Top 15 Film-to-Musical Adaptations
There’s a reason they call it “commercial theatre.” More and more, Broadway producers are developing shows that audiences can trust. What’s the best way to do that? Turn popular films into Broadway musicals. Since 2000 alone, there have been nearly 50 musicals produced on Broadway that have been based on film. Some get it right, while others get it very, very wrong.
In anticipation of the upcoming musical-film La La Land, we’ve created a three-list series, comparing the best of the film and musical theatre world. In this installment, we’ll be taking a look at the 15 best film-to-musical adaptations.
You can find our list of the top 15 musical-to-film adaptations here, and our list of the top 15 completely original musicals here.
With the assistance of resident film and Broadway connoisseur Harper Leander, we have compiled our selections on the following criteria:
“Oh, hi…” This 2007 musical is based on the 1975 documentary about Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), the first Broadway musical ever to be adapted from a documentary. The musical follows the two women, who were the aunt and cousin, respectively, of former first lady Jackie Onassis Kenney, and the progression of their lives, as they descend from upper class society into reclusiveness and poverty. Much of the dialogue from the second act is taken directly from the documentary. The original Broadway production featured music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with a book by Doug Wright. Featuring Christine Ebersol and Mary Louise Wilson in the title roles (the two characters essentially switch between acts), the two were awarded the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, respectively.
Bring it On: The Musical
When it was announced that the book writer from Avenue Q, the composer of Next to Normal, the composer/lyricist of In the Heights, and Adolph Green’s daughter were writing a musical, an adaptation of the 2000 film Bring it On, the world was collectively ready to explode. And, for the most part, the musical was fairly successful. It’s got catchy songs and creative dance and cheer sequences. However, it ultimately takes a step down from everyone on the team’s preceding work, as the show fails to pack the punch of hits like Next to Normal and In the Heights. It’s still pretty fun to watch, though, and it did get a Tony nomination for Best Musical in 2012.
9 to 5: The Musical
Based on the 1980 film staring Parton herself, 9 to 5 was the first time Dolly was able to branch out into the world of musical theatre with this 2009 smash. The original cast was packed with stars: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, Megan Hilty, Marc Kudisch, Kathy Fitzgerald and Andy Karl, just to name a few. The plot follows three women (Janney, Block, Hilty) who live out their fantasies of getting even with, and eventually overthrowing their sexist, egotistical boss. The show received 15 Drama Desk nominations (the most for any show of 2009) as well as four Tony Award nominations.
The Bridges of Madison County
An underappreciated musical altogether, 2014’s Bridges was inspired by both the Robert James Waller 1992 novel, as well as the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The show, about an Italian war bride who has an affair with a National Geographic photographer over a four-day span, only ran for only five months on Broadway, but won composer Jason Robert Brown two Tony Awards for best score and orchestrations. Critical reaction to the musical was mixed, but many praised Brown’s score and the acting of Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Listen to “Another Life,” and “One Second and a Million Miles.” You’ll see what I’m talking about. While you’re at it, just listen to the whole thing. The entire score is electric, gripping, and emotional.
The Top 15:
15. The Full Monty
Nothing better than naked men on stage, am I right? Based on the 1997 British film of the same name, The Full Monty premiered on Broadway in 2000. While the musical relocates the setting to Buffalo, New York, the plot of the show is very similar to that of the movie, as we follow six Buffalo steelworkers tackling their insecurities and anxieties, while finding strength in camaraderie. I forgot to mention- they do this by deciding to perform a male strip act. David Yazbeck’s ear-worming, surprisingly emotional, and ultimately charming pop score works to perfection with Terrence McNally’s book. While it’s pretty common to have certain musicals deviate a little bit from their film source material, The Full Monty stays very true to form, making slight changes only for the change in location, making it work brilliantly.
14. Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks described Young Frankenstein as his best film. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s true as far as his best musical adaptation (see Producers, The), but Young Frankenstein provides all the charm and hilarity as his 1974 horror comedy. Helmed by Roger Bart, Megan Mullally, Christopher Fitzgerald, Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin and Shuler Hensley, the original Broadway production opened in late 2007, and garnered three Tony nominations, one for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (Martin), Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (Fitzgerald), and best scenic design.
