When hit genre movies become unlikely musicals

Feature Mark Harrison 3 Feb 2014 - 06:26

Does The Evil Dead make you want to break into song? Can you hum Back To The Future? Why are so many genre films being turned into musicals?

As much as the 2015 of Back To The Future Part II has been lampooned in internet memes, truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. Is it entirely unreasonable to expect that 30 years from right now, we'll have flying cars, hoverboards and 19 Jaws movies? Maybe, maybe not.

Given their track record for accuracy, it's doubtful that Robert Zemeckis and co could ever have foreseen themselves doing a stage musical version of Back To The Future around the time of the film's 30th anniversary, but sure enough, they announced one last week. It's coming to the West End next year, as we reported here.

The Power Of Love, Earth Angel and Johnny B. Goode are all essential musical moments from the original film, and we're hoping for some catchy refrains named after memorable quotes too- “Hello, McFly”, “You Are My Density” and “Darth Vader's Going To Melt My Brain” would be a start. Hell, we'd be happy if they just borrowed YouTube producer GoldenTusk's excellent theme-song-with-lyrics, (“You buiiiilt a tiiiiime machine out of a caaaaaaaaaar...”)

If we were cynical, we might put Broadway in the same light as Hollywood studios. It can cost over $10 million to mount a particularly ambitious musical, and it's tough to make your money back on that kind of investment without a known quantity. But is the adaptation of known properties into musicals just like Hollywood's adherence to reboots and sequels of established properties?

Well, it can't have hurt Disney's coffers, with their successful Broadway versions of Mary Poppins, Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and of course, The Lion King, but then most Disney movies already have songs built in, and that's if they're not outright musicals. There are also early signs that they plan to do a stage version of their current mega-hit, Frozen, at some point, and we'd certainly be happy to fork out for that.

Ironically, Mel Brooks' Broadway satire The Producers, in which an accountant and an unscrupulous producer to get away with fraud by producing a massive bomb, is one of the movies that has gone onto find huge success when it was turned into a musical, and even crossed the line twice when stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane made the movie musical remake in 2005.

Surely the property with the most back-and-forth is The Philadelphia Story, which started life as a play in 1939, before becoming a hit movie with Cary Grant and James Stewart in 1940, turned into a MGM movie musical in 1956, which was then adapted into a Broadway musical in 1988. Others have just gone one way, with Shrek, Elf, The Bodyguard, Legally Blonde and Catch Me If You Can all being redone, once more with feeling, on stage.

The plot of Back To The Future probably lends itself to the musical format better than some other films that have already made the transition - there are some where you really just wonder who connected the dots and said “this needs to be a musical”.

Probably the prime example of a successful rejig from an unlikely source, Little Shop Of Horrors was originally based on a Roger Corman-directed black comedy that opened as a B-movie back in 1960. It's now much better known as the 1982 off-Broadway musical, and the Frank Oz-directed movie version starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.

In its musical form, it propelled songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman into the spotlight, and the duo went onto provide the music for some of the massive Disney hits mentioned above. While Corman's film was always a black comedy, Menken and Ashman took the ending to a much darker place, with carnivorous plant Audrey II devouring all the main characters and continuing to take over the world.

Oz was pushed into a lighter ending in his film version, after poor test screenings, but the 2012 DVD and Blu-ray release has his director's cut, which ends with a giant Audrey II going on a rampage through New York, a la King Kong. The 2006 stage revival is still going strong in the West End, and there are rumblings of another movie version in development at Warner Bros, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt pencilled in to star.

If Little Shop Of Horrors played up the sci-fi and horror aspects of Corman's black comedy, then it pales in comparison to this raucous Canadian production, based on Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. First staged in Montreal, the rock musical played fast and loose in adapting all three movies, with the approval of Raimi and star Bruce Campbell.

The play has some cracking numbers too, from the swear-y and expository “What The Fuck Was That?” (“I got some Shelley on my shoe”) to the ballad-y “All The Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons”. One of the big selling points of this one was “the splatter zone”, the range in which patrons were likely to get hit by stray blood and viscera from the stage, and fans would reportedly queue for hours to get seated in the first three rows.

For a short while, there were rumours of this getting the Little Shop Of Horrors treatment on the big screen too, which were quickly put to rest by the producers, and double-tapped by the decidedly acapella franchise reboot in 2013. Here's hoping the show eventually makes its way to the UK, because it sounds like an experience that should probably be on any Evil Dead fan's bucket list.

