Throw a $60 Banksy sketch into Times Square and it’s likely to hit a theater hosting a musical that has been adapted from a film. With the era of jukebox musicals whimpering stubbornly along, Broadway is looking for new ready-made material to translate into high-grossing, audience-pleasing, low-risk adaptations.
Sometimes it works. A classic movie gets instantly revived by the Broadway treatment. Disney usually plays this game well and I’m totally psyched for the Aladdin and Hunchback of Notre Dame musicals on the horizon. And look at what Broadway did for The Producers and Spamalot. But these shows all sprouted from original films that had simple and/or comedic plots, larger-than-life characters with very clear motivations and personality traits, and overall optimistic and entertaining goals. Family films and classic comedies fit comfortably into the Broadway mold of spectacle, frivolity, and lots of heart.
Working with material that strays from that formula is a bit trickier, although perhaps it shouldn’t necessarily be so. See, the way I always figured that a successful musical adaptation works is that you look at the original material, see where there’s a key emotional moment, and plug a song into that shiz. Ragtime is one of my favorite musical adaptations because it gives its production a great balance of plot-driven and character-driven substance. Its songs work to drive its enormously proportioned plot forward while also exploring the plot’s emotional resonances in the characters.
So when given a piece of emotionally complex original material, the adaptation formula seems like it could be simply carried out: have a major character development or a complicated relationship or idea? Make a song out of it. Use the advantages that music plus lyrics afford over just plain old dialogue or general statements. A melody can add so much more power to an expression. It can enhance it, mimic it, even contradict it.
So why has Broadway and Off-Broadway turned three pieces of emotionally rich material into something resembling a Disney musical more than anything. The first is Big Fish. The film vacillates between tonally light and dark material. On the one hand, you have Edward Bloom’s colorful, vibrant stories. On the other, you have the ‘real’ world of a son’s struggles with his dying father, which is where the most of the plot’s emotions come into play. The Broadway musical pulls off the spectacle-laden first part, but robs the plot of the emotional complexity that the darker material lends it. And nuanced, it’s not.
Another case in point is the critically-lauded musical Fun Home at the Public Theater. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, it’s the author’s reflections on her adolescence, her sexuality, and her enigmatic relationship with her in-the-closet father. The book balances a tone that is simultaneously entertaining and reflective. Alison’s relatable journey to adulthood happens to also be a intricate musing on generational/familial relationships, art in life, memory, and gender. The show, obviously, cannot touch upon all of these aspects of the novel, but it also never really allows its characters to stop and feel much of anything besides the non-specific, surface emotions that come to mind when you think of sexuality, kooky families, and secret identities. The show swaps honest, complex storytelling to gimmicky musical numbers that dull its characters instead of enliven them.
And so we finally come to Little Miss Sunshine at Second Stages. The film is one of my favorites so if the show wasn’t already at the top of my to-see list, the cast like solidified its spot there (BLOCK! SWENSON! O’MALLEY!)
Unfortunately, I saw again the same thing happening here as I did in the last two musicals. This production goes for bright and cute rather than raw and truthful. It’s got a set that looks like it was copied from the Jetsons. The first musical number, which presents all the characters and their disillusionment, is chipper, traditional, and uncharacteristically phony. Sure, it’s an opening number so no one expects doom and gloom. In fact, I’m sure that the optimistic melody is paired with the despairing lyrics for irony, or whatever. These are obviously feelings that are going to be revisited later in the play.
Except we don’t. Not nearly in any capacity as the film does. The lyrics continue to be predictable, repetitive, and overall tacky (my sister and I were trading tired glances every other verse by second act). In fact, the most clever lyrics went to the chorus of taunting girls who appear in Olive’s imagination and they basically stole the show… you know, from Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson. Critical dramatic scenes, like Duane learning he is color-blind, or Frank encountering his ex-lover at a gas station, are drowned in unrealistic, showy, and forgettable dialogue/song. The sharpness of the original is dulled, and it can feel sometimes like we are watching a variety show instead of a story about realistic people with realistic lives and realistic emotions.