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Essay

The American Voice: A Brief History of Adaptation

There seems to be a modern complaint about musicals today that you can’t throw a stone down Broadway without hitting a marquee for a show adapted from a recent hit film. As often as not, these productions are seen as a quick fix for the instant marketing and branding of commercial enterprises rather than original shows. However, adaptation in musicals is nothing new, and people have been turning to other sources for a very long time. What’s often overlooked is that the process of adaptation, at its best, finds ways to expand the form of the musical and deepen the manner in which these stories explore our essential humanity.

In 1931, Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow The Lilacs was a modest drama that played a mere sixty-four performances on Broadway despite a cast that featured Lee Strasberg and screen star Franchot Tone.  Mr. Riggs’ play, which told the story of brewing tensions between cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma territories at the turn of the 20th century, caught the eye of a young writer named Oscar Hammerstein.  With composer Richard Rodgers, the two created a show which evolved into one of the first book musicals: Oklahoma!  In it, songs and choreography were seamlessly integrated into the telling of a well-made story. The musical was a smash success, running for a total of 2,243 performances – a new record. This record lasted until 1956, when My Fair Lady, adapted from the popular George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, topped it with a shattering 2,717 performances.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, of course, would continue to adapt musicals from other sources:  plays (Carousel), short stories (South Pacific), and even memoirs (The Sound of Music). From the very beginning of the modern musical, creating stories from source material or adapting them from one mode of storytelling to another has been a ubiquitous means of creation. Over the intervening years, the sources from which these stories spring have become numerous, from 1968’s Burt Bacharach and Hal David musical Promises Promises (based on the 1960 film, The Apartment) to 1976’s A Chorus Line, created out of interviews with Broadway gypsies, no source is off limits.

Of course, musicals at Playwrights Horizons are no exception. From those drawn from movies, such as Saved or The Spitfire Grill, to musicals whose inspiration comes from a mix of sources such as Once On This Island (adapted from a short story with elements from Shakespeare and fairy tales thrown in) the nature of how and where musicals come from demands that writers search far and wide for their inspiration. Rare is the musical, such as Sunday in the Park with George or Falsettos, where the story is wholly original and the inspiration comes from a non-narrative source.

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie’s work has encompassed film adaptation before, most notably in Playwrights Horizons’ 2006 production of the new musical Grey Gardens.  Among the first musicals to be adapted from a documentary film, Grey Gardens took an unflinching look at our American infatuation with riches-to-rags stories by dissecting the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter with Kennedy connections, and their fall from high society. By turning the documentary into a book musical, Frankel and Korie (along with Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright, who wrote the book) were able to turn a spotlight on the Beales’ glory days and reveal the central characters’ inner lives, which, in turn, enabled audiences to do more than just witness their famous pathologies. 

With Far From Heaven, Frankel and Korie – this time in collaboration with Richard Greenberg, who wrote the book – are able to explore our cultural obsession with nostalgia for a “simpler” time.  Of course, we realize in hindsight that those times had a dark side, a side that forced people to live in denial of their own prejudices and desires. The film upon which it is based places its main characters on the edge of a repressed 1950s that bleeds into a socially conscious 1960s. Shot in a melodramatic style as an homage to cinema auteur Douglas Sirk, it naturally contains all the elements of a great musical: a strong plot and simple character arcs that belie inner emotional struggles.

The lushness of the film’s visual language has been translated into another means of communication:  the lushness of Scott Frankel’s score. In transforming the story from one medium to another, the authors have the ability to continue to explore and reexamine the themes the film touches on, while digging deeper into the richness of the characters’ complex emotional lives.

Frankel’s score has a complexity that holds a mirror up to the inner turmoil of the characters. Alternating between a jazz vocabulary for Frank Whitaker, the conflicted husband, and the melodramatic tropes of an Elmer Bernstein-inflected film soundtrack for Frank’s wife Cathy, the music firmly establishes its period and provides the emotional guideposts for the audience to navigate the secret repression and prejudices of Far From Heaven’s main characters. 

Greenberg, Frankel and Korie, in their adaptation of the source material, have been able to examine and expand upon the ideas that exist in the original film, ideas the medium of non-musical cinema couldn’t fully explore.

This ultimately feels like the reason for adaptation in the first place:  existing side by side with its inspiration, two pieces speak to and complement each other, but still exist as wholly original works on their own.  A successful musical adaptation will always bring something new to its audiences and to the table, aspects which only music, dance, character, and dialogue – the essential elements of a musical – can bring.  It takes a tricky balance to make a story sing in its own unique voice, but, when it does, it can be downright magical.  

Kent Nicholson, Director of Musical Theater 
February, 2012