Screen to Stage: Movie into Musical Success Stories

By Benjamin Solomon
August 16, 2013

Playbill.com offers a look at the rare screen-to-stage adaptations that managed to eclipse their inspirations.



Not every great film makes a great musical. Just see Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, Big, Ghost or any number of screen-to-stage adaptations that flopped on Broadway over the years. But occasionally a film just clicks on the stage, music and dance giving it a little something more than celluloid ever did. That was the case for Kinky Boots, the Broadway adaptation of a small British indie film that received mixed reviews and performed poorly at the American box office. The stage musical version went on to score rave reviews and eventually the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical.

And while the success of a Broadway musical based on a film like "Kinky Boots" is rare, Kinky Boots is hardly the first adaptation to overshadow or improve upon the film that inspired it. So, with a slew of new screen-to-stage musicals arriving during the 2013-14 Broadway season (Big Fish, Diner, Bullets Over Broadway, Rocky), we decided to take look at some of the more successful attempts at turning films into showstoppers for the Great White Way. A few of them were so successful they earned Broadway's greatest honor: being adapted into a motion picture.

Click through to read Playbill.com's list of stage shows that outshone their original film versions.

Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

Before he was Disney's go-to composer, Alan Menken was making a splash Off-Broadway with an adaptation of Roger Corman's campy, low-budget horror film from 1960. Before the musical, the almost-forgotten film was maybe best known for starring a young Jack Nicholson. But when Menken's musical became an Off-Broadway sensation, it helped turn Corman's film into a cult classic. Meanwhile, Little Shop of Horrors, the musical, became a massive success, launching Menken's career and inspiring a famous film adaptation directed by Frank Oz, not to mention a musical TV show in 1991. A Broadway revival and community theatre productions the world over also helped to secure its place in the catalogue of most beloved musicals.

Christopher Sieber and Harvey Fierstein in La Cage aux Folles.
Photo by Joan Marcus

La Cage aux Folles (1983)

One of the early screen-to-stage successes, Harvey Fierstein's adaptation of the ninth highest-grossing foreign film of all time proved there was more to squeeze out of Edouard Molinaro's French farce about a son who introduces his fiance to his father, who owns a drag nightclub, and his partner, who headlines there. In the end, the musical stood on its own two feet thanks to a memorable score, becoming the only musical to win the best production Tony Award (Best Musical or Best Musical Revival) every time it has been on Broadway. It even drew film producers to the project, who first considered a star-studded adaptation of the musical before deciding to turn the source material into the now classic American film "The Birdcage," which, in turn, helped elevate Broadway golden boy Nathan Lane into the star he is today.

Judy Kuhn in Passion.
photo by Joan Marcus

Passion (1994)

Stephen Sondheim decided to adapt the now mostly forgotten Italian film "Passione d'Amore" after seeing it in cinemas in 1983. He teamed up with lyricist James Lapine and developed the musical version of the movie, which concerned a soldier's fascination with a physically unattractive woman named Fosca. Passion became a critical sensation and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Though not Sondheim's best-known work, it is still considered one of the high points of his career and certainly better remembered than its film predecessor.

Gary Beach in The Producers.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Producers (2001)

Mel Brooks' feature film debut, about a washed-up Broadway producer and his accountant who set out to make a profit by ensuring a Broadway flop, is undoubtedly a comedy classic which earned Brooks his only Academy Award and marks his first film with regular collaborator Gene Wilder. But upon its debut, "The Producers" received mixed reviews and in the ensuing years was often pushed to the margins of his filmography — that is until he was approached by David Geffen to turn it into a stage musical. The result was nothing short of a Broadway phenomenon, breaking box-office records and earning a never-before-seen 15 Tony Award nominations. The musical became a pop-culture landmark and even inspired a star-studded film adaptation featuring many members of the original Broadway cast. Sadly, the film of the stage musical adapted from the movie about a musical flop didn't fare well in cinemas, its poor reception the only stain on The Producers' shining legacy.

Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray

Hairspray (2002)

Another cult classic by an iconic cinematic auteur, the 2002 musical version of Hairspray was part of the first round of screen-to-stage adaptations following the runaway success of the The Producers. The campy 1988 film on which it was based, about an overweight girl who makes it onto an American Bandstand-style show in a racially divided 1950s Baltimore, won critical raves — if not commercial success — when it first hit movie theatres as kitsch director John Waters' most mainstream piece of work. While the film failed to garner long-term traction outside of cult fame, its rock 'n' roll vibe was prime for adaptation. So it was no surprise that when composer Marc Shaiman and writer Thomas Meehan adapted the film for the stage, it quickly became a modern classic, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best New Musical, and running for six years. Adam Shankman's film version of the stage adaptation went on to become one of the highest-grossing musical films of all time.

Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson in Xanadu.
Photo by Peter Lueders/Paul Kolnik Studio

Xanadu (2007)

When producers announced they were bringing their adaptation of the 1980s Olivia Newton John roller-disco disaster "Xanadu" to Broadway, theatregoers were understandably cautious. The now cult classic film was a notorious failure that barely broke even at the box office. But book writer Douglas Carter Beane knew the film's soundtrack of ELO songs, a smash at the time (unlike the film), was full of hits, and he set about giving the story of a Greek muse sent to Earth to inspire a street artist a lovingly self-mocking new attitude. To many skeptics' surprise, the unlikely Broadway show was a critical hit and earned four Tony nominations and even won the Drama Desk Award for Best Book of a Musical.

Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in Once.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Once (2012)

Though the film "Once" was adored by critics on release, its effect did more to advance the career of its star, musician Glen Hansard and his song "Falling Slowly" than the Irish film's writer/director John Carney, and "Once" was mostly forgotten save for a small community of theatre fans — the same fans who would eventually come to love the intimate film musical more in its new life on Broadway. The stage musical version of Once, which retains much of Hansard's songs but made innovative choices about its staging and orchestration, went on to win eight Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical, and recently opened in London and launched a US tour.

Jeremy Jordan and company
Photo by Deen van Meer

Newsies (2012)

A critical and box office bomb when it was released in 1992, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman's musical film "Newsies," which starred a young Christian Bale as the organizer of a newsboy strike in turn of the century New York City, was always thought of as ripe for stage adaptation, especially by a new generation of fans who helped it become a cult favorite. But even when Disney Theatrical Group got around to developing it for the stage, they were nervous about its potential for success, given it had already failed them miserably before. After a lauded out-of-town tryout, Disney gave Newsies a go on Broadway where its fan based proved lucrative. The show got an open run and eventually won two Tony Awards for its memorable choreography and score, slight vindication for loyal fans who always believed the film never got its due.