13. Legally Blonde
This show may not be the deepest. It may not be the most impressive. It may not have the best music or the best book. But Legally Blonde has one thing that sets it apart from the rest- heart. This adaptation of the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon is about a sorority girl who gets dumped by her boyfriend, then decides to go to Harvard Law School in order to win him back. While she’s there, she, her ex-boyfriend, and her peers, discover that underneath that head of blonde hair is a smart, unique, badass individual. As a perfect catalyst for the bubbly Laura Bell Bundy’s talents, Legally Blonde opened in 2007 on Broadway. The production numbers are some of the most fun you’ll ever experience, whether you’re in the show or not. You’ll also find that more people than you think can quote all the lyrics to “Omigod You Guys.” While there are some deviations from the film (Kyle the UPS guy being really good at Irish Step, and- spoiler- Elle doing what the film never shows and proposing to Emmett being just a few), Legally Blonde is a very solid film-to-musical adaptation- dare I say a very underappreciated one at that.
Waitress, the most recent entry on this list, is significant, firstly, for its all-female team, the first of its kind for a Broadway show. With a book by Jessie Nelson (I am Sam), direction by Diane Paulus (Hair, Porgy & Bess, Pippin), and a score by Grammy winner Sara Bareilles, Waitress (based on the 2007 film of the same name) is about, well, a waitress who, unhappy with her marriage, gets unexpectedly pregnant, begins an affair with her gynecologist, and finds herself in a pie baking contest. Jessie Mueller’s turn as Jenna (the waitress in question) is beautiful and haunting, as many critics described her performance as “a high point of the Broadway season.” Watch the Tony performance here, and take a listen to her sing “She Used to Be Mine.” Challenge: try not to cry. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Sara Bareilles give this role a try. I mean, she used to do theatre in school, after all.
11. Sister Act
Whoopi Goldberg’s resume is impressive. Before the 90s, she had already been nominated for an Oscar (in The Color Purple) and won another (for Ghost). Sister Act is another show that is a benchmark in Whoopi’s career. That being said, the musical version of Sister Act, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, hits all its marks, as the film was basically tailor-made for a stage adaptation (for the most part). The production made a few changes between its West End and Broadway runs, hiring Jerry Zaks as the new director, and Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote a brand new book for the New York production. Patina Miller is fantastic as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence, but that’s not to overlook performances by Victoria Clark and Marla Mindelle as Mother Superior and Sister Mary Robert, respectively (check out Mindelle in “The Life I Never Led.” Alan Menken’s score is ridiculously infectious, as you’ll see in numbers like “Raise Your Voice.”
10. Catch Me If You Can
Competing with The Book of Mormon on Broadway when it opened in 2011, Catch Me If You Can is a swingin’ good time of a musical. If the 2002 Spielberg film set a precedent for the way Frank Abignale and Carl Hanratty were to be played, the musical certainly followed through. Rising Broadway star (who is essentially the Leonardo DiCaprio of today’s Broadway actors) Aaron Tveit was brought in to play the wily young Con-man Frank Abignale, while Tom Hanks’s Carl Hanratty was portrayed by Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz (who also won a Tony for this role). With music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Catch Me If You Can tells the story of a sixteen-year old who flees home and begins conning people out of money, cashing over $2 million in bad checks. His numerous disguises lead an FBI detective on his trail, as we are taking through the world of a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a lover. It truly is a crime that this show never really found a target audience, because the score and performances are simply delightful.
9. The Color Purple
The adaptation of the 1982 Alice Walker novel and subsequent 1985 Steven Spielberg film garnered 11 Tony nominations when it premiered on Broadway in 2006. Starring LaChanze, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Renee Elise Goldsberry, The Color Purple tells the story of a poor African-American girl named Celie in 1930s Georgia, and her experiences with extremely low social status, poverty, discrimination, sexism, and domestic violence, and how she ultimately transforms to find self-worth with the help of two strong female companions. The music for this show will take you to church, and I don’t mean in just the “there’s a church scene with some gospel music in this show” way. Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Ailee Willis undertook the task of creating the tones of the American deep south, while ultimately giving the characters a sense of purpose, joy, and ecstasy. There’s also the book by Marsha Norman, which is like no other, as she captures the essence of these characters and their struggles perfectly. Also, I know I’m not supposed to talk about revivals, but Cynthia Erivo’s star has only just begun to shine because of this show. The good Lord works in mysterious ways.
