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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