Recycling takes over Hollywood

Bugsy Malone, a classic movie-to-stage success. Most move in the opposite direction.

Recycling is all the rage, and rightly so. Better recycle and reuse than fill blue whales in the southern ocean with plastic. But I’m noticing that the world of entertainment has also caught the bug. Hollywood, the home of the Silver Screen, and Broadway (not to mention London’s West End) are shamelessly recycling each other’s productions. Let me explain.

This week I found myself playing the trumpet, as a favour to a friend, in the orchestra for an Oxford school’s performance of Bugsy Malone.  Remember Bugsy? Alan Parker’s 1976 musical spoof gangster movie has all the wise-cracking dialogue you’d expect in that genre: but all the actors are children and the gangland assassinations are carried out not with bullets, but with what, back then, we called crazy foam, projected from splurge guns.

So successful was this wacky film that, as early as 1983, it had made it to the West End in a stage adaptation. Understandably, schools and youth theatres alike wanted to put it on, and the show is still popular with kids and directors alike.

Bugsy is slightly unusual as a stage show, because it’s adapted from a successful film: that might account for the plot, which is somewhat thin, carried only by the charm and originality of the show’s conceit. 

You might argue that Matilda has achieved the same. The movie, based on Roald Dahl’s classic book, boasted a strong storyline, and spawned a universally-praised stage musical. Amélie, a romantic film, made the same transition, and is now filling theatres all around the world.

The Wizard of Oz spawned a hugely successful stage prequel, Wicked

And, of course, The Wizard of Oz inspired the highly successful stage prequel, Wicked.

Nonetheless, the travel is generally in the other direction. Though song-and-dance movies tend to go in and out of fashion, smash-hit stage shows seem to make it onto the screen fairly predictably. Thus the “karaoke musical” Mamma Mia transferred from stage to become another movie with a negligible plot-line saved by feel-good sentimentality and cracking songs from Abba’s repertoire. 

Les Misérables, based on one of the greatest pieces of world literature, though it fillets Victor Hugo’s heart-rending novel in order to squeeze it (only just) into a single evening’s entertainment, celebrated 25 years of global theatre sell-outs by becoming a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Meanwhile, the recent movie version of Cats, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s phenomenally successful musical based on TS Eliot’s poetry, flopped. Commentators have blamed its failure not on production values, nor on faults within the adaptation of stage script and score, but on the plain fact that the CGI technology transformed human actors into felines so convincingly anthropomorphic that the effect is, well, creepy and repulsive.

That redoubtable nanny Mary Poppins has spun profitable circles between formats. PL Travers’s charming novel became one of the most successful films of all time: only recently did it cross over to the stage. A movie sequel swiftly followed, but reactions have been cool, so I won’t predict just yet that we’ll see Mary Poppins 2 in the West End. 

I was reminded of this cross-over phenomenon by seeing an advert for the forthcoming movie, Kinky Boots the Musical. The original 2005 film, the sort of distinctively Brit comedy that pops up now and then, did rather well.  In 2012 it popped up in London as a musical: and now, blow me down, it’s returning to the screen as the film of the musical of the, er, film. (Admittedly, I understand it’s a film of the stage show).

I don’t mind. Film and theatre is all entertainment. If people like something enough to buy tickets, that’s fine by me.

Well, almost. To be honest, I do wish we saw more original musicals on stage or on screen, pieces conceived in that genre (whether or not originally drawn from a book), not merely adapted from one to another. Novels manage it, as do straight movies – and plays, of course. I was lucky enough last month to see a preview performance of Tom Stoppard’s latest masterpiece, Leopoldstadt.  So why must musicals, however spectacularly adapted, so often be so entirely derivative?

How about an original contemporary musical set against a climate-change crisis close to home?

OK. I have to admit bias. I have a little original musical of my own, Flotsam, set against a breakdown of law and order caused by climate change and hidden away after two performances back in 2012. Any takers?


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