he disliked a film, he wouldn't see a stage version anyway. Really? Why? I'm not saying he'd like Kinky Boots (the film he uses as an example) on stage, but maybe the stage is just what it needs.
He also says that, with classic movie musicals like Singin' in the Rain and Top Hat, both popular West End productions, he only wants to ever see them in their original film versions. But here's the thing-one of my younger friends caught both of those shows while in London because of their casts, and is now determined to go back and watch the original films and others like them based on how much he enjoyed the stage productions.
When I hear of a movie musical coming to the stage, I do sometimes have my doubts....doubts that I am happy to have washed away once the curtain rises. I wasn't sure what to think about the idea of an on-stage Once; but in the hands of brilliantly creative director John Tiffany, it is a thing of beauty. On the other hand, I was also skeptical of Dirty Dancing, a show I saw recently on the West End in London. Do I think it could make a great stage musical? Yes. Do I think this was it? No. But I sat near quite a few delighted audience members; so for them, it worked.
There are several film-to-stage productions coming to Broadway this season~Big Fish, Bullets Over Broadway, The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky. Among my wishes for any musical I see are a good book/story, great cast, great music that fits the story, interesting staging. I know that not every show is going to have everything I want; but I've learned that, for me, the story is the most important element. If that story was told well on the screen, it does not automatically mean it can't be told well on the stage. I don't know yet what I will think of these new shows. I liked the movie versions of their stories. I hope I'll like the stage versions too, and I think it will be fun to find out!
So I'm going on record as saying that, while I may not think stage adaptations are always successful, I will never dismiss them out of hand before I've been introduced :).
UPDATE 8/16/13: Playbill.com has a great article about some very successful screen-to-stage adaptations.