The It’s Lit! Musical Episode
Some say that theater is dead, and that’s probably because most playhouses the world over are closed at the moment owing to a worldwide pandemic. And yet the musical lives on… on Disney plus -- as the nation has been rapt with a filmed version of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton. This had us come to the realization that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater is built off of books!
- Some say that the theater is dead.
And that is probably because most playhouses
the world over are closed at the moment.
Owing to a worldwide pandemic.
And yet the musical lives on, on Disney Plus.
As the nation has been wrapped with a film version
of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.
But this show wouldn't have even been a twinkle
in Broadway's eye, if it weren't for the fact
that composer slash lyricist slash human embodiment
of theater kid energy Lin-Manuel Miranda
hadn't stumbled upon a copy of the biography
he used as the basis for the show.
Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton the musical is not based on the life of this guy.
It's based on this book.
Though it seems like an unlikely topic for a musical,
Miranda had this to say about the process
of adapting it in a conversation
with legendary Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim.
- Well, that leads me to a really good bit of advice
you gave me early when I was writing Hamilton.
I was drowning in research.
- And what you told me was, just write the parts
you think are a musical, and that forms its own spine.
- And it had us come to the realization
that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater
is built off of books.
And so, like every television program that starts looking
for new ideas, it's finally come to this.
The It's Lit musical episode.
At it's best, a musical uses all its mediums
to maximum effect.
Writing, dialogue, singing, dancing, lighting, and so on.
It knows when to use a song and when to pull back.
It knows when to go ham on the acting
and when to not do that.
But since you have to be a master of so many schools,
it could be argued that that's why musicals
are so difficult to pull off and are so often
regarded as cheesy and ham-fisted
instead of having that emotional punch
that they're going for.
That said, you could argue that musicals
will hit you in the fee fees in a quick and potent way.
So good book adaptation was still the novel's emotional core
and turn it into song.
A successful musical will find that emotional core
of the story and use music to express that.
Kidnapping a young soprano through means of deception
and hypnotizing, make it a romantic song.
♪ And listen to the music of the night ♪
According to New Yorker staff writer, Adam Gopnik
on Les Miserable, the real absence from novel to musical
is rooted in the DNA of the musical theater,
which welcomes big emotions but not always too complicated
or ambivalent ones.
While the rent bemoaning, gravity defying musicals
of today seem like the product
of a relatively young art form,
musical theater comes from a long tradition
of storytelling that has its roots in opera,
where plot and dialogue are moved primarily
through sung music.
And operetta, more dialogue driven and lighter
and usually more comedic in tone.
But even some of the most popular operas were adapted
from books such as Puccini's La Boheme
and Donsiletti's Lucia Di Lammermoor.
Not to mention the scores of operas
based on Shakespearian works like, Verdi's Otello
or Gounod's Romeo and Juliet.
You get the idea.
So flash forward to the 1920s
when the Vaudville vignette style of musical was en vouge
and the songs rarely moved the plot forward
and were more showcases for dancing and singing.
In comes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's
1927 musical Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's 1926
novel of the same name.
Record fast turnover there.
Here, songs like Old Man River
and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, drove the story forward
discussing complex themes of tragic love
and racial prejudice.
And without the promise of just being popcorn entertainment
such as it were.
From there the book musical, ie a musical play
where songs and dancing are integrated fully
into a story with emotional and dramatic goals,
not a musical based on a book, exploded into popularity.
And it is this era that we get many classics
of the genre adapted from books.
However, it starting in the 1980s
we really start seeing shows veer into,
Thing You've Heard Of, the musical territory,
where musicals are not just based on books
but that adaptation is the selling point.
Musicals based on books continue to be beat big business.
Even Love Never Dies, the famous disaster sequel to
The Phantom of the Opera is based on a published book.
Oh yeah. It's called the Phantom of Manhattan.
And it was written by
acclaimed mystery writer Frederick Forsyth.
Also, shout out Lestat, the musical based
on Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles
and yes, I paid to see twice, best $20 I ever spent.
So despite the enduring popularity of musicals
based on books, it must needs be remarked
that when we talk about musical theater
and its relationship to books, there is something
of a lingering snobbery.
