Before it became common practice to adapt movies into musicals for the stage, literature was the favoured material of choice for composers. It’s not hard to see why so many choose this route – readily available source material combined with instant name recognition for a large potential audience equals happy crowds, or at least that’s the plan. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong while other times it can create masterpieces. We at Bibliodaze are big musical geeks so here are some of the good, the bad and the outright painful musical adaptations of books, from the obscure to the household names.
We’ve left out adaptations of plays, so no West Side Story, Two Gentlemen of Verona, etc. We also tried to avoid adaptations of movies that were originally based on books, otherwise the majority of modern Broadway would be on here, but in cases where the musical more closely resembles the book than the film, we made an exception.
We are not responsible for any spontaneous sing-alongs that may occur while you read this post or the damage caused as a result.
Les Miserables: It’s easy to overplay the impact of the West End’s longest running musical but it’s also easy to dismiss it on a creative level after decades of I Dreamed a Dream dominating basement karaoke bars. The film didn’t help much either (sorry Tom Hooper but one can only take so many tilted angles and close-ups). However, what Les Miz actually did was straight up genius. It took a novel heavy enough to knock someone out and condensed it into a rich and coherent narrative with a wide array of characters and emotional resonance. Plus it did that with most of the dialogue sung. With the musical returning to Broadway, its legacy looks set to endure for many years to come.
Wicked: Gregory Maguire’s deeply political, proudly queer and explicitly adult take on the origins of the witches of Oz may have divided readers, but the looser musical adaptation won over a loyal legion of fans thanks to Stephen Schwartz’s sing-along score and the triple-threat duo of Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth. While the prickly edges of the book have been softened for the stage (Elphaba is far less politically radical in the musical, her possible son Liir is entirely omitted and there’s less descriptions of her pubic hair), what remains is a female driven two-hander with iconic songs and an enthusiastically pro-woman message.
Matilda: Australian comedian Tim Minchin is best known to many for his hilarious songs and heavy use of eye-liner, but his score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel is just as witty and inventive as his previous work, albeit with a family friendly focus. The show transferred from West End to Broadway with roaring success (although lost the Tony Award to Kinky Boots) and a movie is in the works, not to be confused with the epic Danny Devito directed version of the book.
Lestat: Sir Elton John is usually considered a safe bet for musicals. The Lion King continues to be one of the top selling Broadway shows on a weekly basis 17 years after it opened and Billy Elliot received the kind of reviews most people would kill for (it remains on West End but closed on Broadway after a couple of years due to high running costs and lagging interest). However, he stumbled hard with his take on Anne Rice’s hugely popular and influential Vampire Chronicles series. It flopped in the way that haunts the nightmares of producers working in an industry where 75% of shows don’t break even. After 33 previews and 39 performances, the show closed to huge mockery and massive financial losses, but if you look hard enough online you can find some bootlegs that reveal the sheer extent of the train-wreck.
Man of La Mancha: Many creative minds have tried and failed to adapt Miguel de Cervantes’s hugely influential Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha took a slightly easier route by focusing more on a teleplay of the novel from the 1950s. The production won numerous awards, has been revived on Broadway 4 times and features The Impossible Dream, a number played on many a car advert over the passing years.
Cabaret: The best musical ever (and I’m not just saying that because it’s my favourite one) originates from a series by Christopher Isherwood known as The Berlin Trilogy. Now it’s synonymous with Liza Minnelli’s rousing rendition of the title song (ironic considering Sally Bowles is described explicitly as being a mediocre singer) but many forget just how dark the story is. After all, it is about 1930s Germany in the era when the Nazis rose to power, with a side dish of an abortion subplot. Kander & Ebb’s adaptation retains the bleakness of Isherwood’s work while emphasising the liberating decadence of the era, both of which were heavily played up in Sam Mendes’s acclaimed production. Bring on the latest Broadway revival!
