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Adapting musicals into movies: a look into this new trend

For years, movies were the first source to create new musicals in the theatres: from Legally Blonde to Mean Girls. But times have changed. Now, the musicals are the sources for new movies. Time to take a look into the new trend of adapting existing musicals into movies!

My inspiration for this blog was The Prom, just released on Netflix and an adaptation of the very new musical on Broadway. The musical premiered in January 2019 en just a short two years later we see a multimillion production full of stars on our telly. Another highlight this year was the release of Hamilton on Disney+, watched by millions.

Hamilton the movie on Disney+
The musical Hamilton on Disney+
Copyright: Joan Marcus

But the trend goes on. A quick research told me that we have many more movies coming. Everybody’s talking about Jamie, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked and a new West Side Story, to name a few. And there are more in talks. Six the musical has yet to come to Broadway but is already discussing its movie rights.

How has adapting musicals into movies become popular?

In this part, I’m going to discuss how musicals have become a popular source for movies. What are the reasons behind it? But before we can do that, I’m going to give you a short history lesson on how the connection between films and musical was before.

But what was the common thing before?

Hollywood and Broadway have always been close. Read more about it in this article about the upcoming of Hollywood. But in short: from the moment Hollywood started creating talking movies, Broadway shows were the inspiration for many tapes. Studios sometimes even got the rights for shows before they were on stage. A few examples from this musical golden age are West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

Filming The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews: adapting musicals into films
Filming The Sound of Music

But then something happened in the 70s. Popular music and culture evolved fast, faster than Broadway. But movies jumped on the popular train. They would use popular music in their movies now instead of Broadway songs. Think about Elvis Presley, who started out as a singer and became an actor who sang his songs. And thus the trend reversed: movies became the inspiration for plays and musicals.

Ronald Zank is a professor of theatre in the US, who has researched this trend. He discovered that, in 1960, 5% of new Broadway musicals were based on films. However, in 2010, 41% of the musicals had a film as their source. According to him, musicals from films are a safer economic risk. And especially with the high production costs nowadays, safe risks are something producers are begging for.

So what has changed?

Moulin Rouge sparked a renaissance of musical adaptations in 2001. Since then, we’ve seen a new musical movie come out yearly. Think about Chicago (2002) and Mamma Mia! (2008). From 2014 on, the musical film genre has become more prominent as more movies came out per year.

Poster Mamma Mia! The movie
Mamma Mia! The movie, based on the musical by the same name

But in the last year or two the renaissance has come to full speed. With an added twist: the newest musicals are now being recorded. Previously, we saw mostly ‘old’ musicals being put on screen: musicals that had been on Broadway a long time ago or for a long time. But now, the recordings are about the musicals that aren’t on Broadway yet (or only for a short time). These recordings were recently released or are yet to come.

But why has it changed?

There are a few factors that may have caused this new trend. The New York Times has written a nice article about it.

First, there is an increased popularity of Broadway. Records in ticket sales and attendance are continuously broken. People no longer mind that musicals have ‘old’ music within them. They might even seek them out for some nostalgia.

This popularity has caught the attention of the streaming services, who are looking for new content. Netflix has said to look for intellectual property and originality is key for them. Remaking musicals is original, according to Netflix original film division head Scott Stuber, and that’s why Netflix is interested in it.

Secondly, the film industry found the theatre industry below them for a few decades, but no more. The superior feeling appears to have gone away. Nowadays, there is much more interaction and also exchanging of artists between the art forms. Stage directors make movies, television writers can write plays.

Thirdly, our mindset has changed. People want something positive again; they are done with the poisonous debates, switching politics and nowadays corona. Musicals bring exactly the good feeling that people seek.

Shot from Diana: The Musical. Never seen on stage, but soon on Netflix
Shot from Diana: The Musical. Never seen on stage, but soon on Netflix
Copyright: Sara Krulwich / the New York Times

And then, of course, we have the pandemic. It has sped up Broadway’s acceptance of musical recordings. A good example is Diana: The Musical, who should have opened in March 2020. Due to the lockdown, it could not have live performances. So it made a recording of the show. Netflix will release it somewhere in 2021. Licensors and royalty holders are now more relaxed with having a recording than before.

