In general, I am not a fan of musicals based on movies. I think the trend skimps on creativity, instead pandering to the expected and predictable. Worse, from a totally pretentious perspective, I think the almost decade-long trend allows too much of the corporate to leak into an artform I consider … precious.
But artists have relied on the rich, essentially corporate, upper classes for, well, ever. What’s the difference between a painter being commissioned to paint a portrait of an 18th century merchant, and Disney commissioning a large theatre to do a full-scale production of “Beauty and the Beast”? Not much besides my ego.
My ego is reinforced by the fact that most theatres in the country — Broadway theatres aside — are non-profit theatres. This means they should be doing something for the community. Sick as it is, Broadway, being for-profit, should follow market trends. This makes sense, although it has produced some spectacular failures of late (Spider-man, American Idiot, Legally Blonde, and a host of other musicals based on movies which you’ve probably never heard of because they sucked). But if theatres are not-for-profit, they should be improving the community in some way … which has led many down the delusional path that they’re educational institutions as well as places for entertainment. So, is it better to improve your community by bringing in the latest Broadway tour for all to see and potentialy bringing in a crapton of tourist revenue in the process, or is it better to produce new-ish plays (which were probably produced on or off-Broadway, or more recently, in Chicago) that make some grand political statement, and tie several education programs into it? They both strike me as hugely arrogant, even if they also have some positive effect.
Copious Notes also has a pretty good summary of the trend, from way way back in 2006.
My concern, ultimately, is that signing on to a project that is a musical based on a movie seems like you’re creating a new work, without actually doing a lot of creating. The plot is built in for you — where’s the creativity in that? What I’d love to see is more actual originality in musicals. Granted, I’d love to see more actual originality in all theatre.
It looks like the trend is beginning to change, however. Although movie studios continue to throw money at theatres to essentially franchise a movie into a musical, originality has been winning out a lot lately. Of the 48 listed musicals currently running on Broadway, 8 of them are based on movies; 9 of them are revivals; 5 of them are based on some other pop culture … thing (a tv show or an album, for example). This means that 22 of the musicals on Broadway right now are unoriginal. However, twenty-six of the musicals on Broadway right now are all original, including the massively-popular “The Book of Mormon.” In the last 6 years of Tony Awards, 4 of those years Best Musical went to an original show — 2006: Jersey Boys; 2007: Spring Awakening (based on a book from 1891); 2008: In the Heights; and 2010: Memphis. 2005, the winner was Spamalot, and in 2009 Best Musical went to Billy Elliot, but Best Original Score went to Next to Normal, an original musical which started here, in the Pacific Northwest, at the Village Theatre.
It looks like the very beginning of the tide turning. I’m excited to see what comes out of this. I’m looking forward to overcoming my pretentious, hipster ennui for my chosen artform. Just because it’s pop culture doesn’t mean it should be blasé.