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Howard Sherman: Is classic TV ripe for theatre’s picking?

A scene from the Bardy Bunch, a new musical based on The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Photo: Tom Henning
A scene from The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, a new musical based on The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Photo: Tom Henning
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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In theatre, there’s typically somewhere between 90 minutes to two and a half hours to establish characters, take them through a plot and wrap up their story.

Yes, there are exceptions such as Nicholas Nickleby and The Norman Conquests, but the world of the play, or musical, is constrained by time. Movies operate similarly, but since sequels and universes have taken over cinemas, the opportunity to explore character or plot over many more hours has been significantly expanded, even if in some cases to diminishing returns.

A successful television series operates under a different model: most episodes are only between 30 and 60 minutes, but the lives and stories of the characters can go on for years, sometimes adding up to hundreds of hours.

Of course, it’s relatively recently that narrative television has fully taken advantage of the opportunity to tell serialised stories in the way that Dickens once did. Go back 40 or 50 years and TV episodes were (at least on American TV), often as not, self-contained entities, where what took place one week had little or no bearing on the next.

I raise this because while books and movies have long been the source for stage material, television-based plays and musicals are relatively rare. That’s why I took notice when, this week, I learned of two projects that, between them, encompass three famous US sitcoms: the Araca Group announced plans for a stage version of the 1980s-era Family Ties, to be adapted by Daniel Goldstein, premiering at Ohio’s Human Race Theatre in April, while a show based on both The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family from the late 1960s and early 1970s has set up shop in Chicago.

These aren’t the first shows drawn from TV. Offhand I think of the Happy Days musical as one example. I tend not to include The Addams Family musical here, because that material was rooted first in Charles Addams' wonderfully macabre New Yorker cartoons, which were fleshed out not only by the 1960s sitcom but also by a pair of movies in the early 1990s. A musical of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners has been teased repeatedly without ever making a stand.

Perhaps part of the challenge, especially when it comes to sitcoms, is that they don’t provide narrative arcs designed to sustain a story for two hours, as films do. They may require a particular perspective and perhaps a new take on the material to make it live on the stage. David Adjmi performed such a feat in 3C, his unauthorised parody of Three’s Company, by playing the series’ dated sexual mores as the dark underbelly of the sexual revolution. He had to weather a copyright lawsuit for the right to do so.

What’s intriguing about the Brady/Partridge mash-up is that instead of merely juxtaposing the two lightweight family comedies as ironically played nostalgia (as did a prior Brady stage venture), it has thrown Shakespeare into the blender as well.

The result, via playwright Stephen Garvey and songs first heard in both series, is The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady. While it plays on memories of the shows, which were repeated for an eternity and still turn up at times, the layering on of Shakespeare doesn’t seem to want to lend it more gravitas, but rather avoid repeating familiar tropes by bending them around yet other familiar stories.

It will be interesting to see how Goldstein succeeds with reviving the Reagan era Family Ties for consumption after the looming US election, since the show was rooted specifically in 1960s idealism (the parents) versus 1980s commercialism (the kids) as the source of its humour. There is certainly the opportunity for social and political commentary – if that happens to be the direction the project takes.

I should mention that though it is extremely rare, there have been a couple of examples of stage works moving to US television.

One, long forgotten by most, was a sitcom drawn from Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, which ran for a single 13-episode season in 1975, and which the playwright had nothing to do with beyond selling the rights. In the wings may yet be a TV series drawn from Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts. But that’s already had to go back to the drawing board for a second version of a pilot episode, proving that as difficult as it may be to go from TV to the stage, the other way around is even harder.

This week in US theatre

The Public Theater brings us its second piece on the life of the Gabriel family when Richard Nelson’s What Did You Expect opens on September 16. Following on the March production of the first play in the trilogy, it will finally bring to an end what I referred to as a six-month interval when I wrote about Nelson’s experiments in real-time theatre here in March. The final play in the trilogy comes relatively rapidly, in November.

When Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics played at the McCarter Theatre in 2003, it had already received the Pulitzer Prize, but it was the New Jersey theatre’s production that moved swiftly to New York, where it ultimately received a Tony nomination for best play. Now Cruz is back at the McCarter with his newest work, Bathing in Moonlight, opening on September 16 under the direction of the company’s artistic director Emily Mann. The production, the story of a Cuban family in Florida, marks the US debut of Mexican actor Raul Mendez.

At Hartford Stage in Connecticut, TD Mitchell’s Queens for a Year is making its debut under the direction of Lucie Tiberghien, also opening on September 16. It’s the story of four generations of female marines. The author was previously a writer and producer of the TV series Army Wives, and she frequently writes about the military.

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