x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Why Broadway is going for a song

Movies-to-Broadway musicals may seem unlikely but, in fact, there is a long line stage hits made from the movies.

"We came here at a hard time economically. You opened up your wallets and you opened up your hearts to us. And we love you for it, thank you." With these words Sir Elton John accepted the Tony award for Best Musical for Billy Elliot, one of 10 the show won this June. Now a selection of productions are hoping to match Billy Elliot's runaway success, by turning great movies into hit musicals. Bring It On (a movie about cheerleading), the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine and the love story Like Water For Chocolate are all about to make a run at Broadway.

On the face of it, movie-to-musicals might seem an unlikely trend, most creative ventures aim to travel in the opposite direction, hopefully ending up as Hollywood blockbusters. However, in the last few years a host of movies have been turned into musicals, and met with packed houses and rave reviews: The Producers, The Full Monty, Hairspray, That Thing You Do, The Lion King, Little Shop of Horrors, Spam-A-Lot, Young Frankenstein, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, High Fidelity- the list goes on.

It's not hard to see why such movie retreads are attractive to Broadway producers. The average budget to open a musical on Broadway is $10 million (Dh37m). It costs around $500,000 (Dh1.85m) a week to keep a Broadway show running. At prices like that, producers need to pack the house for years to turn a profit. And while Broadway continues to have a great year - Hair recouped its costs earlier in the summer, and now West Side Story's latest revival has made back the $14 million (Dh52m) it took to make it happen after only 30 weeks - it is understandable that producers want as many sure-fire hits as possible.

While expensive stars are often drafted in to help sell a production, they tend to leave after a few months. So the movie-musical is increasingly being viewed as the answer. With the movie-musical the branding is already in place. People know what they are in for. Given that a ticket to a Broadway show can be 10 times the cost of a ticket to the cinema, being certain about what is on offer means a lot.

As one American critic has pointed out: "It's like finding a Starbucks in a foreign country. The familiarity is the draw." But with so many movie-musicals heading to Broadway, some observers have wondered whether the New York theatre district risks becoming an adjunct of Hollywood. Others have defended the trend, pointing out that the concept of originality is fluid at the best of times. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was a lift from a controversial play by Pierre Beaumarchais, after all.

But if you do lift from a movie, the transition has to be handled carefully, say the experts. For every Lion King there is a disappointment; for every Billy Elliott, there is a Legally Blonde The Musical, which The New York Times described as akin to "eating a jumbo box of Gummi Bears in one sitting". According to Lindsay Law, the lead producer of the musical version of The Full Monty, the biggest challenge is to reinvent the movie for the stage. "The lesson is not to duplicate every scene in the movie, especially the ones that work wonderfully. You have different tools in a movie to tell your story than you do in a musical," he says.

So will Bring It On, Little Miss Sunshine and Like Water For Chocolate be able to follow Law's advice and conjure Broadway magic as Billy Elliot has? Its producers are not taking any chances. They have lined up serious talent to make sure their productions are winners. The original novel version of Like Water For Chocolate was written by the playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, a Pulitzer finalist for her book of In the Heights, which won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. Little Miss Sunshine has music and lyrics by William Finn and direction by James Lapin, the team behind the Tony Award-winning musical Falsettos. For Bring It On, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt, recent Tony-winners for In the Heights and Next to Normal, respectively, will compose the music.

But, even with all this talent on board, it is sometimes better to be safe than sorry. Well before going to Broadway, Law decided to stage a tryout of Billy Elliott in San Diego, when no one was watching. "We opened the week of the Tony Awards, so nobody was paying any attention to us, which is exactly what you want when you're out of town," he says.