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There’s a clear and marked trend on musical theatre stages around the world right now: musicals adapted from films are becoming more and more prominent and make up a significant chunk of the market.

On Broadway, musical versions of the films Aladdin, An American in Paris, Finding Neverland, The Lion King and Kinky Boots are currently playing with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of School of Rock just around the corner.

The West End is hosting musical versions of Bend it Like Beckham, Billy Elliot, High Society, Kinky Boots, The Lion King and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Groundhog Day on its way early next year.

Australian stages are currently filled with screen-to-stage adaptations, with The Lion King and Strictly Ballroom in Melbourne, Dirty Dancing in Perth and Heathers in Sydney, and several more coming in the next few months.

When these adaptations started gaining dominance in the market, in the early 2000s, there was plenty of cynicism in theatre communities. Many saw the shows as a cheap and easy tactic on the part of big commercial producers to ensure a solid box office result. For many years, jukebox musicals had been a massive winner for investors, relying on familiar tunes to draw in big crowds (crowds who go into the theatre humming the tunes) but producers then started looking to familiar stories and characters.

Of course, when your musical is based on a beloved, well-known film, much of the hard work in marketing the show has already been completed. But actor and director Helen Dallimore says there are many reasons beyond marketing that writers and producers will look to existing films for inspiration, the most obvious one being that the characters and plot have already both been written and tried and tested.

“Musical theatre is so challenging,” Dallimore says. “You not only need a fantastic score but you need a fantastic script, and I think that’s why something like Blood Brothers works so well, because Willy Russell is an excellent playwright and his particular talent is in creating those characters through dialogue. It’s the combination between that and the tunes that make it really work.”

She says that it depends very much on who is adapting the material and the approach that’s taken.

“You could take Snakes on a Plane and make it into a great musical if you had the right idea and the right songs.”

Dallimore is about to begin rehearsals for the Hayes Theatre Co’s production of High Society, which is based on the iconic 1956 musical film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. That film was itself based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story.

High Society features a score by Cole Porter and has been brought to the stage several times over the last few decades, with a variety of different versions, each drawing on the High Society film and Barry’s original play. Notably, there was an Australian production directed by Simon Phillips in the early ‘90s, a 1998 Broadway production starring a young Anna Kendrick and Maria Friedman’s recent critically acclaimed version for London’s Old Vic Theatre.

“The version that we’re doing at the Hayes is based quite closely on the original play,” Dallimore says. “The text is much closer to the text of The Philadelphia Story than the film of High Society.

The Hayes Theatre Co production will feature all the songs and characters audiences have loved for half a century, but Dallimore has her own vision for the material.

“Obviously in a space like the Hayes, you can’t recreate an MGM spectacular, and we have to do our own take on it to suit the venue and the space as well as possible. What I’m hoping is that the hook and the promise of those memories will bring people along and they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see it done in a new way.”

While Dallimore says that familiarity with the film will certainly help to sell tickets to the production, she believes making decisions purely on that basis is a bad strategy for any producer.

“I think making any decision based on the potential of something to be a cash cow is always going to bite you on the butt,” she says. “It has to come from a real belief in the project artistically. It’s never the right decision to just pick a really famous movie and do it because people will go. They’ll only go once and they’ll tell their friends and nobody else will go.”

But musical theatre writers and producers haven’t just been attracted to the mega-blockbuster films as inspirations. Many of the most successful film-to-screen adaptations have come from cult films, including Dogfight, which recently played a successful season at the Hayes Theatre Co, and Kinky Boots, which is currently one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.

Trevor Ashley last month made his musical theatre directorial debut with the riotous musical version of the 1988 high school black comedy Heathers. The film has a solid cult following but isn’t exactly mainstream, although the larger-than-life characters lend themselves to the stage.

“I think it’s a really strong score, and that’s what I loved the most,” Ashley says. “I always try to keep up with what’s a bit of a hit Off Broadway and what new shows are coming out, apart from the mainstream. My sense of humour fits much better with the more off-the-wall material, and I’m such a fan of [co-composer] Laurence O’Keefe.”

Ashley has been receiving glowing reviews for his loud, razor-sharp production. The season had entirely sold out by the end of the first week, and Ashley believes the key to the production’s success has been in hitting the right balance between giving the audience the elements of the film they’re familiar with and surprising them with something new.

“With something like Heathers and something like Rocky Horror; people’s knowledge of these cult films is so great. I’ve tried to keep the elements you’d expect while still being creative. But you have to have Heather Chandler in red and Veronica in blue – those were their signature colours. To do it any other way would be like if Elle Woods wasn’t wearing pink in Legally Blonde.

“And it also comes down to casting – for J.D. you want somebody with the same Christian Slater-esque dangerous quality, and we certainly found that in Stephen [Madsen].”

For Ashley, adapting a musical from a film is really no different to adapting one from a book or a play, a practice that has been going on ever since musical theatre was born. The vast majority of musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, for example, are adapted from other material.

“So many classics were originally plays or films previously,” Ashley says. “I think it’s been happening a long time but people have very short memories when it comes to these things.

“We’ve seen a trend lately of very mainstream films like Legally Blonde, First Wives Club and Beaches. But I don’t think it cheapens the brand – it matters how it’s being adapted.”

And the very trend of adapting for the theatre from popular texts goes back several centuries. Even many of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from pre-existing texts. As You Like It is directly based on Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie while Romeo and Juliet is based on Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet and has elements of Pryamus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

That film has become a popular source for inspiration in theatre in the 2000s with this context in mind is hardly surprising at all. And it’s a trend that won’t be going away anytime in the near future.

by Ben Neutze