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Comments Off • Jul 1, 2014 371

First Wives get musical with help from some Australians

Just two weeks ago, we were looking at the best and worst stage-to-screen adaptations, but almost just as often as plays and musicals make it to the silver screen, Broadway draws its inspiration from Hollywood. It was officially announced today that a musical version of the 1996 hit comedy The First Wives Club is due to open in Chicago in 2015, with Australian director Simon Phillips at the helm and Australia mega-producer John Frost on the production team. It plans to transfer to Broadway for the 2015-16 season.

The musical had a previous outing in San Diego in 2009, which, despite strong ticket sales, drew negative reviews, with one critic labelling it a “six-finales-in-search-of-a-plot show”. While the new version will retain some of the songs composed by Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team (behind hits including Stop! In the Name of Love, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and You Keep Me Hanging On) from the 2009 version, the producers have decided to load the score with classic hits the audience will go into the theatre humming. They’ve also brought a new writer on board to handle the book; television writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who started her career writing episodes of M*A*S*H.

The formula would seem to be right, this time around, for commercial success. By taking the characters made famous by Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton and adding songs already made famous, the producers will be able to rely upon their audience’s familiarity with the source material. New musicals are struggling on Broadway and all around the world. It’s very rare that an entirely original musical becomes a hit, and given the rising price of tickets, audiences are keen to invest their money into a “safe” experience; one where they know exactly what they’re getting.

John Frost is currently workshopping several musicals throughout Australia and the world, including an adaptation of the Australian film Red Dog and Dream Lover, a musical telling the life of Bobby Darrin. Frost is no stranger to screen-to-stage adaptations, having recently produced the critically panned musical of An Officer and a Gentleman, directed by Simon Phillips.

Phillips is separately involved in the early stages of a musical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Since ending his 11 year stint as the artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Phillips has been working mainly on large scale musical theatre. His production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert has now travelled around the world, to the West End and Broadway. He also created the Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel Love Never Dies, which is now the version Lloyd Webber is trying to get to Broadway.

As we did the best and worst of stage-to-screen, we thought it was only fair to give the same treatment to those that have made the opposite journey. While critics decry the apparent lack of original ideas on Broadway and its desire to appeal to audiences through the familiarity of a plot they already know, some adaptations have managed to elevate the original material and deviate just far enough to become a major hit.

Best

Hairspray

John Waters’ 1988 ode to the 1960s may have lost a bit of its edge and grit when it transferred to the stage, but it gained a Tony Award-winning score of showstoppers by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The plot was substantially reworked for the stage, which saw it run for more than six years on Broadway. Hairspray then made its way back to the screen in 2007, with a new film based on the musical, starring John Travolta in the role Divine originally made his own.

The Producers

Mel Brooks brought his 1968 cult classic, inspired by Broadway, to Broadway in 2001. A natural fit for the stage, and with a star-laden cast led by Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, The Producers broke records, both in its box office takings and in winning 12 Tony Awards.

Billy Elliot

Elton John wrote the score for the 2005 musical version of the 2000 film about an 11-year-old British boy who trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes. The musical version drew in even more of the context surrounding Billy’s story, with the politics of the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike getting an airing. The musical has won awards everywhere it’s travelled around the world, and is still playing on the West End. Let the boy dance!

Legally Blonde

The announcement of Legally Blonde – the Musical drew its fair share of grumbles and groans from around the world, but the musical turned out to be a lot like its leading character; smarter than it looked. With sharp, witty music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe, the musical didn’t make a huge impact on Broadway, but became a West End hit in a more intimate theatre.

Little Shop of Horrors

The original 1960 film version of The Little Shop of Horrors never became a huge hit, but Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who would go on to write the scores for Disney films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) saw the potential in the black comedy about a carnivorous plant with a penchant for human blood. Their musical version became one of the most successful Off-Broadway shows of all time and spawned its own 1986 film.

Worst

An Officer and a Gentleman

The musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman premiered in Australia in 2012. Produced by John Frost and directed by Simon Phillips, the musical was savaged by critics and closed after just six weeks, proving that relying on an audiences’ familiarity with the source material is not any guarantee of success. It famously triggered a bitter open letter from writer Douglas Day-Stewart over a negative review by Deborah Jones in the Australian.

Fame

God knows how Fame – the Musical manages to be picked up time and again for regional tours and amateur theatre productions. The musical tells a story of a whole new group of students in New York’s High School of Performing Arts as they deal with life, love and (spoiler alert) the death of a friend from a drug overdose and the subsequent power ballad.

The Addams Family

The Addams Family musical is officially based on the cartoon strips by Charles Addams, but draws much from the various television and film incarnations of the kooky family. The musical opened on Broadway in 2010, but received overwhelmingly negative reviews. It underwent rewrite after rewrite from its out of town tryout, to Broadway, to its various tours, but never hit its stride. The Australian production, despite a fantastic cast, closed in just three months.

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