When Movies Become Musicals

In 2009, I had the pleasure of attending the Carleton University Sock ‘n’ Buskin Theatre Company’s production of Evil Dead: The Musical in Ottawa. Having already seen the musical performed by the original cast the year before at Toronto’s Diesel Theatre, my expectations were pretty high, and the lack of a “splatter zone” meant that the Carleton production already had one knock against it. What is a splatter zone? In the Toronto production of Evil Dead: The Musical, the first two rows are positioned directly under ceiling-mounted sprinklers that rain blood down upon the audience. When I attended, I very deliberately acquired tickets in the splatter zone and, like many of the other theatre-goers that evening, wore nothing but cheap white clothing to be stained with the watered-down red food colouring and kept as souvenirs of the performance.

In spite of the absence of blood-gushing sprinklers, the Sock ‘n’ Buskin performance contained all the same energy, joy and bloody mayhem of the original Toronto show. So much of what makes Evil Dead: The Musical fun is the balance of low-budget stage effects and full-blown cast enthusiasm. Everyone in the Carleton cast was clearly having a ball, and the fellow playing Ash, while a bit gawkier than the Bruce Campbell look-a-like at the Diesel Theatre, still did an admirable job of holding the show all by himself. The role of Ash is a demanding one, as there’s only maybe one scene in the entire show where he isn’t on stage.

As I left the theatre, I was struck by how much fun it was to see a live interpretation of one of the most notoriously gory shoestring budget horror movies ever made. Without the benefit of being able to set up each shot with appropriate special effects, the creators of Evil Dead: The Musical were forced to come up with creative ways to portray people being hacked to pieces, stabbed with a demonic dagger, and blasted through the walls with a shotgun. At one point, a headless body chases Ash around the stage with a chainsaw! It’s a sight to behold.

Upon returning home, I began to wonder if any other horror films have been adapted into stage musicals in the same vein as Evil Dead. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Silence of the Lambs has its own off-Broadway musical titled Silence: The Musical! I then stumbled upon the home page of High Fidelity: The Musical. Then Star Wars: The Musical. Then Shrek! Then Top Gun! Confusion washed over me as a clicked through page after page of movie-to-stage-musical adaptations until I found one that made me stop dead. Twilight: The Musical. It was all too much for me to handle.

I turned off my computer and sat in silence for a moment. As someone from a theatrical background, the idea of plays being based on movies seemed 180 degrees wrong to me. Movies were based on plays. That was the way it had always been. Think of the heavy hitters in the world of Broadway shows. Grease, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ: Superstar, Guys and Dolls, Sweeney Todd, The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Picture Show…It was always the play that came first, then the movie. But the more I looked around the internet, the more I found that the opposite has become the norm. With increasing frequency, Hollywood movies are being adapted into musicals, and what’s more: they’re receiving tons of critical acclaim! Take a look at the 2001 Broadway musical adaptation of The Producers, which won 12 Tonys! The Producers is a particularly strange case because the musical was based on a film, and then a film was made based on the musical!

To what can we attribute this strange phenomenon? This trend has been going on for quite some time, as the stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were both based more on the Disney films of the same name than any other source material, but it was the success of The Producers that caused a definite spike in plays based on films. Perhaps it’s due to the films already having devoted fan bases which the producers of the shows hope to cash in on. After all, we haven’t seen any film flops getting the Broadway treatment – thankfully, Ishtar: The Musical is nowhere to be found. Beyond pre-existing fan bases, however, I think that spectacle must also play a large part in the decision to adapt a film into a stage play. I’ll admit to being intrigued when they announced that a Lord of the Rings musical was in the works, if only because I wondered how they would depict the large-scale battles that were a major part of the books. The experience of watching a live show is much more visceral than watching a movie, and as a result, something as epic in scale as Lord of the Rings could provide a very different experience when watching it in person.

Julie Taymor’s Spider-man musical is finally hitting Broadway, and while one could argue that it is based on comic books more than movies, the Spider-man films have definitely had an influence on its production. Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is already the most expensive Broadway show in all of history, and knowing Taymor’s penchant for lavish sets, outrageous costumes and wild special effects, I have no doubt it will deliver spectacle in spades (even though it has also already delivered calamity in spades as well). But with the arrival of the web-slinging hero to the Broadway stage comes the question: will there ever be another original, big-budget Broadway show the likes of The Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof? Or have we reached a point where a pre-existing audience is more important to producers than a fresh, new story? As more and more film-to-stage adaptations appear, I can’t help but think that the relationship between movies and plays has been flipped on its ear. Whereas before Broadway provided so much inspiration for Hollywood, now the opposite is true, and it could very well stay that way. But that’s no reason to fret, because if you, like me, love both movies and stage shows, then you can have your cake and eat it too. I guarantee that eventually someone will adapt your favourite movie for the stage and when they do, you’ll probably have a great time. I know I did with Evil Dead: The Musical. Even if I didn’t get sprayed with blood the second time around.

On a side note, there’s talk of an upcoming Fight Club musical! Will you be seeing it?

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