The 5 Top Earning Broadway Musical Adaptations: Stage vs. Screen

Although it’s no longer the golden age of movie musicals, they still often make a tidy profit. Box office numbers don’t lie, they still draw in the crowds.

Broadway musicals, with their two acts and their particular stagings, have to be heavily re-conceptualized and re-edited in order to work onscreen. Settings work on a much more different scale, choreography has to be blocked differently, and actors have to be more concerned with mugging for the camera than speaking outwardly past the proscenium to a sitting public. Musical audiences are not the same as general audiences, and what makes a good broadway musical does not necessarily make a good film.

For today, let’s go through the Top 5 earning adaptations, and what they did differently or unnecessarily that may have drawn in the crowds. Casting movie stars instead of singers is really the least of the stunts these productions pull.

Stunts pulled:
– Turning Sandy Australian to accommodate casting Olivia Newton-John
– An original song performed by the Beegees
– Fantasy sequences
– The Car Chase and all the other storyline changes

Cut Numbers:
– Freddy My Love (Marty talks about her boyfriend)
– Mooning (The T-Birds plan to moon the high school dance)
– Shakin’ At The High School Hop (The gang goes to prom)
– It’s Raining on Prom Night (Sandy sings about how she wishes she was with Danny)
– Alone at a Drive-In Movie (Sandy walks out on Danny during their drive-in date) –
– All Choked Up (Sandy debuts her new look at the burger joint; Danny and Sandy profess their love for each other)

Movie original numbers:
– Grease (Played over the opening credits)
– Sandy (Replaces Alone at a Drive-In Movie)
– You’re The One That I Want (Sandy debuts her new look at the school carnival, and she and Danny profess their love for each other)

Other changes: There were plenty of changes, including drastically reshuffled numbers, starting the film with Danny and Sandy saying goodbye, Sandy not going to the dance with Danny, and the addition of the whole car-chase drama that eats up the last third of the film. The changes went over so well that present stagings of the musical bear much more resemblance to the film than they do the original 1978 musical.

Does it work: The reason why people prefer the film musical to the most original rendition of the film is because the entire story plays out more organically, and the different elements tie together more securely. The cost is the focus on the rest of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, and some of that melodrama (especially surrounding Rizzo). But the benefits, plus the film-exclusive songs that have gone on to be absolutely iconic, were absolutely worth it. As an adaptation of a 50s charicature that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is more concerned with (successfully) giving its’ audiences a fun time, it works. As a re-edit of the original, with a more traceable plot, and identifiable and exciting climaxes and numbers, it works too.


Stunts pulled:
– Casting Catherine-Zeta Jones, Renee Zellwegger, and Richard Gere
– Differentiating through setting, lighting, makeup, and vibe when something is happening in reality and when something is happening in the theatre of Roxy’s imagination — indeed, making some sequences play out like an actual stage-play
– Lucy Liu cameo!

Cut Numbers:
– A Little Bit Of Good (Billy sells Roxie’s story to columnist Mary Sunshine)
– My Own Best Friend (Both Roxie and Velma reassert that they cannot trust anyone bt themselves)
– I Know A Girl
– Me and My Baby (Roxie talks about her baby to the press)
– When Velma Takes The Stand (Velma tells Billy all the stuff she plans to pull in her own trial)
– Class (in which Velma and Mama Morton mourn the good old days) was filmed but cut from the theatrical release)

Movie original numbers:
– I Move On (played over the credits)

Other changes:
– Velma isn’t as much of a narrator, and doesn’t break the fourth wall
– “A Tap Dance” moves from being an early number with Amos trying to convince Billy to defend Roxie, to a late number wherein Billy is already defending Roxie on the stand
– Replacing that iconic Fosse choreography with more dynamically paced, high-energy routines

Does it work:
Well it won THE oscar for best picture that year, so it must have worked on some level. It’s a solid picture, that rides high due to the charisma of the cast as individuals and as a collective. True, we lose a lot of the vaudevillian elements of the original, and one can argue that the whole film plays out to a level that is way more ostentatious. We also lose a lot of Velma’s perspective. But Rob Marshall handles the gaudiness carefully, capturing the loudness and quickness of the cut-throat showbiz industry without making the whole thing too overwhelming. The differentiation of the “stage-play” sequences from the everyday ones works because of the high energy, in a way that Marshall’s later “9” failed at. At the end of the day, it works as so many things other than adaptation — as a film musical, as a period piece, as an homage to jazz, and as a piece of cinema that knows exactly what it’s doing and who it’s doing it for.

