The cheers that rise from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange whenever the Dow industrial index reaches a new high were matched if not exceeded on Broadway when ticket sales for the last week of 2006 totaled $29.1 million, setting a new record for the highest weekly gross in recorded theatrical history.
The good news did not stop there. Despite the slump that occurs like clockwork when the holidays are over, ticket sales for each of the first three weeks of the new year have been running ahead of last year's sales for the same time frames.
Broadway producers credited their ongoing good fortune to mild winter weather, an increased number of productions and the continued drawing power of four megahits, "Wicked," "Jersey Boys," "Mary Poppins" and "The Lion King."
Therefore, it must break their hearts that in the midst of all the plenty, one of the theater district's most desirable pieces of real estate, the Imperial Theatre, the former home of the Main Stem classics "Dreamgirls," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Annie Get Your Gun," lacked a tenant during the most profitable time of the year (and still does!).
The vacancy occurred when "High Fidelity" gave up the ghost after a desultory one-month run. The musical adaptation of Stephen Frears' motion picture and Nick Hornby's cult novel (movie, novel and musical share the same name) had reaped virtually unanimous critical scorn. Following on the heels of the $10 million flop "The Wedding Singer," the song-and-dance version of the Adam Sandler screen comedy of same name, called it quits after an uninspired nine-month run.
The back-to-back closings prompted renewed questions about the practice of transforming motion pictures written directly for the screen or film adaptations of novels into Broadway musicals.
Movies' Ready-Made Audience Appeal
There is nothing new about the trend. That popular motion pictures can provide clear story lines and ready-made audience appeal makes them ideal for stage adaptation as "The King and I," based on the motion picture and novel "Anna and the King of Siam," and Broadway's 11th-longest running production, "42nd Street," based on Busby Berkley's fabled Depression-era, backstage movie musical of the same name, have clearly demonstrated.
What is new is the startling increase in the number of "movie-made" musicals that continue to populate the Great White Way. Over the 25 years from the advent of "Oklahoma!" (1943) to the arrival of "Hair" (1968) -- the period comprises the golden age of the Broadway musical -- 22 shows were preceded by motion picture versions.
On the other hand, the past six years have seen 16 screen-to-stage transfers, including the current attractions "Grey Gardens," "Mary Poppins," "Spamalot" (based on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"), "Tarzan," "The Lion King" and "The Color Purple," have set up shop on the Main Stem.
In 1994, Disney Theatrical Productions unwittingly launched -- and subsequently fueled -- the current cycle when it brought "Beauty and the Beast" to Broadway, subsequently followed by the additional trio of film-to-stage successes: "The Lion King," accompanied by the magnificent restoration of the 1902 New Amsterdam Theatre, which provided the cornerstone of the Time Square cleanup; "Tarzan"; and "Mary Poppins," co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh.
Keenly aware that a motion picture has to be reconceived for theatrical presentation, and that the resulting stage work has to stand on its own, transcending comparisons with the original film, Disney Theatrical Productions President Thomas Schumacher took the bold chance of entrusting "The Lion King" to Julie Taymor, the renowned experimental theater veteran versed in mime, Indonesian dance-theater and Japanese shadow puppetry.
The choice paid off brilliantly when Taymor helmed a staggeringly successful artistic and commercial result.
For Disney's next toon-to-tuner adaptation, "The Little Mermaid," based on the 1989 animated movie blockbuster of the same name, Schumacher has made another audacious choice, extending an invitation to the international opera director Francisca Zambello to make her Broadway debut.
An American who grew up in Europe, Zambello launched her American directorial career at the Houston Grand Opera with a 1984 production of Beethoven's "Fidelio." From there, she has gone on to mount operas all over the world, including the world premieres of "An American Tragedy," "Cyrano" and "Les Troyens" at the Metropolitan Opera.
Zambello and her design team are tasked with the mission of creating the magical, underwater universe of Ariel, the beautiful, headstrong 16-year-old little mermaid.
"The Little Mermaid" gives its first performance on July 27 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, Colo. It travels to Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre Nov. 3, with an official opening night scheduled for Dec. 6.
On July 29, two days after the unveiling of "The Little Mermaid" in Denver, "Beauty and the Beast," will conclude its 13-year Main Stem run. At that time, its estimated cumulative Broadway gross will approach $450 million, and its worldwide gross will exceed $1.4 billion.