In his 1936 essay,
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
Walter Benjamin claimed that every original work
of art has an aura of authenticity
that is gradually stripped away by the process
of copying and reproduction.
Film scholar and my advanced project professor
at NYU Film, Robert Stam has argued,
"Literature will always have an axiomatic superiority
over other forms of adaptation
because of its seniority as an art form."
This hierarchy also it has something to do
with what he calls iconophobia, the suspicion
of the visual and the concomitant logophilia,
the love of the word as sacred.
From this perspective, adaptations are by definition,
belated, middlebrow or culturally inferior.
However, other scholars have argued
that there is a middle ground or a place
for adaptation and other forms of media.
In her essay on the art of adaptation,
professor and literary theorist Linda Hutcheon says,
"While no medium is inherently good at doing one thing
and not another, each medium (like each genre)
has different means of expression and so can aim
at certain things better than others.
If the artist has a paint brush, his or her vision
of the same landscape will emerge as masses instead.
A poet, by the same analogy, will be attracted
to representing different aspects of a story
than the creator of a musical spectacular."
So if we did an in-depth analysis of this topic
with lots of different musicals as examples,
this episode would be as long as well, Les Mis.
But this is PBS, it's a nonprofit,
we don't have that kind of budget.
So, let's look at some musical adaptations
that turned into big hits.
What did they change and what did they keep?
Gregory McGuire's 1995 novel Wicked
makes for a great example of how adaptation
can completely change the tone of the original
source material while still retaining the plot elements
that made it compelling.
Based on L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books,
Wicked is told from the point of view
of the Wicked Witch of the West,
or as she is referred to in the novel, Elphaba Thropp.
While the musical is a bubbly, high energy,
pop pastiche about her backstory, the novel
is a way more nihilistic and detached
and much more concerned with the racial justice
subtext of Oz and Elphaba's fight against injustice.
Stephen Swartz musical adaptation takes that and completely
changes the tone, recasting
Elphaba, and Glenda, the Good Witch of the North,
as two young women exploring how their friendship changes
as they grew up together.
Wicked the musical smartly understood that
while the source material was popular for a reason
what people want in a musical is slightly queer-coated
femme stories between a dark haired woman and a blonde
with songs about being a magical hashtag girlboss.
Which is to say that it is basically a Disney musical.
Complete with an I want song, a power ballad,
tacked on unnecessary hetero love story,
animal fun times and a happy ending
that was not there in the novel. (laughs)
But where Wicked seems like an obvious pick
for a musical adaptation, what could seem less obvious
than a musical based on the life of the United States
first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton?
Well, if the musical feels extremely biased towards Hamilton
a lot of that is because Ron Chernow,
the guy who wrote the biography off of which
the musical is based, is extremely
biased towards Alexander Hamilton.
He loves the guy.
So while the show is about this one guy's life
as written by Chernow, it expands that,
by way of theme of who lives who dies,
who tells your story, knowing and accepting
that you can't control how people will frame
your place in history after you're gone.
Miranda's major change is focusing
on the exploration of legacy as an emotional experience
rather than an intellectual or academic one.
Miranda worked closely with Chernow
to bring in the multi-racial casting
as a specific feature of the theatrical production.
Miranda says his intent was to tell a story
about America then, told by America now,
using different styles of music and dance,
specifically hip hop, in a way that you just can't
do with the book.
According to Miranda, "We want to eliminate any distance.
Our story should look the way our country looks.
Then we found the best people to embody these parts.
I think it's a very powerful statement
without having to be a statement."
But if we're going by sheer ambition verses execution,
perhaps the biggest success story is
Boublil and Schoenberg's 1985 musical,
Les Miserables, or as we call it in the theater kid
community, Les Miz.
According to the Oxford Handbook of the British Musical,
a thing that exists, the novel's
spiritual and sentimental tones necessarily
become simpler and more forceful in a sung-through
musical that is played out on a theatrical stage.
The musical echo's Hugo but understands
that his narrative range and depth could not be merely
recited if it were to succeed as a modern opera.
Based on Victor Hugo's book of the same name,
which is approximately 60,000 pages long,
how does one distill the emotional core of this book
and render it into song?
