LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION! — Broadway's Newest Musicals Draw Inspiration from the Silver Screen

By Stuart Miller
25 Dec 2013

Thomas Meehan
Thomas Meehan
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Thomas Meehan, Marsha Norman, Susan Stroman and Stephen Flaherty chat with about adapting popular Hollywood movies into musicals for the Broadway stage.

When Sylvester Stallone first asked Thomas Meehan if he'd write a Broadway musical of "Rocky," he said no. Meehan essentially wrote the book on writing the book for films turned into musicals — he scripted Broadway's version of The Producers, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Young Frankenstein and Elf — but he feared that "Rocky" was too iconic, still seared in the memories of most Americans.

"Then Sylvester brought me to his house on a mesa at the top of Beverly Hills and we watched 'Rocky' together," he said, "and it reminded me how well the story was constructed, how much it was already like a play. So I said yes."

Making movies into musicals is nothing new for Broadway — since My Favorite Year in 1992, nearly every season has had one. Just as Hollywood seems increasingly in thrall to superheroes and young adult novels, Broadway is turning with increasing frequency to Hollywood for stories with recognizable brands. This season brings not only Rocky but Bullets Over Broadway and The Bridges of Madison County (technically an adaptation of the best-selling novel). Not to mention the forthcoming Aladdin, from the Disney movie musical, and Ever After, from the 1998 Drew Barrymore film.

"It's very tricky," said Marsha Norman, who wrote the Bridges book, when it comes to figuring out what stays, what goes, and where to put the songs. This year's trio of iconic movies-into-musicals all feature experienced hands: Norman (The Color Purple), Bullets director and choreographer Susan Stroman, (The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Big Fish) and Meehan, who brought in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (My Favorite Year, Ragtime) to write the score.

"The process is similar in that you start with the screenplay and figure out how to re-structure it into a musical," Stroman said. For starters, movie screenplays build over three acts while plays have two, "and you need a cliffhanger so people come back after intermission."

Additionally a movie may have 80 locations while a show cuts that down to eight or ten. "Then you have to decide which scenes to keep and how to incorporate them," she said. "Then you have to identify where the songs [go]."

With Mel Brooks, she would say, "I need you to write a song here called 'Break a Leg,'" but Woody Allen is using classic period tunes "so we had to sit and go through the American songbook and find songs that could push the plot forward."

Meehan said sometimes Flaherty and Ahrens would ask if they could take one of his scenes and make it into a song, using his dialogue as lyrics.