Critic's Notebook: Why the Film 'Once' Became a Hit Broadway Musical But 'Rocky' Did Not

Rocky Production Still - P 2014
Courtesy of Polk and Co.

Rocky Production Still - P 2014

Still, upcoming productions of 'Honeymoon in Vegas,' 'Finding Neverland,' 'An American in Paris,' 'Doctor Zhivago' and 'Gigi' suggest the movie-to-musical trend is alive and kicking

One of the funniest jokes in the current, Tony-winning revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the mockup program littered all over the Belasco Theatre floor for Hurt Locker: The Musical, a fake production that ostensibly opened and closed the same night.

The fate of a string of recent casualties might not have been quite so brutal, but the 2013-14 Broadway season was definitely an unforgiving one for musicals retooled out of popular screen properties. One after the other, four big-budget shows crashed to premature commercial death after drawing critical reaction that ranged from lukewarm to withering.

Big Fish, based on the yarn-spinning Daniel Wallace novel and Tim Burton movie, was the first to flounder. The Bridges of Madison County, adapted from the sudsy Robert James Waller bestseller and the Clint Eastwood film, failed to find an audience, despite significant appreciation for its romantic score and gifted leads. Director Alex Timbers' dynamic staging of the climactic boxing match couldn't save the Sylvester Stallone-produced Rocky from an early knockout. And Bullets Over Broadway was machine-gunned soon after word got out that Woody Allen's book was a lazy retread, and the period jukebox tunes were a slipshod fit for the screwball narrative.

Read more 'Big Fish': Theater Review

So will that series of flops slow the locomotive of movie-to-musical adaptation, which has become one of the dominant trends of Broadway in the past decade?

Unlikely. What it might do, if there's an upside to a season scarred by costly failures, is encourage greater caution in theater producers seduced into believing that a movie's built-in brand appeal automatically translates into box office gold.

Leaving aside Disney shows like The Lion King, Aladdin, Newsies and Mary Poppins, which were carved out of movie musicals, the screen-to-stage highway in recent seasons has been littered with song-and-dance roadkill.

Read more 'The Bridges of Madison County': Theater Review

Among seemingly surefire winners that underperformed on Broadway are Legally Blonde, 9 to 5, Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, ShrekThe Wedding Singer and Ghost. Some, such as Dirty Dancing, Little Miss Sunshine and Flashdance didn't even make it that far, their hopes for a major New York berth fizzling in regional tryouts or London. Others, like The First Wives Club, Bull Durham or The Bodyguard, are waiting in the wings, their Broadway fates still uncertain.

While the shortcomings of those shows may vary, many of them share a fatal tendency to forego the wholesale reinvention required of a different medium. Instead, they merely amp up the volume, broaden the humor or trowel on the sentiment, resulting in brashly counterfeit karaoke versions of big-screen favorites that can be enjoyed intact — and for a fraction of the price — at home.

But when a creative team rebuilds film sources from the ground up, taking full advantage of the immediate connection between theater audience and performer, and of the musical's heightened capacity for emotional elevation, the results can step triumphantly out from behind their screen shadow.

Read more 'Rocky': Theater Review

A show that hews closely to the original film material can still work, but it generally needs a knockout score to lift the material to another level. Perhaps the best recent example is A Christmas Story: The Musical, based on the 1983 holiday cable favorite.

Some of the biggest Broadway hits of the past decade or so have been reshaped out of movies. That includes half the Tony Award honorees for best musical since 2000, among them The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, Monty Python's SpamalotBilly Elliot, Once and Kinky Boots. And last season's winner, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, owed more to the classic Ealing Studios black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, than it did to the obscure 1907 novel that was its credited source.

The distinguishing trait of the majority of those shows is that they forge a sufficiently fresh identity to stand alone, while retaining the vital essence of the original material.