Sometimes successful musicals have been based on cult movies that already have musical moments, but don't necessarily strike you as Broadway or West End material. Still, Monty Python's Spamalot, which writer Eric Idle “lovingly ripped off” from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, has proven to be hugely popular.

The show also pulls in songs from the rest of the Python canon, including Life Of Brian's Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, and everyone from Tim Curry to Les Dennis has stepped into the late, great Graham Chapman's original role as King Arthur. The show has been seen all over the world since its Broadway début in 2005, and continues to go strong since its West End revival.

But not every property is so lucky, as was the case for the apparently cursed Spider-Man musical, Turn Off The Dark, a show whose budget spiralled to $75 million in the course of various technical problems, health and safety issues and a ground-up rejig of the story.

Directed by Julie Taymor, with music and lyrics from Bono and The Edge, the absurdly named show suffered from negative buzz from the second it was announced, with entertainment pundits delighting in reporting the myriad misfortunes that had befallen actors as a result of safety violations.

Memorably, Hollywood Babble-On, the entertainment gossip show on Kevin Smith's Smodcast network, went as far as to give their recurring Spider-Man segment a jingle, which started with the theme tune from the classic 1960s animation, interrupted by an actor screaming and a cacophony of crashing noises. The injury toll was ridiculous enough to justify the gag too.

When Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark finally closed at the beginning of January, investors had reportedly lost $60 million over the course of its three year run. Reading about the show in retrospect, you almost want somebody to make a musical about the making of the musical, with all of its epic setbacks and misjudged creative decisions.

You would think that comic book characters might lend themselves to more of these shows, but few examples spring to mind. There was the short Broadway run of It's A Bird... It's A Plane... It's Superman in 1966, and an abortive attempt at a Captain America musical in the 1980s that would have seen the first Avenger coping with his own mid-life crisis, through song.

Just a few years ago, there were rumblings about Tim Burton returning to work on Batman: The Musical for Broadway, with a songbook by Bat Out Of Hell writer Jim Steinman. If you look online, you can find samples of songs that Steinman wrote for the show, and by all accounts, we should probably be happy that this didn't come to pass. Also, Warner Bros was later able to scratch that itch with the well-received, non-musical Batman Live arena show.

Aside from the theme song lyrics of GoldenTusk, it's YouTube videos which have reminded us of the unexplored musical potential of certain movies. Musicians Jon and Al Kaplan have devised genius musical numbers for a whole bunch of films, from Silence Of The Lambs to The Thing.

They've also specifically tailored solos to the careers of Liam Neeson, Sean Connery, and most frequently, Arnold Schwarzenegger - his Terminator 2 opera, To Kill Someone Again, is a masterpiece of pathos about the T-800's feelings on killing, (“The damn T-1000 has all of the fun / Now when I shoot, they don't die, they say ow!”)

This only goes to show that you can probably make a decent musical re-jig of most stories, so you can colour us optimistic about Back To The Future, which has the added boons of some already iconic musical moments, and a complete lack of superheroes in it. Not everything will transfer as smooth as a Disney, but in a world where Evil Dead's Ash Williams is the lead character of a successful and much acclaimed musical, who's to say that any musical is unlikely any more?

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You've missed one of the first - Return to the Forbidden Planet

It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, although the results aren't often great.
To go with you examples of unlikely sources in the middle of the piece (heck, if you're mentioning High Society/The Philadelphia Story), the current hot tickets on Broadway include the musical adaptation of... the brit-flick Kinky Boots.

Less than optimistic about the B2tF musical, although Tim Minchin et. al's forthcoming version of Groundhog Day has real potential as an idea, I think.

I had completely forgotten that Tim Minchin was doing Groundhog Day- there's gotta be a ton of potential in reprises and motifs alone. Thanks for the comment!

Tim Minchin only has to write one song for 'Groundhog Day.'

Cheeky choice of lead picture for the article there, DoG. :D
Are you expecting the musical to be met with the same bewildered silence that Marty got when it hits the stage?

Finally got to see Evil Dead back in October, I'd bee waiting 7 long years for that, and it was everything the cd I listened to repeatedly and the bootleg copy of the play if watched for years had shown it to be. As far aSpider-Man, I actually really enjoyed it when I went to see it back in 2011

I can imagine the Back to the Future crew turning to the production team behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the car effects... but really, it's all hit and miss, isn't it? Who knows what the public will take on as a favourite?

