It’s Lit!

FULL EPISODE

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!

AIRED: December 13, 2020 | 0:13:56
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TRANSCRIPT

- 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.

- Yeah.

- 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.

(upbeat music)

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.

(bell dings)

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.

(trumpets sound)

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