As recently as the 1950s, most musicals were based on literary works ("South Pacific," "My Fair Lady," "Oliver!") but since then Broadway has become increasingly film-oriented in its search for material suitable for big-ticket musical shows. Even a composer of Stephen Sondheim's stature followed the trend when he based "A Little Night Music" on Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night."
Observers of the American cultural scene are not surprised by this development in view of a concomitant loss of interest in literature on the part of the American public, so serious that it has had to be addressed by Oprah Winfrey's establishment of a television book club.
"It's because people don't read anymore," said producer Rocco Landesman, head of the Jujamcyn Theater chain who is currently working on a musical version of "Shane."
"Everyone's frame of reference these days is the movies," he told United Press International. "That's what people talk about, not books."
But even when a musical is movie-based, it has to stand on its own as a stage work if it is going to have the sort of run that will enable it to pay back its investors. Broadway's dirty little secret is that most musicals, even ones that appear to be successful such as "Sunset Boulevard," close in the red. But that doesn't stop producers from trying, as long as they can use other people's money.
One of the most recent movie-to-stage transformations was last season's musical version of "Sweet Smell of Success," a financial flop that closed after it failed to win the 2002 Tony Award for best musical. Another screen-to-stage musical, "Thoroughly Modern Millie," won the award but has a long way to go before it earns back the $11 million it cost to stage.
That hasn't deterred Margo Lion, the head producer of "Hairspray," a $10.5 million production with Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winkur in the overweight mother-daughter roles played on the screen by Divine and Ricki Lake. She thinks trying to put together a musical from scratch with an original plot just doesn't make sense.
"I think to try and create something from your head as a writer is really too tall an order," she said in an interview. "That's why I turn to a movie."
And she is not alone in her endeavors. Already in the works for future Broadway seasons are a mixed bag of musicals including Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and "Tarzan," "Pretty Woman," Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," "Dirty Dancing," "Urban Cowboy," Moonstruck," "Billy Elliott," "A Man of No Importance," and even "An American in Paris," based on the 1951 Academy Award-winning musical written by George and Ira Gershwin.
Movie musicals are fair game for Broadway. They are usually completely derivative, but "Thoroughly Modern Millie" retained only two songs from the film version, going mostly with new music written by Jeanine Tesori. It seems nothing is sacred when it comes to using a "previously owned vehicle," a phrase coined to describe a movie-turned-musical by William Ivey Long, who is designing the costumes for "Hairspray."
All these second-hand vehicles leave very little room for something fresh and original on Broadway, but that is what producers want and they have their reasons.
A familiar film plot doesn't strain a theater-goer's brains and he or she can just sit back and let the show roll over them. Connections with a good movie can make marketing of a musical ever so much easier. When you are charging as much as $100 for a ticket, the buyer likes to be sure of what he is getting for his money.
This means, of course, that good writers and composers are forced into films and television to earn a living, since Broadway no longer provides one. There also are fewer producers who know how to work with original material, and it's common knowledge that fewer people genuinely interested in the theater are going to see these retread shows.
If the trend continues, Broadway audiences will become tourist dominated if they aren't already. There's a joke about New Yorkers having to go to London to see real theater, but even there they will meet up with Broadway musical revivals and, yes, new musicals based on movies.
A stage version of the 1968 Hollywood film musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," about a flying car, opens in London later this month.