So this trend happens due to a few things: environmental changes (pandemic, the emergence of the streaming services), a certain zeitgeist (what’s the taste of the audience?) and changes in views (how are we looking at musicals?)

How do you adapt a musical for a film?

If you want to adapt a musical for the screen, there are multiple possibilities. So, let’s discuss three different ways of adapting a musical.

First, there is the actual stage recording of the musical. A professional crew will shoot the musical several times during its performances to get all the best shots. Then they will put all the best shots together for an HD-recording. Hamilton on Disney+ is an example of such a recording. It was filmed for a week. These recordings are a replica of what you see on stage. The only difference is that cameras can zoom in and show the musicals from different angles during one show, while an audience sits in one place the entire performance. However, no film can reproduce the exact experience of a live show.

Secondly, you can take the original musical and change it to fit the screen better. The production team may take the script, settings, costumes and songs and add their own twist. So you will see settings created for studios, costumes that show off on camera and more. The Prom is a good example. The movie version of The Prom is a copy of the show from Broadway, but with a starrier cast, fancier sets, delirious wigs and a much bigger orchestra. It was filmed in studios and converted car parks in L.A..

In the pictures above, you see the differences between The Prom on Broadway (left) and The Prom as seen on Netflix (right)
Copyright pictures left: Deen van Meer. Copyright pictures right: Melinda Sue Gordon

Lastly, there are complete new re-imaginations. This will be West Side Story and In the Heights when they come out in 2021. There is yet little known about these two, so let me take an already released example. The movie Annie from 2014 is probably a good one. The old songs have changed in order to be more modern: an electric beat has been added and the rhythm transformed. Original songs are deleted (Sandy) and new ones (Opportunity) added. The setting is now modern-day New York and the story encounters contemporary problems, like illiteracy.

Annie 2014 poster. A bad example of adapting musicals into films
Poster from Annie (2014)

How you adapt the musical to film will depend on several things. It will depend on the director’s vision, how easy the musicals is adaptable to the screen, the budget available, and more.

What are the difficulties of adapting a musical into a film?

We have seen many musical-to-film adaptations fail, with Cats probably the most recent one. Something went wrong there, but how is that possible? Let’s discuss a few difficulties that filmmakers encounter when adapting a musical.

Film and theatre are two different mediums

We know theatre and film are two different art forms.

First of all, theatre is live while film is recorded. This means that films can be edited to a better version. If you make a mistake on stage, there is nothing you can do to avoid the audience see it.

Secondly, in the theatre, your perspective is based on your seat. You will see everything from that one perspective. On film, you can change the perspective to what suits the movie best. It also means that the entire audience sees the same version of the film, while a theatre performance will be seen from hundreds of different places.

So, you have to change a musical to make it work on the screen. You don’t have two acts with a break in between in film, so how do you make it one coherent piece? (Although there were breaks in the early movies, so it is possible.) Scenes in theatre are often much longer than in movies, so how will you handle that? Shorten the scenes or change it to make it more exciting? And there are other smaller things: e.g. small casts often don’t work well or some jokes or lines only work with a live audience. You have your work set out for you if you choose a musical as the source for your film.

Different view on reality

Theatre and film have a different idea of how ‘reality’ is created. Bursting into song seems relatively normal to tell a story on stage, but it often comes across as bizarre in movies. Therefore, where songs are equal to text and dance in musicals, they often get a supporting role in movies.

Filming Les Miserables (2012) with the working ladies.
Filming Les Miserables (2012) with the working ladies
Copyright: Laurie Sparham

It is also quite common in films to cut songs or part of songs and then add new ones. About 50% of movies have new songs that were not in the musical. New dialogue is written for the film and, of course, the visuals in films are much bigger. The filmmakers are not confined to a 12×6 meters stage, hence they can have bigger settings, different locations, and flashier costumes.

Ryan Murphy’s vision of The Prom was to re-create the show with an added international appeal, new songs, and new lines. According to him, a filmmaker should never do a note-by-note version of what’s on stage. Most of all: he added glitter to everything, giving the show a much bigger appearance.