Phantom of the Opera: Ah, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Believe it or not, he wasn’t the first to take on Gaston Leroux’s oft adapted gothic novel. Ken Hill’s version precedes the most famous one by a decade, while poor Maury Yeston’s production had the misfortune of competing with Lord Webber’s and losing, although it has since toured and been revived in many regional theatres. Which is the best one? It’s hard to say since the Webber one comes with a big budget and decades of prestige (and a film I have a soft spot for even though it’s terrible but dang, Gerard Butler in that Red Death outfit). Check them out for yourself. Then read the book because it’s one of my favourites.
Dracula: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – vampire musicals just don’t work. Between Lestat and Frank Wildhorn’s production of Bram Stoker’s novel, we just need to accept that musical bloodsuckers should be kept to Jason Segal’s dreams (and I’m not even covering Dance of the Vampires. Maybe it only works if you’re German). Wildhorn’s work is primarily adaptations of well-known public domain titles or real life events and, while he has his fans, he’s pretty much the joke of Broadway. Yet he keeps coming back time and time again, able to find producers willing to sink money into his shows despite every single one of them losing money on the Great White Way. Cocaine is a more worthwhile investment! Dracula caused a bit of a stir upon opening due to a nude scene but the rest of the show was criticised for being bland and anaemic, all puns intended.
Jekyll & Hyde: Hello again, Frank Wildhorn. There’s a reason the New York Times called him “the crab grass of Broadway” when his most famous work was revived in New York (where it swiftly died after 29 performances). Still, despite everything, it’s still his best work. Granted, a lot of it is straight up terrible and some of the lyrics are questionable but moments really shine, especially with the right cast. Said right cast doesn’t include David Hasselhoff. Yes, really.
Carrie: The bad show to end all bad shows (at least until Spider-Man fell into the pits), the Royal Shakespeare Company must have been enjoying the 80s a little too much when they decided to take Stephen King’s debut and musicalize it. Hardcore musical nerds still call bragging rights by claiming they were there for the original production, although it only ran for 16 previews and 5 performances. Since then, it’s been revived off-Broadway to surprising critical success, although it did require a lot of re-writes and the removal of the “Out For Blood”, where the bullies gleefully go looking for pig’s blood. A bad move, in my opinion.
Drood: How do you make a musical adaptation of a Dickens novel the author never finished? Simple – you give the audience the chance to choose the ending. The musical utilises the ‘show within a show’ concept, playing on old British panto and vaudeville traditions to pastiche the novel as much as it plays it straight. While the original production won a bag-load of Tonys, including Best Musical, it’s become somewhat underrated in recent years, although a successful revival was staged in 2012.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812: Adapting War and Peace is a feat of bravery by any standards, but turning it into a Russian folk/electro-pop opera with elements of dinner theatre and audience interaction and pulling it off is definitely something to be admired. Dave Malloy’s production, which focuses mostly on Natasha’s affair with Anatole, became the talk of the city when it premiered in 2012 before moving into its own custom venue. It just goes to show that adaptations aren’t all derivative cash-ins.
Little Women: Sutton Foster, the queen of Broadway when Audra McDonald is busy, choose the musical take on Louisa May Alcott’s much loved novel as her first Broadway project following her award winning smash debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie. While the musical closed earlier than expected after middling reviews, it did earn her another Tony nomination and gave us a few decent songs. Sadly, it’s nothing to write home about.
Wonderland: Wildhorn again, here at his lowest ebb. Alice in Wonderland is rife with potential for creative minds and has been reimagined by pretty much everyone from Tim Burton to Disney to American McGhee. The source material is also naturally lyrical and contains many songs so a musical was inevitable. If only it wasn’t this one, an extremely loose play on the material that focuses on an adult Alice who enters a world with a dominatrix style Mad Hatter, a hip-hop Caterpillar and a prince in a boyband. It’s excruciating to listen to in every possible way and died before it had a chance to contaminate the rest of Broadway.