Read more 'Bullets Over Broadway': Theater Review

Anything that sprang from the irreverent mind of John Waters, the high priest of bad taste, might seem an unlikely fit for wholesome musical treatment. But it's that odd match that made Hairspray such a delight. And Mel Brooks' love of vintage Borscht Belt shtick combined with outlandish metatheatrics to make The Producers a riot on stage. At the other end of the spectrum, the intimacy of the microbudget Irish indie Once yielded a lo-fi charmer that proved Broadway is not exclusively the domain of the really big show.

Some of the most distinctive film-derived musicals have come from the least likely sources, and perhaps producers should start looking beyond the obvious for raw material.

The films of Federico Fellini could hardly be more intrinsically cinematic, and yet Nights of Cabiria and 8 1/2 spawned two enduring musicals in Sweet Charity and Nine. The 1978 French comedy about a gay marriage, La Cage aux Folles, a global smash based on a Jean Poiret play, became a 1983 musical that has won top Tonys in all three of its Broadway incarnations. However, aside from a misconceived reworking of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and the intriguing recent announcement of a developing musical based on Brazilian screen classic Black Orpheus, foreign-language films remain an underexplored resource.

Read more 'Kinky Boots' Theater Review

Likewise with documentaries, although Grey Gardens, adapted from the Maysles brothers' 1975 cinema-verite portrait of East Hampton eccentrics Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie, was one of the most moving and original Broadway musicals in years. That 2006 show's critical success outweighed its commercial fortunes, but it nonetheless remains a landmark among screen-to-stage refits. Another documentary was the basis of 2013's Hands on a Hardbody, surely one of Broadway's more admirable recent failures and one of few contemporary shows to depict real heartland people in economic distress.

Among the cleverest musicalized movies of the past decade was 2007's Xanadu, an exhilaratingly insane marriage of '80s vulgarity and Ancient Greek myth teased out of the Olivia Newton-John screen bomb. But while critics raved, not everyone wants to pay Broadway prices for a show that makes a virtue of its trashtacular cheesiness. So it's perhaps no surprise that the rumors of a similar overhaul for another 1980 movie-musical crime, the Village People sing-along Can't Stop the Music, failed to materialize.

High hopes for this season rest on Honeymoon in Vegas, reshaped by composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and writer Andrew Bergman from the 1992 Nicolas Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com. The show drew love letters from critics in its regional tryout last fall at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, and having its roots in a forgettable movie rather than a well-remembered source might turn out to be an advantage. Just ask the folks behind Kinky Boots.

Read more 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder': Theater Review

As for Finding Neverland, its rocky road to Broadway has included a change of cast, director and composing team. But the Harvey Weinstein-produced musical, based on the 2004 movie about J.M. Barrie's friendship with the family that inspired Peter Pan, has undergone major fine-tuning during its tryout run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. The track record of director Diane Paulus on recent revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess and Pippin makes it foolish to underestimate this long-gestating show's potential.

Also prominent on the upcoming commercial radar is An American in Paris, adapted from the 1951 MGM classic, which arrives in the spring after trying out in — where else? — Paris. And who better to channel the spirit of Gene Kelly than longtime New York City Ballet star Christopher Wheeldon, making his Broadway debut as director-choreographer?

While Boris Pasternak's epic Russian novel of love and war is the credited source of Doctor Zhivago, that late addition to the Broadway spring lineup also comes with evocative associations to David Lean's enduring 1965 film version. Will its stars measure up to the romantic memory of Julie Christie and Omar Sharif?

Finally, screen sources for musicals don't come any classier than Gigi, based on the Collette novel and the 1958 film, with its sparkling Lerner & Loewe score.

The show first appeared on Broadway in a short-lived 1973 run, and was long considered a miss because of its problematic book. But the new adaptation by British playwright and screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) impressed industry insiders at workshop readings. While no firm plans are in place, the production is considered a good bet to segue from its January premiere at the Kennedy Center in D.C. to Broadway, with Vanessa Hudgens in the title role.

Regardless of how that turns out, don't expect creative teams to stop ransacking the movie vaults for material anytime soon. But let's hold off on that Hurt Locker musical.