Turning movies into stage musicals is nothing new. “Ghost,” opening at Hollywood Pantages, is neither the most inspired nor the weirdest idea.
The two most successful movie adaptations are Mel Brooks' “The Producers” and John Walters' “Hairspray.” Both were modest hits as films that became huge on Broadway and then became popular new movies.
Some big musicals have different names than the films they are based on.
The 1968 “Promises, Promises” with appealing songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and a book by Neil Simon was inspired by Billy Wilder's 1960 drama “The Apartment.” The 1970 “Applause,” for which Lauren Bacall won a Tony, was from the 1950 classic “All About Eve.”
In 1995, Julie Andrews played the same role on Broadway that she originated in the 1982 film, “Victor/Victoria.”
Of course, Disney has created a factory of turning its movies into musicals: “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and even “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which was a complete failure in 1979.
One reason it's popular to turn movies into musicals is that audiences are already familiar with the story. The hard part is the music, unless you bring that from the film as well, like “Victor/Victoria.”
A jukebox musical with songs from other sources can solve that. The recently opened Broadway adaptation of Woody Allen's “Bullets Over Broadway” uses a collection of familiar Tin Pan Alley tunes.
Coming up with an original memorable score, however, may be the biggest obstacle. Otherwise, there are really no rules for transforming a movie into a musical.
While stage shows can be limited in what they can do as opposed to the freedom of film, imagination can make up for it. Take “The Lion King.” How do you adapt animated animals for the theater?
As it turned out, the invented, brilliant and colorful headdresses created a fantastic visage for the animal characters, which the actors could remove in key scenes to display their inner emotions — an effective and moving spectacle that took the stage version far beyond the film.
“Mary Poppins” still kept the beloved governess flying (with wires) but upped the ante by doing something that wouldn't seem as effective on film, having chimneysweep Bert tap dancing upside down across the proscenium during the song “Step in Time” — a wow moment live.
When a musical is adapted into a film, it obviously has the ability to open up the story; think of that panoramic helicopter shot where Julie Andrews sings that the “the hills are alive” in “The Sound of Music.”
But some directors prefer to stick with the intimacy of the music like Clint Eastwood did in “Jersey Boys,” or Tom Hooper with “Les Misérables,” in which he didn't take the camera off the actors as they sang their numbers.
This worked marvelously for Anne Hathaway playing Fantine. Her jaw-dropping up-close performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” won her an Oscar for only about 15 minutes of total screen time in the film.
There are certainly lots of attempts to make films into musicals, including the porn flick “Debbie Does Dallas.” The original stage version had no nudity and never made the Great White Way, but has played around the world, sometimes in racier productions.
“A Little Night Music” inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” was a major hit. Of course, it's a Stephen Sondheim musical — always a recipe for success — with the memorable song, “Send in the Clowns.”
The Broadway adaptation of “Kinky Boots,” based on the 2005 film, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, wasn't well-received at first, but ended up winning six Tonys in 2013 and generating a strong following.
Here are a few examples of successful films turned into not very successful stage musicals. These aren't even the worst or oddest, but they did make it to Broadway.
“Big: The Musical”: Based on the Tom Hanks hit comedy, the big-budget production was a big loser on stage in 1996.
“Big Fish”: Based on the Tim Burton film, it closed after 34 previews and 98 regular performances in 2013.
“Carrie”: The classic horror film was considered one of the most expensive flops in Broadway history when it closed in 1988.
“Cry-Baby”: While “Hairspray” was a stupendous success, this version of a John Walters film closed after 45 performances.
“Leap of Faith”: Based on the Steve Martin film, it closed in 2012 after 24 previews and 20 performances.
“Prince of Central Park”: Don't remember it? It was a 1977 TV movie made into a 1989 Broadway musical. Playing only four performances, some of the negative reviews it got have been remembered far longer than the show itself.
“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”: Based on the 1988 film by Pedro Almodóvar, it got three Tony nominations but generated little enthusiasm, closing after 30 preview and 69 regular performances.
— Rob Lowman
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1