Didn't see the movie? Wait for the stage adaptation

As details trickle out about the coming musical "Spamalot," an adaptation of the 1975 movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," fans of the film are wondering things like: What kind of Sir Robin will TV actor David Hyde Pierce make? Will the production feature a cow being flung into the audience? And what about the legless Black Knight?

Turning the King Arthur parody into a musical may sound like a task for Merlin. But theater producers are increasingly taking on just such challenges as they option big-screen fare for shows on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the wake of recent movie-to-musical success stories such as "The Producers" and "Hairspray," producers are planning to make live shows out of movies as varied as "Billy Elliot" and "Legally Blonde."

The trend has some critics concerned about the commercialization of theater, where public appeal is a key to recouping costs. But it also suggests a gradual shift in the flow of American storytelling. It used to be that Broadway supplied fodder for films. Today, the flow is the other direction, thanks in part to the popularity of movies.

"Musicals historically have tended to depend on the dominant narrative form, and there's no question but that film has become the dominant narrative form," says David Savran, distinguished professor of theater at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. "For a long time, musicals were either original or more likely based on plays," he says.

Escalating a practice that's been around since at least the 1950s, contemporary producers say they choose movies as source material because they are attracted to the stories in the current cinema, and to the narrative structure of films, which makes them easy to adapt. Besides, producers are finding a paltry amount of new comic plays that lend themselves to the musical format.

"If you don't want to do a heavy-duty, serious adaptation of 'Angels in America' or something, what are you going to adapt? Well, you're going to adapt 'Legally Blonde' and 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' " says Laurence Maslon, co-writer of "Broadway: The American Musical," a coming PBS series and book.

Those are two of the shows based on films expected to hit New York or London in the next few seasons. Others include "Monty Python's Spamalot," which opens in Chicago in December before moving to Broadway, "Cry-Baby" (based on a film by "Hairspray" writer/director John Waters), "The Wedding Singer," "Moonstruck," and "Billy Elliot: The Musical" (with music by Elton John).

Given the budget limitations that sometimes accompany opening a musical, riding the coattails of a movie's name recognition can help, too, they say.

"You can take that ... brand awareness that the movie studio built [and] it can help you presell your tickets. That's one aspect of it," says Kevin McCollum, a producer for "Rent" and "Avenue Q" who will soon be focusing on a stage version of the book and movie "High Fidelity." He points out that adapting a movie can be a challenge, and that much of the decision has to do with the story itself, regardless of whether it was a box-office hit. For example, "The Full Monty" worked on stage because the story already had theatrical elements such as the men performing. But "Big" - a popular movie and seemingly good choice for a musical - proved less effective, according to Mr. McCollum, because of its focus on what was going on in the mind of one character.

The "Spamalot" writers had no problem seeing their movie - which already features singing - as a stage show. They've added a few more songs, but because of the film's cult following, the dialogue won't change much. "What's nice about the 'Grail' is it keeps coming to points where it should absolutely have always had a song," Python star Eric Idle told Playbill.com in March.

Other movie-to-musical adaptations require an entire roster of new songs.

Dori Berinstein, who coproduced a musical version of the 1967 movie "Thoroughly Modern Millie," is working on an adaptation of "Legally Blonde." The stage version may not star the movie's Reese Witherspoon, but Ms. Berinstein says it is nonetheless "a movie that sings. It's very musical," she says. "We feel that we can build on what's already been done, and it's not just a rehash of what the film did so well."

Those who follow the theater have mixed reactions to the trend. Mr. Maslon, a professor at New York University, is wary of the commercial aspects of such endeavors. Some choices suggest "laziness" on the part of producers, he says.

Professor Savran, on the other hand, is no longer as concerned as he once was and feels that the practice of adapting films may help ensure the survival of musicals. Many of the producers' choices, he says, suggest a push to turn musicals into predominantly family fare.

Producers say they can't put the bottom line entirely out of their heads when they are scouting for a new project, because of the demands of staging a musical. But some argue they don't choose projects solely for that reason.

"I do things that I think are going to be viable for an audience, but I don't do them cynically," says Adam Epstein, a producer of Tony-winner "Hairspray" and of the upcoming "Cry-Baby." "The kind of musical I'm interested in doing, and continue to do, are stories that are fables, and that may show a sort of underbelly of the American dream, but ultimately affirm it."

Producers aren't just optioning movies, they're also cultivating original material and adapting work from other sources. The point is finding good stories, no matter where the stories come from.

"I would be very sad to see a Broadway that was only revivals or adaptations. It should be everything," says Berinstein.

Mr. Epstein, too, isn't concerned about all the movies headed to the stage. "There's nothing wrong with keeping the market saturated," he says, "as long as we're choosing wisely."

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