Does Everything Need To Be A Musical?

The Queen's Gambit

Earlier this week, it was announced that Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit would be adapted into a stage musical. To many fans of the show, this may have been exciting news, however it left others feeling frustrated by the way in which musical adaptation has become a marker of success for other art forms. This opened up wider questions about whether many films and TV shows are suited to the genre, or whether we should leave stories in their original format – where do we draw the line?

Following its release last October, The Queen’s Gambit has been watched by over 60,000,000 households and topped numerous streaming rankings. The show follows orphan Beth Harmon who rises to the top of the competitive chess world whilst struggling with addiction, and initially seems like great material for musical theatre: a story with a strong female lead and layers of intrigue and competition. However, as many were quick to point out, there has already been a musical about the board game: Chess, by Tim Rice and Benny and Bjorn of ABBA fame. The show has never run for an extended period of time, but it has become something of a cult success, with its duet ‘I Know Him So Well’ going on to become widely commercially successful, and most recently appearing on the BBC’s Musicals: The Greatest Show last month. Perhaps, then, a The Queen’s Gambit musical wouldn’t be quite so exciting – a show that ticks the exact same boxes already exists.

With that being said, the relationship between film, TV and musical theatre grows closer every day. This year, during the pandemic, musical theatre writers and performers from all walks of life came together on social media platform TikTok to create a musical based on the animated film Ratatouille. What started off as a fun online project quickly became a very real production: in December, an online benefit concert was announced, featuring big names like Titus Burgess and Adam Lambert. In this case, adaptation undoubtedly fostered creativity, as the extent to which the source material is known played a huge role in getting writers involved and making the musical appealing enough to be produced as a concert. 

However, the widespread recognition of the film Ratatouille also meant that the musical stuck pretty closely to its source material: while it was brought to life in a new way, it wasn’t really a new take on the story. For the most exciting theatrical adaptations, this isn’t the case. An example of this is Spring Awakening, based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. The musical adaptation became a smash hit in 2007 when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and has since been revived on Broadway in a bilingual sign language production, as well as being featured in the TV show Rise. It represents, in my opinion, the best kind of theatrical adaptation, as it takes a text less widely known by the general public (at least outside of Germany) and alters it enough to make the narrative a new experience. I spoke to Spring Awakening fan Elizabeth, who has read the original play several times, and she said she thinks that “the musical in relation to the play is warped”, citing the way the relationships between the characters Melchior and Wendla, and Hanschen and Ernst, are treated very differently between the two versions of the story. It’s clear, therefore, that even those very familiar with both versions of the story see them as separate narrative experiences. 

It’s also important to note that Spring Awakening makes a successful musical due to its story. Focussing on themes of coming of age and miscommunication, it’s naturally suited to the medium of musical theatre. The original Broadway production explored this by having actors pull out microphones when singing, bucking the trend of making speech and singing blur together seamlessly in musicals, so as to show them privately expressing their thoughts. The 2015 revival then took this further by incorporating sign language, and in doing so added a whole new layer of meaning to the play’s discussion of miscommunication. Not every story will suit the medium as well, and many productions can appear to be translated to musical theatre simply for financial gain: it’s hard to deny that audiences are often far more willing to see a production if they are already familiar with the film it is based on. As musical writer Preston Max Allen put, “the ability to express, boldly, your deepest desires is not conducive to all characters/stories. It’s special, it’s particular, it supports certain experiences and needlessly bloats others!”

This is the heart of the matter: which stories should be adapted for theatre? Musical theatre as a medium, as Allen said, “supports certain experiences”. While it’s difficult to sum up such a varied genre, it does seem that the stories told in musical theatre all require strong characterisation, so that characters singing their feelings can add something to the text. In addition to this, their plots need to be crafted in a way that suits a musical structure. Most shows will spend a first act introducing their characters, world, and conflicts before building to an Act 1 Finale full of tension, and an unravelling of the story in Act 2. Not every film, TV show, book, or play is going to fit into that structure, especially when the plots of TV shows are manipulated into 20-60 minute episodes. This is another consideration: length. Not every story can be told in roughly two hours or less. In reality, there are a lot of criteria a story needs to match to successfully transition to musical theatre.

Adaptation, then, can represent both the best and worst of theatre. Bad adaptations, often made for financial gain, will repurpose a story rather than reinventing it. There are however, fortunately many fantastic examples; in fact, the majority of hit shows have some kind of basis. This ranges from Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, to Hairspray, based on the 1988 film of the same name. Original sources even include graphic novels, such as in the case of Fun Home, and Greek myths, as in Hadestown. What all of these productions have in common is that they take their source material and bring something entirely new to it; in the end the original source and the musical are two different pieces of art.

Words by Katie Kirkpatrick. 

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