I saw a Broadway version of High Fidelity in 2006. I enjoyed it, but it was frankly bizarre. Would Rob have liked musicals? I doubt it, but there was a good Springsteen bit.

Oh, heck, you've left off several interesting examples. In 1966, Harold Prince directed "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, it's ....SUPERMAN!" based on the DC character. It produced two moderately successful songs ("You've Got Possibilities" and "It's Superman".) No exactly a disaster (it ran three months) the show was ahead of it's time, having been written by the same team which later wrote Chris Reeves' take on the character. The show has grown to solid cult status, with a major revival in Dallas Texas having rewritten the book. The cast album is available on CD, or download on Amazon.

There was "Catch Me If You Can", which ran for a couple of years on Broadway, and still have a successful national tour. "Legally Blonde, The Musical" was an out and out hit. How could you leave out "Young Frankenstein?"

Here's the thing about musicals.... they had a four major bits of bad luck in the 70s.

1. For two decades, starting in the 1950s, musical comedy wqs presented as the contemporary alternative to Rock and Roll. After listening to the adults sneer at Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones for twenty years, the next generation grew to resent the art form...and with good reason.

2. Musicals had become stale. In the 70s, the theater establishment had decides to destroy any show which had an electric guitar. They simply pretended that Elvis never happened.

3. MTV happened, which was the new source for people who liked being told a story through song and dance. By the 80s, we had a generation of views who had no idea how to watch a musical. The idea of someone in the middle of the street suddenly singing and dancing seemed ridiculous. Of course it is, but no more silly than "Jaws" when a full orchestra playing as a shark attacks three men in a boat. People had been trained to accept muscial soundtracks, but not musicals.

4. Musicals gained a reputation for employing gays because, er, it was true. Musicals became a handy stand-in when a comedian wanted to insult homosexuals.

And that's how things stood until the turn of the century. By then, things had changed.

1. Musical comedy people got over Rock and Roll.

2. It was Rock's turn to be stale. Rap, too, truth be told. Meanwhile, musicals were having fun, and breaking rules.

3. MTV gave up showing music videos, and turned to dreadful reality shows. Meanwhile, back in the 90s, Disney released a string of terrific musical comedy type cartoons ("The Littler Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", and "The Lion King") which taught young Americans how to watch a musical.

4. Gay bashing, thinly disguised or otherwise, had gone out of fashion.

5. And there's the simple economics - a successful musical will make literally billions. After all, they have been known to run for decades.

Nope. It's a terrific idea for a musical. Also, since it's being written, directed and scored by the people who created the original film, we can expect 30 years of "you know what we should have done" revisions to improve the piece. That's what we got with "The Producers" - Mel Brooks greatly improved upon his original screenplay.

I saw a Los Vagas production of the show - and I have to admit that I never enjoyed watched an Actress take off her shredded clothes as I did in that production.

I did mention that one in passing, after the Spider-Man bashing. :) Thanks for your comments, there are some strangely interesting ones there. (Catch Me If You Can playing exactly the same, but ending with a hug between the two leads?)

I wish it every success, I really do. And I think you're right: with the original people behind it it may well turn out to be a highly polished version of the classic.

Very spot on, I guess. You can see it in Hollywood, too. I don't remember a musical winning an Oscar in all of the 80s and 90s. Suddenly there was Chicago and lately Les Miserables. Even Clint Eastwood is doing a musical this year (as a Director, of course...)! Good article, too. I want to see hat Evil Dead musical so hard!

While not being a musical fan and so unlikely to go to see BTTF:The Musical, it really does make perfect sense for the treatment (in spite of my initial horror at the idea). Basically, it's an 80s/50s pop rock/rock 'n ' roll mash up - think Grease meets Rock of Ages (or maybe that's too rock based). Hopefully (for the audience) they'll weave some good nostalgic tracks around the proven solid story, rather than having too many musical standard "singing while talking" numbers. Still, at least that's better than writing a musical around the songs, which always seems to produce overly-literal nonsense (I managed to avoid the family trip to "We Will Rock You" due to the RWC 2007 quarter final but still manage a chuckle at the idea of a play that features characters called Galileo and Scaramouche no doubt doing the fandango - the rest of my family went along and loathed it).