And apparently, this idea has paid off. The Wrap reviews the movie as:

“His [Ryan Murphy, red.] real achievement is making “The Prom” feel like a film rather than a captured-on-camera stage production, one that still retains the let’s-put-on-a-show energy of live theatre.”

So the difficulty in adapting a show is to find the right balance. How much do you change to make it look good on camera? And how much do you take from the original show? And – quite important – how important is it for the filmmakers to leave their own mark on the movie?

Difference in cast

Where Broadway mostly casts for talent, the film industry also casts for popularity. Way more important in a film than on stage are the A-list stars. The Prom has an amazing line-up with Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman. Les Miserables (2012), Mamma Mia (2008) and Into the Woods (2014) were packed with stars.

Poster of Into The Woods
The poster of Into The Woods. How many A-stars do you see?

So you will have a different cast than on Broadway. This can both work for you and against you. Famous doesn’t always mean they do a good job of portraying the character they play. Especially if you know they can’t sing and their voice is altered on the recording. But it will attract a certain audience who might otherwise not come watch the film. And then, the actors may surprise you. You never know.

Contracting A-list stars often means that the original cast is pushed aside. According to The Producer’s Perspective, only 44% of the movies have 1 cast member from the original Broadway cast and only 8% had 5 or more. In the case of The Prom, this decision was done on purpose: Ryan Murphy wanted to create his own version. In other cases, the original was performed too long ago. The actors had become too old to play the role.

Differences from the original

It’s a struggle for filmmakers to find the right balance between their own vision and the original. Funny enough, the movies that stray too far from the original are the ones that flop commercially. Annie in 2014 was a big flop because they tried to update it to the 21st century. It has been said that Cats and Les Miserables were a flop because they had no one of the original show working on the movie. Changing a few things is good, but stray too far and it may work against you.

The release date

There is a discussion going when you should release a movie adaptation of musical shows. Although this is not directly related to the adaptation process, it’s an important point I want to address. Because it may affect the way you handle the entire process of adapting the musical.

Some say you should only release it after the production has ended. For a long time, it was believed that the film would discourage theatre-goers: why pay an expensive ticket when you can watch it at home for a few dollars?

Poster Everybody's talking about jamie
Poster of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which will be released spring 2021.

But we see a turn in this discussion. Examples like Hamilton show that movies can come out before the show has ended its theatrical life. Future films of Six and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie accentuate this idea of releasing a movie while it still is on stage. Because movies can boost a show: people who like the movie will want to see the show performed live. Legally Blonde was shown on MTV while still on Broadway and it made the sales source. Hamilton has also reached a much larger audience worldwide and has now announced new productions in Australia and Germany.

To wrap it up

The new trend of adapting musicals to movies is an interesting one. It actually brings the relation between both mediums full circle, as we’re going back to the way it started in the 1930s. Once again, the walls between different art forms break down and mangle like they used to before.

Of course, taking a musical and adapting it for the screen is no guarantee for success. Filmmakers will try to find their own path with the musicals and some will be accepted with open arms by the public and critics. Others will be rejected. Like with any movie, it’s always a touch an go with this genre. And we will probably see many mishaps pass in the upcoming years.

But 2021 will be the year to watch if you like musical films. There are so many adaptations coming our way, many pushed back from 2020, that we will have our fill of musicals. Will they all be a success? We’ll have to wait and see.

Status as on January 1, 2021:

  • Come From Away: Release yet unknown
  • Cyrano: Release yet unknown
  • Dear Evan Hansen: Release yet unknown
  • Diana: the musical: Release spring 2021 on Netflix
  • Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: release delayed indefinitely (was first Feb 26th 2021)
  • In The Heights: June 21, 2021 on HBO Max and cinemas
  • Once Upon This Island: Release yet unknown
  • Tick, Tick … Boom!: Release yet unknown
  • West Side Story: Dec 10, 2021
  • Wicked: Dec 21, 2021

There are more productions in development, but most are yet uncertain and therefore I haven’t mentioned them in this list.

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