I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but in the past however-many years or so, there’s been a trend toward movies being turned into musicals. Oh, you have noticed that? Yeah, me too. But I’m not going to go on a rant about how this trend spells the end of musical theatre as we know it. It might, but, probably not. The truth is, musicals have been based on other sources for, well, always. Generally, the Hammerstein/Kern musical Show Boat, which opened in 1927, is considered to be the first modern musical – meaning the songs were plot-forwarding and not just revue-style diversions. I’ll let a theatre historian do the blog on that and whether it’s strictly true. My point is that the musical Show Boat was based on Edna Ferber’s novel. So basing a musical on another source isn’t new, and I definitely have a few movies and books I’d love to adapt someday.
I will say that producers and movie studio executives combing through their catalogues and deciding that the latest, flavor-of-the month movie would rake in the bucks if it were a musical is…not the best thing for the industry. But, as in most things, the problem with adapting isn’t the act, it’s the motivation. And, frankly, even if the motivation is deeply cynical and “biz-y,” if the show is well written and well done, it isn’t contributing to the downfall of our tiny 15-block or so civilization. I hasten to add that I firmly believe we need more original musicals as well and more people willing to develop and take a chance on those projects – but that’s a topic for another blog.
Where things go wrong with the “movie to musical” model is the way the writers are often found. You know how, sometimes you’ll read a blurb online that such-and-such a producer has confirmed they have obtained the rights to such-and- such a movie and that the musical version is “aiming for Broadway” in 2 years…and such-and-such a well-known director is on board…and they’ll be playing the Shubert Theatre…and tickets go on sale soon…and the artwork looks like this? Oh, and, by the way, the writing team will be announced as soon as they find them.
Okay, okay, I admit, it’s never fun to see your profession treated as an afterthought. Especially when we’re talking about, um, writing this musical. But, while I’d prefer to be treated as slightly more important to the success of an as yet unwritten project than, say, the kid selling merchandise in the lobby – no offense to any kid selling merchandise in the lobby! – what actually bothers me about blurbs like that is what happens next. That’s right – fire up your musical ovens my friends, it’s time for another Pillsbury Bake-Off!!
Yes, the Pillsbury Bake-Off, where the powers-that-be ask a bunch – sometimes a big bunch – of composers and lyricists to right sample songs and then, pick a “winner” to write the show. On paper, that doesn’t sound totally crazy – and actors might say it’s just like when they audition. But in practice, finding writers this way goes wrong more than it goes right. Often, the potential writers are told to watch the movie and musicalize “any three moments of your choice.” Sounds like creative freedom, right? Except…not the good kind. For example, if you see the show as a rock opera and the powers-that-be see it as an actual opera, the match won’t be made. If you choose to write a big group number when the powers-that-be saw this as a chamber piece, the match won’t be made. If you write…well, the list goes on an on and gets down into extremely minute differences of creative direction.
If only there had been some air in that vacuum – even a small puff of collaborative oxygen between those that all want the same thing: a successful show. Imagine, for example, that the right team is out there, just waiting to start a creatively and financially lucrative partnership with the producers of this adaptation. They are the perfect match for the project and the producers are the perfect match for them – they could all look into each others’ eyes over a romantic, candle-lit contract and both sign with a contented sigh knowing this shall be forever! The bells might peal and the birds might sing and a musical would be born to put all previous musicals to shame if only they would partner!
Except…the bake-off vacuum was absolute and the “right team” wasn’t chosen because the powers-that-be wanted to see what each writer “brought to the project” without “muddying the waters” or “adversely affecting their direction.” As a result, the show, written by somebody else, opened to mediocre reviews like “it just didn’t come together” and “uninspired.” And, lo, the angels wept at the lost opportunity for greatness.
Okay, okay, I admit it, I’ve “lost” a few bake-offs in my time – I’d wager most composers and lyricists on this site have. But even when I’m not even in the kitchen, I believe there must be a way to improve the Pillsbury Bake-Off. After all, finding “the one” is really hard, and it’s even harder if you don’t tell your blind date you’re about to move to Botswana for a decade because you don’t want to “adversely affect the evening.”