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Hollywood Films Re-imagined for Broadway

Actors Margo Seibert and Andy Karl at the
Actors Margo Seibert and Andy Karl at the "Rocky" Broadway opening night on March 13, 2014, in New York City.
For many years, the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood went one way: from stage to screen. 

But in the past couple of decades, some of the biggest Broadway hits have been adapted from films - think Hairspray or Kinky Boots. Four of the big new musicals opening this spring are based on movies, including Rocky: The Musical.

The show’s creators knew they faced challenges when adapting Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award-winning boxing movie for the stage.

"If you speak to all of the authors and all of the creative team, their instinctive reaction, when first hearing about Rocky becoming a musical, ranges from incredulity to plain crazy," said Bill Taylor.  

Rocky presents a kind of double-edged sword; there’s a built-in audience that loves the film, but also has expectations. They'll hear Bill Conti’s iconic theme, but the rest of the score is by Tony Award winners Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty.

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"The Bill Conti music is so associated with Rocky that it seemed inappropriate not to have it in there," Taylor said.

But Ahrens and Flaherty were able to flesh out the romance between Rocky, the boxer, and Adrian, the shy pet shop clerk who’s his girlfriend.

Helpful branding

Can Rocky: The Musical - which turns a New York theater into a boxing ring - win over the film’s fans?  Broadway’s a tough business where only one out of every four shows succeeds. It does help if producers can present a show that already has a brand attached, no matter how iconic.  

Stacy Mindich says that’s one reason she decided to produce the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County.
Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in "The Bridges of Madison County" on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
"I think when you are looking at a novel that sold 50 million copies worldwide and a film that grossed, you know, $180 million, which was quite a lot for 1995, I believe it was, that you can’t say no," Mindich said.  
 
The Bridges of Madison County both adheres to and diverges from the book and movie, about a four-day love affair between an Italian-born housewife in Iowa and a National Geographic photographer. Mindich says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Martha Norman and Tony Award-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown shifted the emphasis of the story.

"Their original take on this is from the woman’s point-of-view, which is rather different from the experiences of reading the book or seeing the movie, because she created this story from Francesca Johnson’s point of view, not Robert Kincaid’s," Mindich said.

From screen to stage

If one company has experience in adapting films to the stage, it’s Disney. The Lion King was a huge success, but The Little Mermaid and Tarzan were flops. The Hollywood behemoth has now turned to its 1992 animated film Aladdin as the source of a new stage show.  

Creating flying carpets isn't too difficult to do these days on Broadway, but making a blue genie who magically morphs into different shapes and sizes might prove a bit more difficult. On top of that, the character was voiced by Robin Williams.

There were fewer than five songs in the film. The stage version has been fleshed out with songs the original writers, Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, wrote that did not make it into the final cut of the movie.

Director Casey Nicholaw says Disney has been very supportive of these and other changes.

"It’s their property, you know, so they’re protective of it, in a good way," Nicholaw said. "They’re completely encouraging about taking it and making it theatrical, as opposed to, 'You know what?  We just want to put the movie onstage, you know?'  They’re saying 'Let’s make it theater-worthy.'”  

The challenge is a little tougher when the original creator does not want a typical Broadway musical, which was the case with Woody Allen and Bullets Over Broadway.

"He didn’t want to do it himself, but he hates to turn it over to someone," said Letty Aronson, the producer of the upcoming Broadway version of Bullets Over Broadway and Allen's sister. Allen also wasn't enthusiastic about using music composed especially for the show.

Aronson and co-producer Julian Schlossberg say Allen okayed the adaptation when they agreed to use period music from the 1920s for his farce about gangsters and theater types.

The audience will decide whether Bullets Over Broadway - or any of these other new shows - is the one of four that succeeds.

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