The movies do it all the time. Consider Star Wars: the original 1977 film, A New Hope, had two sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), three prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) and now sequels to the prequels (The Force Awakens, soon to be followed by The Last Jedi).
But there’s a long theatrical and literary pedigree of capitalising on stories that are immediately popular and extending their lives – even Shakespeare did it with Henry IV parts 1 and 2. When I recently invited a friend to see Twelfth Night at the Globe, he jokingly replied, “But I’ve not seen the first 11 yet.” By the same token, Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III was changed to The Madness of King George when it was turned into a feature film, for fear of confusing audiences who hadn’t seen parts 1 or 2.
We now regularly see stories translated from page to screen and back to stage as musicals or plays. The great success (and also achievement) of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was to provide another, all-new instalment in the popular book series, conceived especially for the theatre and with Harry Potter now grown up and with children of his own.
Some stories simply take longer to tell, so one play isn’t enough. Right now in London, Angels in America at the National is a two-play event; likewise the stage version of Hilary Mantel’s two novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was divided into two parts for its Royal Shakespeare Company stage premiere, though when it transferred to Broadway it was simply called Wolf Hall parts 1 and 2.
But stage sequels are not always guaranteed a receptive audience. Many musical hits have foundered when trying to reprise the formula: Bye Bye Birdie became Bring Back Birdie but only ran for four performances on Broadway in 1981, and an attempt to continue the story of Annie (revived this week in London) closed out of town as Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge in Washington DC in 1989, before being retooled as Annie Warbucks for an Off-Broadway run in 1993. But that, too, failed to transfer to Broadway. And Andrew Lloyd Webber’s attempt to write a sequel to Phantom of the Opera as Love Never Dies was famously mocked during its original West End as Paint Never Dries by West End Whingers, though a subsequent Australian production proved that there may be a viable show in there.
This week I finally caught up with one of the best theatrical sequels I’ve ever seen: Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 pays specific tribute to its Ibsen source in its title, but this Broadway play picks up the action 15 years later to see what happens after Nora famously slams the door on her abusive marriage and leaves her husband with their children.
It sounds like the sort of thing that a playwriting class may be set as a challenge: to write a sequel to Ibsen’s play. But in fact it is much more. It has an intense and clever conversation with Ibsen’s characters that is in dialogue with the original but is its own brilliant thing.
And it is now a leading contender for best play in this weekend’s Tony Awards – a very different fate from the short-lived 1982 musical version of the play called A Doll’s Life, which closed after just five performances.