Ever since the Tony Awards announced their Hollywood-property-dominated slate of nominees this year, a plethora of hot-take-prone cultural critics started — though really continued a trend that predates this season — bemoaning the fact that Broadway looks a lot more like movie theaters nowadays.
Not in their ornate designs, of course — the likes of AMC murdered any hope of cinemas still reflecting the palace prestige of the cinema — but rather in the entertainment offered therein. All four of the Best Musical nominees — The Band’s Visit, Mean Girls, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Frozen — are properties that rose to various levels of prominence thanks to their screen versions. To make matters worse for these chiders, even the Best Play category, normally reserved for hoity toity originality, heavily features a dude named Harry Potter.
But I’m here to ask for a moratorium on all of this traditionalist, retrograde, and regressive groaning.
First off, it’s a little short-sighted, too rooted in this season alone. Just last year, two of the four nominees for Best Musical — Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away — were original (unless you count the fact that Come From Away’s story started as an article, which just goes to show that most art is based on something else that came before). The third was Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812, whose radically-altered title alone speaks to the differences from its inspiration, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The fourth, of course, was Groundhog Dog.
But building my argument off one year would obviously be committing the same mistake as I’m accusing others of perpetrating. Looking ahead, of the 12 new shows (AKA revivals excluded) locked into theaters for next season, only two — King Kong and Pretty Woman — come from the Silver Screen. Two come from the page: Head Over Heels — a jukebox Go-Go’s musical based on Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (which, coincidentally enough, also inspired Tom Stoppard’s play of the same name!; safe to say they won’t be that similar) — and Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird redux, which is obviously based on Harper Lee’s novel and not its subsequent film adaptation. Two of the 12, The Cher Show and the Rupert Murdoch-centric Ink, come from real life. The rest of the 12, impressively enough, are as original as they come.
Many more shows have been announced, but nothing’s official until a theatre owner publicly promises one of the few very-much-in-demand available theatres to them. Many may never get one, and these announcements often just come courtesy of optimistic (and often naive) producers hoping a press release will attract needed investors to fund their ventures, the opposite of a sure thing. This list of would-be’s is of course populated by recognizable Hollywood properties; their powers-that-be want their existing fans to know their beloveds are coming down the pike, thus explaining why future years look more consumed with movies than most. Why announce a totally original show without any context as to what it’s about? Plus, off-Broadway’s become such a pipeline to Broadway that it’s safe to assume many shows will transfer from smaller venues after successful runs, none of which can be predicted for the Great White Way this early in their development.
And even the history books back up my more level-headed view of Broadway’s progression (yes, all change is progress, even if it doesn’t conform to your subjective taste, often colored by nostalgia). To find another season equally-ripped from the big screen, you have to go back to 2013, the only other year in which a majority of the Best Musical slate — Kinky Boots, Bring It On, A Christmas Story — passed through celluloid to arrive on Broadway. Much like next season’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Matilda, 2013’s fourth nominee, also has celluloid in its past, but both started their lives on the page, not the screen (if I was a nitpicker trying to prove my point utilizing bad faith arguments, I could claim the same about Mean Girls, a movie loosely based on Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which describes female high school social cliques and the damaging effects they can have on girls. But we all know that has nothing to do with why it’s on Broadway right now).
Besides 2013, every single year in the 21st century included at least one nomination for an original musical (Harry Potter may start the proliferation of franchise plays, but so far this fad has been vastly more prominent in the musical sector).
It’s impossible to refute that more movies are being turned into plays than ever before. My question:
What’s so wrong with that?
ANYTHING can serve as the basis for a quality adaptation. Movies are just as likely to be translated into great shows as other mediums from which Great White Way has long lifted, from books (Matilda!) to operas and even older movies (why hello, Chicago), not to mention a myriad of other types of progenitors (the Come From Away article!). You may not have grown up loving stage-to-screen adaptations, but that doesn’t make them any less likely to be good or bad. They have just as much of a shot as any other artistic enterprise — including completely original material — and should be judged for their standalone merits; the nature of their origins should matter little to our assessments.
Yes, Hollywood’s fingerprints are now all over the Great White Way, and that’ll continue for the foreseeable future. Broadway’s often behind the times, and movies were undoubtedly THE American art form of the 20th century. And SpongeBob is probably only the start of the boob tube’s eventual conquest of the Great White Way (I have a feeling winter is coming to Broadway soon). Hopefully we’ve learned by the time that inevitably occurs not to complain about the trend, but rather to evaluate the new art on, and only on, its own terms.