What Were They Thinking: The Most Bizarre Musical Adaptations

| July 31, 2014
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Good news for anyone who loved the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love: the recent musical adaptation of the story of Shakespeare and his muse for Romeo and Juliet is getting rave reviews in London. If you watched the original movie back in 1998 and thought, “It’s good, but what if the Bard had a power ballad explaining his feelings for Viola?”, then this is the musical for you.

In the past few years, the silver screen has become the go-to source for theater producers looking to create a sure-fire musical hit. It makes sense; if audiences loved the movie, of course they’ll love it on stage with a couple of chorus lines and catchy hooks thrown in. Some have been successful (Hairspray, The Producers, The Lion King and Monty Python’s Spamalot), while others sound like SNL parodies or show tune hallucinations. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in the meeting where some brave composer said: “You know what I could write a killer score for? That Stephen King movie about the girl soaked in pig blood at her prom. Her mother can sing a whole “Dirty Pillows” number. And, at the end, the destruction of the gym can be a piece of interpretive dance!” Seriously.

Here are some of our favorite odd musical adaptations, from supernatural feminist metaphors (The Witches of Eastwick) to bungee jumping superheroes (Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark).

The Witches of Eastwick

John Irving’s novel of magical happenings was adapted into a film in 1987 starring Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the titular witches. In 2000, composer Dana P. Rowe, lyricist John Dempsey and hit-making producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to take the story to the London stage. Five, six, seven, eight; spell, hex, curse, conjure JAZZ HANDS! This time, the witches were led by Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, with the devilish role portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson going to Deadwood actor Ian McShane. Problems surrounded the new production with rewrites, cast changes and special effects challenges, but the show has gone on to tour Europe and Australia (although never really becoming a hit with U.S. audiences). A musical about a polyamorous arrangement of witches and a gossipy small town chorus sounds like a good place to start. Unfortunatley, supernatural/horror elements never really worked in a musical setting, and don’t even get us started on the infamous “cherry-pit puking scene” that made it into the show. Some things just shouldn’t be sung about.

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Out of all of Roman Polanski’s films, 1967′s The Fearless Vampire Killers is probably the most appropriate for a musical adaptation (not that that means much; it’s just a better choice than The Pianist or Rosemary’s Baby). The story of a 19th century professor hunting Eastern Europe for proof of vampires (and his eventual encounter with the bloodsuckers) was given a score by Jim Steinman and originally found success in Vienna in 1997. When the team tried to transfer the show to Broadway in 2002 (retitling it Dance of the Vampires), the trouble began. Temperamental Phanton of the Opera star Michael Crawford apparently insisted on changes to his Count character, and the horror or spoof question surrounding the tone of the show was never resolved. In the end, the musical looked and sounded like a Meatloaf music video and audiences stayed away. In addition to Dance of the Vampires,  adaptations of Dracula and Interview with the Vampire have also famously flopped on stage. Theater makers, take the hint; the undead are not musical material.

Heathers

The 1988 mean teen classic starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty first found its way to the stage in a 2010 concert and is closing off-Broadway this August after a five month run. The show kind of works because it gets that turning a story about murder via Draino, faked gay suicide pacts and the sinister side of adolescence into a bunch of chipper show tunes is kind of ridiculous; composers and lyricists Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy are totally in on the joke. The original Heathers was almost operatic in its insanity and songs like “My Dead Gay Son” make good use of some of the most quotable lines from the film. That said, it’s still a totally absurd premise for a musical, but the score helps keep the irony and darkness front and center.

Rocky

The 1976 Academy Award-winning boxing classic Rocky is known for a lot of things: great training montages, an underdog hero and stunning shots of Philly. What it’s not known for is a particularly verbal or even enunciation-friendly leading man. The idea of mumbling, taken-one-too-many-punches-to-the-mouth Rocky singing a love ballad to Adrienne is laughable, although we can totally see Apollo Creed busting into song, since he was practically the James Brown of boxing. The adaption, originated in Hamburg in 2012 with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Thomas Meehan, is currently playing on Broadway. What works for the show is the athleticism in the choreography (jump ropes, for crying out loud!) and the fact that we get to hear “Eye of the Tiger” onstage. But the idea of Rocky Balboa singing is just too much. If we were going to turn a Stallone movie into a musical, our first choice would be Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! without a doubt.

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

Superheroes have a troubled history in musical theater (see notorious 1966 show and 1975 television special It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman), but that didn’t stop Lion King director Julie Taymor and U2 composer and lyricists Bono and The Edge from trying to wring a few songs out of Spider-Man. The production is one of the most notorious in recent Broadway history; a year before opening, stunt disasters, rewrites, sky rocking budgets and the eventual dismissal of Taymor from the show all made the musical highly anticipated for all the wrong reasons. When the show finally opened in 2011, it had the distinction of having the most previews in Broadway history (182, to be exact) and was also the most expensive show ever produced for the Great White Way. While critics were dazzled by the stunts and Eiko Ishioka’s costumes, everything else was blasted. Call me old fashioned, but the Green Goblin is so much less menacing when he’s playing the piano.

Carrie

The 1988, $8 million musical adaptation of Carrie seems like a really bizarre idea, even in light of the cult status the blood-soaked flop has earned in subsequent revivals. Fame composer and lyricist Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford wrote the score, Debbie Allen choreographed and legit diva Betty Buckley (the singer of “Memory” in Cats) was cast as Carrie’s religious fanatic mom, but not even those pros could turn the musical that never should have been into a hit. Critical response was negative and audiences were bewildered during the short 15 performance run; some performances ended with both boos and standing ovations. Some fun facts from the show: the original actress playing Carrie’s mother in previews resigned from the show after nearly being decapitated by a set piece, a song about Carrie’s period scare in the locker room was sadly cut in try-outs and the actresses that played Carrie through the productions almost were electrocuted multiple times when their mics shorted out after getting drenched with blood at the prom. No matter what may come, we’re betting Carrie will hold its spot as the most absurd musical adaptation ever (unless I finally get to produce my all-singing tribute to the sexual-compulsive film Shame sometime in the next few years!).

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About the Author ()

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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