You're quite correct - in my eagerness to be clever, I missed your reference. Interesting connection between "Superman" and "Spider-Man". The Dallas revival was so well received that the man who re-wrote the book was brought into New York to fix the Spider-Man musical. He raised the show from "utter disaster" to "watchable, I guess" status.

OK, here is a more complete list of the musicals based on a movie.... 42nd Street (musical)
9 to 5 (musical)
A Christmas Story: The Musical
Against All Hope
Aladdin (2011 musical)
Aladdin, Jr.
Applause (musical)
Back to the Future (musical)
The Baker's Wife
Barbarella (musical)
Beauty and the Beast (musical)
Betty Blue Eyes
Big Fish (musical)
Big: the musical
Billy Elliot the Musical
The Blues Brothers Show
The Bodyguard (musical)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (musical)
Bring It On the Musical
Busker Alley
La Cage aux Folles (musical)
Carmelina
Carnival in Flanders (musical)
Carnival!
Carrie (musical)
Catch Me If You Can (musical)
A Catered Affair
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (musical)
The Color Purple (musical)
Cry-Baby (musical)
Dance of the Vampires
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (musical)
Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular
Disney's My Son Pinocchio: Geppetto's Musical Tale
Donnybrook!
Edward Scissorhands (dance)
Elf: The Musical
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Evil Dead: The Musical
Fame (musical)
Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical
Flashdance the Musical
Footloose (musical)
The Full Monty (musical)
Georgy (musical)
Ghost the Musical
Giant Killer Shark: The Musical
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (musical)
The Goodbye Girl
Grand Hotel (musical)
Grey Gardens (musical)
Hairspray (musical)
Hands on a Hardbody (musical)Happy New Year (musical)
Hazel Flagg
Heathers (musical)
Henry, Sweet Henry
Here's Love
High School Musical on Stage!
Honeymoon in Vegas (musical)I
Illya Darling
King Kong (2013 musical)
King of Hearts (musical)
Kinky Boots (musical)
Leap of Faith (musical)
Legally Blonde (musical)
Legs Diamond (musical)
The Lion King (musical)
Kinky Boots
The Little Mermaid (musical)
Little Miss Sunshine (musical)
A Little Night Music
Little Shop of Horrors (musical)
Look to the Lilies
Love Story (musical)
Make a Wish (musical)
A Man of No Importance (musical)
Martin Guerre (musical)
Marty (musical)
Mary Poppins (musical)
Meet Me in St. Louis (musical)
Metropolis (musical)
Minsky's
My Favorite Year (musical)
Newsies (musical)
Nine (musical)
Nosferatu The Vampire (musical)
Oh, Captain!
On the Twentieth Century
The Opposite of Sex (musical)
Passion (musical)
Peggy Sue Got Married (musical)
Prince of Central Park (musical)
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (musical)
The Producers (musical)
Promises, Promises (musical)Puteri Gunung Ledang (musical)
Raggedy Ann (musical)
Re-Animator: The Musical
The Red Shoes (musical)
Reefer Madness (musical)
Return to the Forbidden Planet
Rigoletto (film)
Rocky the Musical
Saturday Night Fever (musical)
Scarrie! The Musical
Scary Musical
Scrooge (musical)
Secondhand Lions: A New Musical
Selena Forever
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (musical)
Shenandoah (musical)
Shrek The Musical
Silence! The Musical
Silk Stockings
Singin' in the Rain (musical)
Sister Act (musical)
Smile (musical)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (musical)
Spamalot
The Spring Chicken
State Fair (musical)
Sugar (musical)
Sunset Boulevard (musical)
Sweet Charity
Sweet Smell of Success (musical)
Tarzan (musical)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (musical)
Top Hat (musical)
The Toxic Avenger (musical)
Urban Cowboy (musical)
Victor/Victoria (musical)
The Wedding Singer (musical)
Whistle Down the Wind (musical)
White Christmas (musical)
Windy City (musical)
The Wizard of Oz (1987 musical)
The Wizard of Oz (2011 musical)
Woman of the Year (musical)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (musical)
A Wonderful Life (musical)
Xanadu (musical)
Young Frankenstein (musical)

Wicked- based on a book but funded by film studio (Universal) and on broadway. That's what I kind first thought when I read this.

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