Well, here's what we got.
The revolutionary subplot.
John Valjean's personal journey.
And of course, young love.
What is telling is what is cut out.
The book is very concerned with French history.
The musical, I mean, it's there but less so.
There's a huge chunk in the second half of the novel
that goes back to the Battle of Waterloo
and explains that for a few hundred pages.
In the musical, it gets a passing mention.
♪ And close 10 RDA, he was there so they say ♪
♪ at the deal of Waterloo ♪
But it's never the focus.
The show keys in on the big emotions,
both macro, the political movement embodied with songs like,
Do You Hear the People Sing.
♪ Sing the song of angry men ♪
And the micro, the personal emotional journeys
of the characters.
To again cite that Oxford musical handbook,
"Whether personal taste accommodates the mega musical genre
or not, the fact remains that Les Miserables
has become the foremost example of this musical form
by successfully intensifying the original novels melodrama."
And of course it would not be an episode that I co-wrote
without a mention of our sad boy,
our favorite literary trashcan, the Phantom of the Opera.
Andrew Lloyd Webber claims that a chance finding
of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel was the thing
that inspired what would become the most
successful Broadway musical in history.
This novel has everything; kidnapping, extortion,
a fallen chandelier, a torture chamber in the guest bedroom.
The musical cuts that part out.
But although he saw incredible potential there,
since the novel was originally serialized,
it was also kind of all over the place.
Said, Lloyd Webber, "The Gaston Leroux novel
is a very confused confection-
sometimes a faux history story,
then sporting a touch of George du Maurier's novel,
Trilby, next a horror story,
then it's French detective time, now and then it's spiced
with Beauty and the Beast with a dash of satanic Paganini."
Also, the Phantoms name has got to go.
In the very first treatment Lloyd Weber wrote
for the musical, he notes,
"Also in the novel he's called Erik.
No way, Erik, The Musical? Bad title."
So what does Lloyd Andy horn in on in this somewhat
totally inconsistent novel with an underwhelming name
for the lead?
Simple, it's a tragic romance about unrequited love.
The novel has the seeds of this story of unrequited love,
among many other things, but Lloyd Weber decided
that should be the primary focus.
So the musical makes the Phantom, in Lloyd Andy's words,
no monster, but a handsome hunk. (laughs)
Michael Crawford, sex Adonis. (laughs)
He has this hypnotic power,
and Christina's drawn to his musical genius.
Lloyd Weber also took elements that happened offscreen,
or were teased in the novel,
and turned it up to 11 for maximum musical melodrama.
Again, Lord Andy, "Here was the plot I could fashion
into the high romance I had been longing to write.
The Phantom has composed his own passionate opera
for Christine to perform."
Comment's performance, The Phantom acts out
his wildest fantasy by taking the lead opposite her himself.
Christine publicly shames him by unmasking him
in front of the entire opera house.
And when did Christine give the Phantom back the ring?
It's not in Leroux's novel.
So while Erik, the Phantom, was always
a tragic, sympathetic character,
the major change here is to make him relatable.
Arguably the audience has meant to relate more
to the Phantom than to anyone else in the show.
In revisiting his opinion of Les Miserable
25 years after the show opened, the Guardian Theater critic,
Michael Billington, who originally trashed the show,
had this to say in retrospect,
"What I find intriguing is that we think we live
in a very cool, smart cynical age.
Yet when the chips are down,
what we really crave is a contest of good and evil
and lashings of spectacle."
It's easy to be down on a musical adaptation of the book,
just in the same way it's easy to be down
on a film adaptation.
But literary and media studies have been making a case
for the power and mark form of musical adaptation for years.
As Pulitzer prize winning New York Times Theater Critic,
Brooks Atkinson, put it, "As an art form,
the musical stage is entitled to serious consideration.
By the richness of its medium, which blends music,
dance, verse, costume, scenery, and orchestra,
the musical drama makes complete use of the theater.
It is the one element left in a form of literature
that was all poetry originally."
So while it is sad, that Broadway has been dark
for the longest time in its history,
if the success of Hamilton on Disney tells us anything,
the love is still there.
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