[Want your own rant? See the Rant Meme: http://cahwyguy.livejournal.com/1029809.html This rant is for fauxklore, who wanted a rant on “Musical adaptations of television shows”. Remember: the rant meme is a great creative writing exercise. Just follow the instructions and post it to your own journal.]
[He walks out, with a soapbox and his lunch. He sets both on the ground. He climbs up on the soapbox, and speaks…]
I’d like to take a few minutes while I eat my lunch to talk about crutches. I don’t mean the medical device, although those are handy to beat people with. I mean metaphorical device; something you use to provide additional support that may or may not be necessary. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean.
We’ve all heard that the theatre is dying. Usually, this is a code phrase meaning attendance is down and we’re not making money. The way one addresses this problem, as a producer, is to come up with something that gets people into the theatre.
The best way to do this, of course, is to come up with a new original product. This is difficult to do, and there are very few cases of truly original successful theatre. If one looks at Broadway today, you’ll see very little original product—”Next to Normal” is one of the few successes that comes to mind. “The Drowsey Chaperone”, “Urinetown: The Musical” or “Curtains” are perhaps other examples.
The next level is product adapted from another medium, and this is where the crutches come in. For adaptation, there are many choices. The first tier of these are written material and plays. Books and short stories are great; they are often not as well known, and are close to original product. Great examples of this are things like “Green Grow the Lilacs”, which became “Oklahoma”, or the short stories of Damon Runyan, which became “Guys and Dolls”. Straight plays are also good sources, as demonstrated by translations of “The Four Poster” into “I Do! I Do!”. However, the translations in this tier have one problem: they don’t appeal to the mass audience—they appeal to the well read. This worked in the 1950s and 1960s when people were educated and took the time to read and know about drama. It doesn’t work today when the bulk of the populace has been force fed the pablum from Hollywood.
The second tier of adaptations are movie adaptations. These draw in the audience that is familiar with the movie, and provide familiar characters and situations. But they also have a large problem: if they are just the movie acted out on stage, they tend not to excite. The familiarity with the property breeds contempt. We can all name examples here: “Sunset Blvd.”, “Legally Blond: The Musical”, “The Wedding Singer”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. As “[title of show]” might put it, these are “donuts for dinner”: they sound like a good idea, but they ultimately don’t provide long term satisfaction.
Then there are adaptations of TV series into musicals. These are the equivalent of stunt casting. They draw the people into the theatre from the familiarity, but they frequently involve into parodies of themselves. They are the equivalent of casting Rosie O’Donnell as Rizzo in Grease. I can name many of these: “CHiPs: The Musical”, “Gilligans Isle: The Musical”, “A Very Brady Musical”, “Happy Days: The Musical”, “Avenue Q”. Unless the parody is spot-on (as in “Avenue Q”) or appropriately sentimental (as in “Happy Days”), they just serve to make fun, and are at the level of some of the worst meals you can eat. Not only do they leave you feeling empty, but they leave you feeling sick. I should note, by the way, that “The Addams Family Musical” is not an adaptation of the TV show, but of the original Charles Addams drawings”.
As for things like “High School Musical”—don’t go there. Music that won’t stand the test of time, and a story that belongs in high school. If I want a High School musical, give me “Grease” or “Zanna Don’t”.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t have adaptations. No. Just as the occasional film star turns out to be a damn good actor, there are properties that would make great musicals, given the right artistic team. In terms of movies, I still believe “Up” would be a great musical. TV show? You need one with emotional moments that call out for music, and these are rare. They certainly aren’t found in the run-of-the-mill sitcom. You might find them in the dramas, but even then you need ones that aren’t the run of the mill medical or crime dramas. Thinking back on recent TV, there aren’t many shows that I think would truly work. Perhaps specific episodes of Quantum Leap might work…. and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We really do need a Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical.
Of course, there’s a reason for this. Look at any truly successful musical. Not only do they have good music and lyrics, but they have a good book—and what makes the book good is typically character growth. The Tevye at the start of Fiddler is a different man from the Tevye at the end. Princeton at the start of Avenue Q is different from the Princeton at the end. The characters grow and change by the end (this, by the way, is why “Up” would be perfect). However, a successful long running TV series doesn’t have that growth—in fact, what makes such a series successful is that the characters are the same from week to week. You can drop in any time, and you know how the characters act. What makes books, plays and movies good for the stage are precisely what makes your typical episodic TV program bad. “Happy Days” ‘is probably the rare exception to this, because the characters did grow and the musical looks at that growth over the life of the series.
So, to you budding producers, book writers, composers and lyricists out there, I say: think before you write. Don’t just choose a property because it was successful in another medium. “Rosanne: The Musical” is not a good idea. In fact, as Penn and Teller would say, it is “Bullshit”.
Hmmmm, Bullshit. Now that would be a good musical….
[He carefully climbs off the soapbox. He picks it up, gathers the remains of his lunch, and walks offstage.]