I’ve always meant to see the 2001 indie movie Scotland, PA – an adaptation of Macbeth set in a fast-food restaurant – but I never quite got around to it. It seems I’m not alone in missing it at the cinema: IMDb says it grossed a total of $384,098 (about £257,000).
I missed the 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit as well, which did better than Scotland, PA. by a factor of eight, grossing just over $3 million (about £1.5 million) in the US. Though I did see the delightful Sing Street, which brought in $3.2 million (about £2.1 million) in 2016.
Given that, combined, these films took much less than Avengers: Endgame made in its first six hours, it seems they do not loom large in the public consciousness.
So, why the interest in them? Because those paying close attention will recognise that the first two shows have been transformed into stage musicals, the first now playing Off-Broadway and the second winning the Tony for best musical in 2018. The third will open Off-Broadway next month.
They mark a distinct category within the larger movies-into-musicals trend – specifically movies that were by no means smash hits but have been transformed for the stage. Distinct from, say, Tootsie and Pretty Woman, these films were hardly brands that guaranteed audience awareness and interest, but simply good source material for creative teams and producers to build from.
In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made in favour of adapting lesser-known films over the big names. As evidence, I present the following short roster: Kinky Boots. Little Shop of Horrors. Hairspray. The Producers. Once. All big theatrical hits.
Yes, it may be hard to remember now, but the film of Kinky Boots, in the US market, was a little-seen British import, and the same was true for the Ireland-originated Once. Hairspray, while the most approachable of John Waters’ trash-loving indie oeuvre, was far from a household name. The Producers had long been a cult item for Mel Brook aficionados, but never had the reach of Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. And as for Little Shop, it was a cheaply made throwaway film by the prolific Roger Corman that, until the musical came along, was likely known only by fans of bizarro low-budget movies.
This is not to suggest that musical theatre cannot be successfully made from well-known titles. But the conventional wisdom that familiar titles are always an excellent means of brand extension and commercial success is far from guaranteed. While Disney has had great runs with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Aladdin and Frozen, let’s remember that The Little Mermaid and Tarzan fared significantly less well, although they have had healthy after-Broadway lives.
As a corollary, pop hits aren’t a sure thing either, as The Cher Show, Summer, and Escape to Margaritaville have demonstrated. Instead, it’s Jersey Boys and Beautiful that everyone holds out as exemplars of the form.
A familiar movie title, like a well-known song catalogue, may help to launch a show, but it in no way guarantees a long run. Every season seems to offer a King Kong (closed) as well as a Beetlejuice (running).
While musicals from indies aren’t guaranteed either – take Amelie, for example – they might well have a better chance of success precisely because they’re not fighting against audience and critical expectations, but rather arrive as if newly minted, able to forge their own path without being yoked to iconic scenes or performances.
The indie-film market goes through frequent transformation and, today, the advent of competing streaming services, replete with original content, may well offer up an increased volume of entirely new work, or unearth obscure titles, as they seek to keep their roster fresh. With Netflix, in particular, we’re also being offered countless foreign-language titles that may be wholly unknown in the US.
No doubt the big names will continue to be mined for musicals, especially by corporations seeking to exploit works that they control. But there’s terrific material to be found off the beaten path, beyond the multiplex, for new musicals. After all, it has already happened more than Once.
Richard Nelson continues his series of kitchen-table dramas, so to speak, with The Michaels – the story of another family, like The Apple Family and The Gabriels, now collectively known as The Rhinebeck Panorama. With a cast that includes his frequent collaborators Maryann Plunkett and Jay O Sanders, it opens on Sunday under the playwright’s direction at the Public Theater.
Real-life spouses Corey Stoll and Nadia Bowers will play Shakespeare’s best-known social-climbing couple in Macbeth at the Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway, opening on Sunday. John Doyle directed and designed the set for the production.
Raúl Esparza reportedly cooks up a storm, for real, in Theresa Rebeck’s Seared, opening on Monday. Krysta Rodriguez joins Esparza in this story of a restaurateur grappling with the balance between business and craft, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/