8. Shrek the Musical
Say what you want about Shrek the Musical. Just know that this one has a massive following, not just of the film (hence the tidal wave of Shrek memes that it has spawned), but also of the musical, as millions of people have taken a liking to the music of Jeanine Tesori and lyrics of David Lindsay-Abaire. Shrek the Musical follows just about the same plot as the 2001 film, as the titular layered ogre journeys with his fast-talking Donkey companion to rescue a princess, putting a spin on the way traditional fairy tales are told. This all-star cast hit Broadway in 2008, featuring Brian D’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber, John Tartaglia and Daniel Breaker, and garnered 8 Tony nominations in 2009. BDJ gets to show off his Scottish brogue (and from now on whenever I hear him speak or sing I always feel like he’s about to drop into it at any second), Sutton Foster gets to showcase her quirkiness as a performer, but it’s Chris Sieber who steals the show as Lord Farquaad, as the six-foot-something actor performs on his knees for the entirety of the show to hilarious effect. Not only is Shrek the Musical familiar to many audiences, it works so well as a Broadway show, due to the addition of the all-important fourth wall that a stage provides.
7. Billy Elliot the Musical
This Best Musical winner premiered in New York from the West End in 2008, and received much critical and commercial acclaim upon arrival. With a book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by the legendary Elton John, and directed by Stephen Daldry, who also directed the 2000 film on which the musical is based, Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy who trades boxing gloves for ballet tights, all while set against the back drop of the Miner’s Strike in the UK. The movie adapts very well to the stage, as represented by the dance sequences, but the contrast between ballet and the cold, harsh realities of the miner’s strike are seamlessly and simultaneously played out on stage. Billy Elliot took home the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2009, along with 9 others. It was the first time that the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical was shared by three people: Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish, and David Alvarez took home the Tony for playing the titular dancer.
6. Thoroughly Modern Millie
Millie is one of the most fun times you’ll ever have when going to the theatre, I promise you. The musical, based on the 1967 Julie Andrews film of the same name, follows one Millie Dillmount, as she moves to New York with the goal to marry for money instead of love (a “modern” concept of the early 1920s). She finds happiness in the “flapper” lifestyle, but encounters problems when she meets Mrs. Meers, a hotel owner who secretly owns a white slavery ring in China. Chaos and hilarity ensues. While the film was a musical already, and featured songs like “Jimmy,” the song that closes the first act, Jeanine Tesori’s music and Dick Scanlan’s lyrics add to the atmosphere perfectly, as songs like “Not for the Life of Me,” the ever-complex “The Speed Test,” and the catchy “Forget About the Boy,” make this a fun and unforgettable time at the theatre. Millie was also the show that propelled now-two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster to superstardom. During the show’s pre-Broadway run, Kristen Chenowith was originally slated to play Millie, and, after Chenowith moved on to pursue her own sitcom, Erin Dilly took over the role. Before previews on Broadway, Foster, Dilly’s understudy, was chosen to play the role. She would win the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her role, and Thoroughly Modern Millie would go on to win Best Musical in 2002.
5. Monty Python's Spamalot
A musical “lovingly ripped off” from the legendary 1975 film Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Spamalot opened in 2005, and quickly became one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005. Created by Eric Idle, one of the founding members of the British surrealist comedy troupe, the musical tells the tale of King Arthur, as he assembles knights together in a holy quest for the holiest of grails. Of course, the musical does differ from the original film, because it has the added element of being able to spoof musical theatre itself. The show makes fun of love songs in musical theatre, the presence of Jewish people in show business, and even refers directly to shows like West Side Story and films like Yentl. And then we have the cast- a group of performers who are incredible individually, but even better together. For roles that really don’t have to do much but be funny, the producers of the show really hit a home run with this. Spamalot starred Tim Curry as King Arthur, Sara Ramirez as the newly added Lady of the Lake, Christopher Sieber as Sir Galahad, Hank Azaria (that Hank Azaria) as Sir Lancelot (among others), David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin, and Christian Borle as a host of characters. Spamalot was directed by film and stage legend Mike Nichols. It garnered 14 Tony nominations, winning for Best Direction of a Musical (Nichols), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Ramirez) and Best Musical. Go see this show. Go see it.
4. 42nd Street
Okay, so the 1981 Tony performance didn't have any tapping in it like THIS. Gimme a break.
