(Screen)Plays

Special Features   (Screen)Plays Films have been the source material for musicals for many years. More and more, though, movies are finding life as plays.
Julianna Margulies and Michael Hayden in Festen.
Julianna Margulies and Michael Hayden in Festen. Photo by Joan Marcus

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The conversion of movies into stage musicals is old news. It has been one of the dominant trends in Broadway theatre for the past decade, after all.

One need only looks at some of the recent Tony winners for Best Musical: The Lion King, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, Spamalot. That's not to mention such also-rans as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, Mary Poppins, Sweet Smell of Success and The Wedding Singer.

But movies transformed into straight plays? That's something fairly new. This growing trend arguably began with The Graduate, the critically lambasted adaptation of the iconic Mike Nichols film that was a commercial smash in both London and New York. That production seemed an anomaly at the time, but in the past year or so, screen-to-stage plays began popping up everywhere. For whatever reason, the productions have been concentrated in London: When Harry Met Sally, based on the Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan romantic comedy; Festen, an adaptation of the experimental Danish film "Celebration"; The 39 Steps, based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller; All About My Mother, the Old Vic hit version of the Pedro Aldomovar film; Elling, a Bush Theatre staging of the 2001 Norwegian film of the same name; and A Matter of Life and Death, a reworking of a little known David Niven movie from 1946, which played earlier this year at the National Theatre.

New York, however, will not remain unexposed to this new phenomenon for long. Festen already reached New York last season, and 39 Steps will be seen in a staging by Roundabout Theatre Company this December. It is also expected that All About My Mother, which was largely well-reviewed, will find its way across the water. "I think there are probably two reasons," for the trend, said Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes, who, in addition to hosting 39 Steps, produced the prime American example of the new category: Twelve Angry Men. "One is that ultimately people want to hear a good story. And, from my personal perspective, there has been a swing backward in the past decade toward audiences enjoying traditional stories as opposed to avant-garde things that were more popular in the '70s. Films follow a basic story. The other reason is there's a built-in degree of name recognition."

Title recognition comes up again and again as the foremost reason why films are finding their way to the stage as dramatic plays. Speaking of The Graduate, Haimes said, "Clearly, without the unbelievably high name recognition and positive memories, it would not have been successful." Haimes said the same thing happened with Twelve Angry Men, a one-set, intermissionless, jury room drama which became the biggest non-musical hit in Roundabout history, as well as the subject of a successful current U.S. tour.

"With Twelve Angry Men there was no question that that story and title just struck a chord from the first day," said Haimes. "The day we announced that show, it started selling out. What else could you attribute it to?"

Writing Crisis?

London-based theatre critic Mark Shenton agrees that audience familiarity with certain titles has fueled some of the stage adaptations. But he doesn't believe that's the only reason producers are turning to the silver screen.

"There is, at the moment, in England anyway, a little bit of a crisis in new writing," said Shenton. "I think we could be going through a fallow period, and when there isn't anything to put on, producers look to properties that are known and loved. It's the same reason people make films into musicals — title recognition. It helps to sell tickets."

Shenton bemoaned the fact that Samuel Adamson, the man who wrote the stage script of All About My Mother, was thusly employed. "Samuel Adamson is a very bright up and coming playwright, and he's devoting time and energy into adapting the work of someone else. You hope that a young writer who's very talented will devote his time to his own original work."

Adamson, of course, doesn't see it that way. "I wouldn't have accepted the job if I didn't think it could be re-imagined in a new way for the theatre," said the British writer. "I don't think there's anything wrong with traffic between different forms. A don't take the very strong academic position that adaptation is uninteresting. I think adaptation can be very interesting and valid."

Adamson said he was approached by the producers of All About My Mother and asked if he'd be interested in adapting the Aldomover film for the stage. "I think as an adapter you look at the material and ask yourself, 'Is it justified?'" he explained, adding that he thought no other movie by the Spanish filmmaker would make for a good stage play.

Addition and Subtraction

Shenton, voicing a complaint many critics have lodged against the burgeoning genre, argued that "unlike a musical based on a film, in which the music adds something by the songs, which is additional emotional content, the play versions of films usually tend to add very little. And, in the case of The Graduate, it actually took away from the film." When the play is virtually a ditto of the movie, critics charge, the enterprise smacks of needless repetition and cynical producing instincts.

Adamson concurred, saying, "Of course, it is the case that there is such a thing as producing a play purely on the back of an appealing title. That does happen." He added, however, that "I happen to believe passionately that All About My Mother doesn't fall into that camp."

Critics have largely agreed with Adamson, applauding his play, which stars Diana Rigg. They have also given their blessing to The 39 Steps, an inventive retelling of the Hitchcock thriller which employs only four actors in multiple roles. In fact, all told, the critical verdict on the recent crop of movie-based plays seems to be 50 percent positive, 50 percent negative. Just as with other trends in the theatre, such as jukebox musicals and movie-star-anchored limited runs, the reception seems to depend on the specific property.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the number of dramatic adaptations of films will probably grow. "It's the same way that everybody has figured out that it can only help a musical in terms of getting initial attention," said Haimes. "It's not surprising [producers] are turning to the movie stories in the non-musical way. They're not in great numbers yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it increases."

Still, the detractors can hope. Said Shenton: "I keep hoping that they're going to run out of films eventually."

Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry in <i>When Harry Met Sally</i>.
Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry in When Harry Met Sally. Photo by Alastair Muir
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