When Hollywood comes looking for theatrical material, they usually look for huge Broadway hits, but Off-Broadway hasn’t been left out of the movie musical business. When a show hits it big downtown, sometimes the silver screen beckons before a musical has had the chance to make it to Broadway, while others are adapted when a transfer isn’t in the cards. Here, we look at eight Off-Broadway musicals that were made into movies.
These days, composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz is best known for a little show called Wicked, but he first burst onto the musical theatre scene with Godspell, a musical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew from the Bible. Though the show had started as a non-musical play at Carnegie Mellon University and then Café LaMama (written by John-Michael Tebelak), Schwartz was brought in to contribute an original score. He wrote what would become a classic theatre score, with songs like “Day By Day,” “All Good Gifts,” and “Save the People,” and the show became a huge Off-Broadway hit after opening in May 1971.
Godspell was made into a movie in 1973, with a cast that included Victor Garber (who had been in the original Canadian company of the show) as Jesus, and four members of the original Off-Broadway cast: David Haskell, Joanne Jonas, Gilmer McCormick, and Jeffrey Mylett. The film is fairly faithful to the stage version of the work, though it cuts the songs “Learn Your Lessons Well” and “We Beseech Thee” and adds “Beautiful City,” which has subsequently appeared in newer stage productions of the piece.
The musical did eventually make it to Broadway, playing a year-long run three years after the movie was released and returning for a 2011 revival production, but when Godspell hit movie theatres, it was a bonafide Off-Broadway success story.
Based on a low-budget horror comedy film from 1960, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of a nerdy amateur botanist lured into committing terrible acts to feed his man-eating plant. The musical opened Off-Broadway after the success of an Off-Off Broadway Equity showcase production in 1982, and the show became an instant hit. Though producers were ready to bring the show to Broadway, book writer, lyricist, and director Howard Ashman thought that the show belonged downtown, and so there it stayed for its entire five-year-long run.
Towards the end of the show’s Off-Broadway run, Little Shop of Horrors was made into a movie with an all-star cast including Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Levi Stubbs, James Belushi, John Candy, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray. Ellen Greene re-created her performance as Audrey on screen. The film version cut and added a few songs, but the most dramatic difference was the ending. The stage version of Little Shop ends with the man-eating plant eating all of the major characters and taking over the world, and though this ending was originally planned and shot for the movie version, it didn’t score well with test audiences. A new ending was created in which Seymour is victorious and the plant is destroyed, which is how the film released. The “original” ending was restored for new director’s cut version of the film, which was released on Blu-ray in 2012 and recently played a special return engagement in movie theatres for Halloween.
Written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks still holds the honor of being the longest-running musical in history, though it has never played Broadway. The show opened in Greenwich Village in 1960, where it continued until January 2002—the original run lasted 17,162 performances.
The film adaptation’s journey to movie theatres was similarly lengthy. Film director Michael Ritchie, a fan of the original stage production, took on making the musical into a movie as a pet project, completing it in 1995. The cast included Joe McIntyre (of New Kids on the Block fame), Jean Louisa Kelly (who you may recognize from Mr. Holland's Opus), and Joel Grey. Though it was originally scheduled for a Thanksgiving release that year, executives at MGM/United Artists became worried after the film tested poorly. The film sat unreleased for five years until 2000, when it was released as a new abbreviated version that removed almost a half hour from Ritchie’s original cut of the film. A 2015 Blu-ray release saw the first official release of the original cut, included as a bonus feature.
Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch sees its title character, a genderqueer rock star who has survived a botched sex change operation, giving a concert and telling her life story. The original Off-Broadway production, which opened in 1998 starring book writer Mitchell, became an edgy downtown hit with a devoted following of fans. A string of prominent actors succeeded Mitchell in the title role, including Michael Cerveris, Ally Sheedy, and Matt McGrath.
A film version of the musical was released in 2001, adapted by and starring Mitchell. Though the movie is pretty faithful to the stage version of the show, the concert structure was dropped in favor of a more linear plot structure. The film was not a great financial success, but it was critically well-received and continues to have a devoted fanbase.
The show found big-time commercial success when it had its first Broadway production in 2014, starring Neil Patrick Harris. The show won Best Revival of a Musical at the 2014 Tony Awards and enjoyed a year-and-a-half run.
Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey’s Zombie Prom is a campy 1950s sci-fi musical about high school students fighting for a former classmate-turned-zombie to be allowed to attend the senior prom. The original production opened Off-Broadway in 1996 and only ran for 28 performances, but the musical has become a frequently-produced title at high schools and regional theatres.
The musical was adapted into a short film—running only 36 minutes—in 2006, with a cast led by RuPaul as the villainous Principal Delilah Strict. The film performed well at a number of film festivals, and even won Best Short Film at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Zombie Prom was initially released as an iTunes download, but can currently be found on certain video streaming websites.
It was reported in 2015 that a full-length movie of the musical was in works, but—at the time of publication—no concrete plans have materialized.
The Last Five Years
With book, music, and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years tells the story of an ultimately doomed five-year relationship between writer Jamie and actor Cathy. The catch is the musical’s plot structure, with Jamie progressing chronologically through the story from beginning to end while Cathy’s side flows in reverse chronological order, from the end to the beginning. The show had only a brief run Off-Broadway in 2002, but it has become a regional and college theatre favorite, ultimately returning for an Off-Broadway revival at Second Stage in 2013.
Director and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese adapted the musical for the silver screen in 2013, and the movie version starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan was released the following year. The film is faithful to the stage version of the show, though it shows more overtly the settings and subsidiary characters of the story than the two-person stage production allows for. The film only saw a limited release in movie theatres, but it simultaneously was released through video on demand services and eventually DVD and Blu-ray. It’s also currently available to view on Netflix.
Lucky Stiff is the first musical written by the writing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team behind Ragtime, Once On This Island, and Anastasia. The show follows Harry, a quiet English shoe salesman who discovers he will inherit a large sum of money from a distant uncle if he’s willing to meet the uncle’s bizarre and specific demands, specifically accompanying his lifeless corpse on a vacation to Monte Carlo. He’s followed by Annabel, who works for the Brooklyn Dog Shelter and—as stipulated by the will—will get the money should Harry fail to follow his uncle’s requests to the letter. The show played a well-received limited run at Playwrights Horizons in 1988.
A movie version, directed by Christopher Ashley and starring Dominic Marsh, Nikki M. James, Jason Alexander, and Dennis Farina, was made in the summer of 2012, but did not see release until 2015. It’s currently available on DVD and as a streaming rental through Vudu and Fandango Now.
Based on La Ronde by playwright Arthur Schnitzler, Hello Again shows a series of love affairs between ten different characters over ten different decades, though they are not presented in chronological order. It premiered Off-Broadway in December 1993 at Lincoln Center, playing 101 performances. The original cast included Donna Murphy, Michael Park, Carolee Carmello, John Cameron Mitchell, Malcoln Gets, Michele Pawk, and John Dossett.
The musical’s film adaptation will be released November 8. Cory Krueckeberg has adapted the musical for the screen, with Tom Gustafson directing a cast that includes Audra McDonald, Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson, T.R. Knight, Tyler Blackburn, Rumer Willis, Al Calderon, Jenna Ushkowitz, Sam Underwood, and Nolan Gerard Funk.