Mamma Mia

Stunts pulled:
– Capitalizing on the gorgeous greek islands for some serious scenery porn
– To a lesser extent, casting Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, and Amanda Seyfried

Cut Numbers:
– The Name of the Game (Sophie and Bill sing together, as they speculate how they may be related)
– Under Attack (Sophie has a nightmare over the stress her scheme has caused her)
– One Of Us (Donna defends Sophie when Sam tries to tell her that something is going on with her)

Movie original numbers:

Other changes:
Some reshuffled numbers (namely “Our Last Summer” goes from Harry reminiscing with Donna, to him telling Sophie stories; “Take a Chance On Me” also becomes a post-wedding number), and some added nonsense about the Fountain of Aphrodite

Does it Work:
Mamma Mia isn’t a good movie, and yet no one dislikes it. This is a known fact. The script is try-hard, the direction’s a bit weird, the three candidates for husband can’t sing to save their lives, and the whole thing just doesn’t know if it wants to be filmy or campy. And yet through sheer charisma and charm, and through the power of good old ABBA, everything just clicks. It’s not ever going to win any awards, but Mamma Mia the musical wasn’t exactly made for fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Opera either. It’s just fun fun fun — and in that case, it’s an excellent adaptation, and a memorable film.

Les Miserables
Stunts pulled:
– Casting Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway in major roles
– Casting Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in minor roles
– Filming “live-singing”, instead of having the actors record and lip sync over it
– As a result of the above, copious use of close ups and follow shots

Cut Numbers:
– The Dog Eats The Dog (Thenadier gloats over how advantageous the tumultuous times are for bottomfeeders like him, while scavenging from dead bodies in the sewer)

Movie original numbers:
– Suddenly (Valjean waxes lyrical about how his adoption of Cosette has given him a new lease on life)

Other changes:
It stays quite loyal to the musical, all things considered. They moved “On My Own” to another section, but it’s barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things.

Does it work?:
To this day, I will attest no. I know that box office numbers don’t lie about audience appeal. And yes, the film does what films should do with adaptations, which is depict the scale and epicness of setting. But as someone who grew up on the musical, Hooper’s schtick about the live singing was just a double whammy: it took away from the musicality, because people like Russell Crowe aren’t exactly great live singers and would have benefitted from a bit of post-editing, and it took away from the film, because the shots were confined to drastic close ups and steady one shot takes — amazing in Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “On My Own”, but tiring throughout the whole film. Finally, a bit more editing would have been best — having to cut between so many stories and so many actors made the bigger numbers like “One Day More” actually feel smaller than their stage counterparts. Still, I will give the film credit where credit is due though: that last scene was pretty damn epic, that harbor and pirate ship setting for Fantine’s descent was inspired, it was truly tearjerking when it wanted to be, and it brought Eddie Redmayne that long overdue Hollywood spotlight.

Stunts pulled:
– Preserving the “Edna Turnblad is a guy in drag” tradition, and casting John Travolta
– Casting Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken
– Casting Zac Efron as Link, to bring in the younger crowd
– Fantasy sequences

Cut Numbers:
– Mama I’m a Big Girl Now (Tracy, Amber, and Penny all confront their mothers about how they’ve grown up)
– The Big Dollhouse (The girls sing in prison, after the protest)
– Velma’s Revenge (Velma gloats over her successes)
– Cooties (Amber makes fun of Tracy; a version of this plays over the end credits)
– Good Morning Baltimore (Reprise)

Movie original numbers:
– Big Blonde and Beautiful (Reprise)

Other changes:
In the musical, the protest happens earlier and Tracy is actually jailed because of it. Thus, we don’t have the whole sequence of her evading the police and whatnot. That side-story bit of Velma actively sabatoging the protest and trying to seduce Tracy’s dad doesn’t happen either.

Does it work:
For the most part, yes? Although Velma and Amber do end up a bit more 2-dimensional, the sequences play out much dynamically. The way the protest happens, with them putting Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” playing over it, instead of later as it is with the musical, also adds a striking, very present commentary to the whole thing. The musical is still campy, but not sickeningly so, and the fun and feel-good vibes run through from the first second to the last. Not everyone is a talented singer or the best dancer, but with the vibe Adam Shankman cast over his rendition and with the energy emanating off the background dancers executing some killer choreography, it is easy to forgive.


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