Once upon a time, in old New York, Broadway shows were full of lavish production numbers, with a full array of chorus members tapping and singing their way through songs. Nowhere is this truer than in 42nd Street, the musical adaptation of the 1933 film, which first premiered on Broadway in 1980. At the height of the Great Depression, notorious stage director Julian Marsh attempts to mount a Broadway show. A chorus girl from Pennsylvania gets thrust into the spotlight after the musical’s lead is hurt during a performance. DANCING. LOVE. GIANT DIMES. 42nd Street is your quintessential Broadway musical, with its show-stopping production numbers, insane tap routines, lots of men in tight pants, and a really cool “dictator director actually helps underdog chorus girl” story. With music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, plus direction by Gower Champion, 42nd Street took home two Tony Awards in 1981: Best Choreography for Champion, and the all-important Best Musical.
The entire back story of Once is almost incredulous. The 2007 film, on which the 2012 musical is based, was filmed in 17 days in Dublin, with a $150,000 budget (most of which came from the Irish Film Board, and director John Carney’s own pocket), and produced pretty much on a shoestring- the filmmakers used natural light and filmed on streets without permits, in their own houses, and other places. When Cillian Murphy dropped out of the lead role, Glen Hansard, who was slated to write songs for the film, ended up in the lead role alongside Marketa Irglova. The song “Falling Slowly” ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song. And that’s just where the story begins. Using a troupe of actors/musicians, many of whom are on stage providing the music for the entire show, Once tells the story of two people who are drawn together through their love of creating music. It works so well, because it’s just about the music and the people creating it. Subtle, passionate, and full of heart, Once has the ability to captivate audiences with its simple, minimalist set, choreography and staging, yet emotionally vulnerable and complex characters and songs. The production in New York starred Steve Kazee as Guy (he won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical) and Cristin Milioti as Girl. Once won 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This bronze-medalist on this list is, in my opinion, one of the most important musicals of the 21st Century.
2. La Cage aux Folles
In theatre, there is nothing better than men in drag, and watching them own the shit out of it. La Cage aux Folles is based on a combination of a 1973 French play and a 1978 Italian-French film. With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and a book by Harvey Fierstein, La Cage takes places in Saint-Tropez, in a nightclub owned by Georges, who is married to his partner Albin (going by the drag persona of “Zaza”), and their farcical adventures around Georges’s son (from a one-night stand many years ago) Jacob, as he brings his fiancée and her parents to visit. The problem- Jacob’s future in-laws are ultra-conservative. Hilarity ensues. The show has been received by overwhelmingly positive review just about every time a new incarnation shows up on Broadway, particularly for the character of Albin, which has garnered two Tony Awards, one in 1983 for George Hearn, the other in 2010 for Douglas Hodge. The musical is hysterical, but also sweet and uplifting, as the characters deal with love, both for themselves and for others, as well as acceptance and tolerance of others. After writing the music for La Cage, composer Jerry Herman, vindicated, stated that he “had nothing else to prove” and “vowed never to write another show for Broadway.” This has remained true to this day. The original production of La Cage aux Folles won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book (yay Harvey!).
1. A Little Night Music
This show is a masterpiece. A masterpiece of theatre, I tell you. Sondheim’s inspiration for the 1973 musical came from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. Set in Sweden in the early 20th Century, A Little Night Music centers around a complex web of love interests, which arise again when aging actress Desiree Armfeldt is visited by an old flame and their love rekindles. A weekend in the country provides the setting as a flurry of characters explore infinite possibilities of new romances, second changes, and an array of surprises. The way Sondheim wrote this show is masterful: every single song is in waltz time. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. There are songs that challenge singers and musicians alike; songs like “Now”/”Later”/”Soon” must all be sung in the same key, which presents difficulties for both men and women, in both high and low registers. The idea of “threes” even extends to lyrics: trios have separated singers, while duets are sung together about a third person. Mind. Blown. Then there’s arguably his most famous song: “Send in the Clowns,” which he wrote on a whim for the original Desiree, Glynis Johns. Because Glynis was not a strong singer, “Send in the Clowns” was devised to that Glynis could act it rather than sing it; each phrase is short and ends with a consonant so as to limit the amount of breath needed to support longer phrases. The show won six Tony Awards in 1973, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical for Hugh Wheeler. This show is one of the cornerstones of the musical theatre realm, and- although it is hard to pick which work is Sondheim’s magnum opus, A Little Night Music is certainly right up there with the best of them.
What film-to-musical adaptations are your favorites? What films would you like to see made into musicals? Leave a comment down below.
La La Land is in theatres beginning December 9th.