The Takedown: The Problem with Movie-Musicals

By Emma Demski, Staff Writer

May 10, 2019

Completely original shows on Broadway are rather rare. However, the recent tidal wave of movie-musicals hitting Broadway feels excessive, even though it was inevitable. Movie-musicals have proven time and time again to be very successful. They make money, and in short investors are more willing to put money into something that is guaranteed to make money. I’m not here to completely dismiss the movie-musical as a genre. To be clear, the term ‘movie-musical’ is referencing pieces of theatre that are based on previously existing films, rather than the other way around. They have existed on Broadway since the beginning. Most shows are taken from something else, whether it be a book or film. It’s not surprising, and I’m not shocked, I’m just disappointed.

My ideal Broadway would be one that breaks the typical conventions of what we’ve seen before. Every show would leave you shaken, with the feeling that you had never seen anything like that in your life. It would be exciting, and every show would demand your attention. They would have immaculate costumes, the lighting would be dramatic, and the score would make your heart race. The works would be mostly original, but they could also be new versions of beloved stories, as long as they are skewed in a new light.

A good movie-musical to me is one that truly revels in the medium that is live theatre. It really utilizes the sets, the costumes, the audience, and the energy of the space to create something that the movie could never do. Also, it is important to note that many shows have been adapted from other mediums, such as books. I include these shows under the same umbrella, even though they are different for the sake of simplicity. But just take note that film isn’t the only area where adaptations stem from, but it tends to be where most of the lackluster ones come from. Cabaret is the epitome of a good move-musical; it thrived on stages as well as in film, because it transformed itself and created a completely different experience both times. Shows that stand out to me that have really honed into this are SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Waitress, The Band’s Visit, Fun Home, The Color Purple, The Lion King, and obviously shows like Hamilton and Wicked.

Bad movie-musicals are looking to create carbon copy. They’re pulling on the iconic lines from the movie that everyone will whisper to the person they’re with as the character says it onstage. These shows feel like a money-grab to me. They don’t feel unique. Yes, the characters aren’t played by the same actors as the movie and yes, they are now singing songs, but the songs don’t often feel like they add anything to the plot. They just… exist. They don’t provide any additional insight. Shows like School of Rock: The Musical, Mean Girls: The Musical, Pretty Woman: The Musical, and now Tootsie: The Musical and Beetlejuice: The Musical feel like they’re banking on people’s nostalgia and they’re now taking up real estate on Broadway. There are only so many theatres on Broadway, and the shows that are successful stay there until ticket sales fall.

Shows like The Lion King, SpongeBob, and Wicked pushed the envelope with their elaborate costumes and set decoration. They all went above and beyond to put you in a distinct space. They leaned on the other departments within the theatre world, and together they were able to make something larger than life, to take fantastical elements and bring them to life. SpongeBob and The Lion King had the hurdle of bringing animation into real life, but they both leaned into specific styles that weren’t trying to 100% replicate what they were based off. This hurdle may have even pushed the creative departments further, since they couldn’t rely on the familiar conventions. These shows are open for the audience to project their own imaginations on stage.

Many stage productions have also been later turned into movies, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, is currently in production, with filming scheduled for this summer. Similar to Cabaret, they are going to be able to expand the world, and take it further than what the stage allows. What movie-musicals are tasked with is difficult. The creators have to squish a grand landscape, that is easy to show on film, onto a small stage. It’s impossible to do everything the same, but the ways in which this problem is approached is where greatness can occur.

When I do get the chance to travel to New York, I don’t want to waste my time seeing a story that I could watch on Netflix when I get home. Pretty Woman: The Musical isn’t appearing to be doing anything new. I’ve listened to many of the original Broadway cast recordings and seen clips of their performances at the Tony Awards. I’m not judging these shows completely blind. I gave them a fair shot, and I don’t think that they’re necessarily bad. They have some effort put into them, and a lot of people have put time and energy (and tons of money) into these pieces. But…my main question is why?

I’m exhausted. Each time I see another announcement of another beloved movie being staged with music, it makes me frustrated, because I feel like it’s suffocating the art form from more original works. I feel like it’s also communicating to casual theatre fans that this is all there is. It’s hard to know when the production of movie-musicals will reach its peak, because I feel like it’s already at a ridiculous level, but these shows make money– which only means that there will be more as long as this is the case.

People seem to enjoy Mean Girls: The Musical, and I can’t fault them if they do. They’re selling tickets, and it’s making people happy. However, these shows are smothering musicals that don’t hold the same name recognition. Many other wonderful productions have closed due to falling ticket sales. Movie-musicals are valid, but they better not overstay their welcome.

Broadway is an incredibly cyclical form. I don’t think we are doomed to suffocate with remakes of cult classics forever, but I do think we need to put up with them for a little while longer. So, you ask, what can you do to counteract this? Go see original shows, or at least do your research and find shows that are pushing the envelope, that aren’t just a phoned in version of something that already exists. Go see the weird shows, be comfortable with the surprise of theatre.

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