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Mark Shenton: Mary Poppins shows film and theatre’s symbiotic relationship

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins. Photo: Jay Maidment Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins. Photo: Jay Maidment
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The commercial theatre in London and New York seems to have become increasingly dependent on bringing Hollywood to the stage, both in terms of the titles being adapted and the stars lining up to appear.

As I noted in my recent review of Network’s transfer from the National Theatre to Broadway, at least 10 productions in the latter are stage versions of films. These range from long-runner The Lion King to more recent arrivals such as Frozen, Pretty Woman, Mean Girls and King Kong, lately joined Off-Broadway by Clueless, and with Beetlejuice, Tootsie and Moulin Rouge on the imminent horizon.

Meanwhile, in London, the forthcoming slate includes 9 to 5 the Musical and a play version of All About Eve, directed by Ivo van Hove. And if it’s not old films being repurposed, it’s old headliners – Tina Turner to Cher recently joined the throng of jukebox musicals, with another show featuring The Temptations (Ain’t Too Proud) due on Broadway soon.

Familiarity breeds contentment. As branding exercises go, Disney’s arrival on Broadway in 1994 with a stage version of Beauty and the Beast at the Palace Theatre was more than symbolic; it had a transformational effect on Times Square, re-orienting it as a family-friendly destination. The company led a makeover of the previously notorious 42nd Street when it bought and renovated the New Amsterdam Theatre, which reopened three years later as the original home of The Lion King.

Other theatres on the strip between Broadway and 8th Avenue that had been lost to porn – including what’s now called the Lyric (home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the American Airlines (owned and operated by Roundabout Theatre Company) and the New Victory (dedicated to children’s theatre) – were also reclaimed. Times Square’s former edginess is all but blurred out in the visual assault of digital neon and video that turns it into a place of perpetual daylight.

‘If it’s not old films being repurposed, it’s old headliners’

Disney’s arrival also upped the money stakes: while only 36 films in history have made more than $1 billion worldwide – the front-runner Avatar grossed $2.8 million – the stage version of The Lion King has raked in $7.9 billion and counting, more than any other entertainment property, in any medium, ever. Of course it isn’t a direct comparison: while films have fixed costs that once recouped mean that everything else is profit, theatre shows have ongoing running costs to meet.

But, if the Disney brand has capitalised, in every sense, on Broadway, it has also shown how the cinema business can work in synergy with a theatrical arm.

After co-producing a stage version of Mary Poppins with Cameron Mackintosh (returning to the West End next year), Disney releases film sequel Mary Poppins Returns this week. Intriguingly, this movie draws on talent nurtured in the theatre, including director and choreographer Rob Marshall, composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who scored Hairspray), and co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton). It follows last year’s hit live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Up for release this summer is a cinema remake of The Lion King, while November will bring Frozen 2, hot on the heels of Disney Theatricals’ stage incarnation of the original film, which opened on Broadway earlier this year, helmed by British director/designer team Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram.

As much as some critics have been snooty about this sort of naked appeal to Broadway’s youngest theatregoers and their families, theatre historian Laurence Maslon puts the opposite view: “After decades of musicals that rode into town cruising on an adult’s cultural imprimatur, aren’t kids allowed some skin in the game? Don’t they get to scoot up on an orchestra booster seat to cheer on their favourites? The Broadway musical, when pitched to a child’s expansive point of view, seems to me a much-valued gateway drug, the artful inculcation of cleverly deployed stagecraft that can initiate a lifelong tradition of theatregoing.”

By the same token, the film version of the stage hit Mamma Mia! has not only given additional heft to its theatrical longevity; it has already spawned its own film sequel – and is about to become an immersive theatrical experience, too, with Mamma Mia! The Party coming to the O2 this summer. Viewing the trailer online, it looks slightly terrifying, but perhaps it’s not intended for me. The popularity of Secret Cinema’s immersive versions of film titles (next up this summer is Casino Royale) suggests that audiences don’t just want to see stage versions of films they already love, but want to be part of the action, too.

And with 2018 expected to end with the UK’s highest cinema attendance figures since 1971, that’s good news for future theatre shows that want to capitalise on movie titles.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

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