Although those staggering sums suggest that Disney has a monopoly on the film-to-stage blockbuster, in March 2001, Mel Brooks took Broadway by storm with "The Producers," the riotous musical version of his 1968 cult film comedy of the same name, and four months later, "Hairspray," based on John Waters' classic cult movie of the same of name, became the first big hit of the 2002-2003 theater season. Both productions continue their merry Broadway runs.
Undoubtedly inspired by the profitability of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Producers," at the outset of 2002, another entertainment-corporation legend, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, launch MGM On Stage, a subsidiary devoted exclusively to developing and licensing stage versions of properties in MGM's 4,100-title film and television library.
MGM On Stage's movie-made musicals include Broadway's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," the London and Broadway productions of "Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang," a Boston production of "Marty," "Midnight Cowboy," which debuted at Edinburgh Festival, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," currently enjoying a successful run in Sydney, Australia, and "Legally Blonde," a $10-million musical adaptation of the riotous Reese Witherspoon Valley-Girl-Goes-to-Harvard movie comedy (based on Amanda Brown's novel), currently breaking in at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre prior to April 3 residency at Broadway's Palace Theatre.
In what could be the professional break of a lifetime, Laura Bell Bundy (Kristin Chenoweth's replacement in "Wicked") takes on the role of beloved, overachieving blond fashionista, Elle Woods, president of Delta Nu sorority, Hawaiian Tropic girl and Harvard Law School student.
"Legally Blonde" also marks the Broadway directorial debut of Tony Award-winning choreographer Jerry Mitchell ("La Cage Aux Folles"). In 1990, Mitchell staged the first "Broadway Bares," the first in an annual series of burlesque shows, featuring Broadway's most daring "gypsies," an animated aggregation of chorus boys and girls devoted to shedding their clothes to raise money for the theatrical charity, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
That Mitchell's witty, high-voltage endeavor has thus far raised $3.5 million for the organization has made him a beloved Broadway figure, explaining why the theatrical community is rooting for the success of his show.
"Legally Blonde" is not the only example of the screen-to-stage genre currently on display across the United States.
British choreographer Matthew Bourne's dance adaptation of "Edward Scissorhands," Tim Burton's film fable about the fragile, sweet boy android with shiny scissor blades for hands, is in the midst of a 12-city, six-month American tour, ending May 30, and "Sister Act: The Musical," a disco-soul stage version of the Whoopi Goldberg motion picture hit, has taken over the stage of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dawnn Lewis ("A Different World") stars as down-and-out singer Deloris Van Cartier who avoids a mob execution by hiding out in a convent disguised as Sister Mary Clarence.
The show has "the potential to be a huge hit," writes a local critic, contingent on "additional changes."
Meanwhile, London's West End is playing host to "Billy Elliot," recipient of four 2006 Laurence Olivier awards (the equivalent of America's Tony awards), including Best New Musical, and the Australian import, "Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story on Stage," which opened in London in October 2006 with an advance sale of $20 plus million, the largest in West End history.
Sir Elton John composed the score for "Billy Elliot," based on Stephen Daldry's 2000 motion picture of the same name about an 11-year-old coal miner's son who forsakes boxing class for ballet lessons during the British Miners' Strike of 1984 and ends up starring in "Swan Lake" at Covent Garden.
The musical "deepens and thrillingly gives the story the kind of vibrant immediacy that you can only get in the theater," observed one British reviewer.
An American edition is scheduled to take over the (currently vacant and hit hungry) stage of Broadway's Imperial Theatre in summer 2008. Refusing to quarrel with a good thing, "Dirty Dancing -- The Classic Story on Stage," offers a straightforward frame-by-frame re-creation of the incredibly popular 1987 female coming-of-age film against a digitally animated backdrop.
Frequently characterized as "'Star Wars' for girls," the show once again plows through the adventures of idealistic, college-bound ugly duckling, Baby Houseman, and her transformation into a sexy young woman under the tutelage of summer resort dance instructor Johnny Castle.
Despite the apparent tackiness of the venture, patrons seem to love it, qualifying "Dirty Dancing" as an authentic "guilty pleasure."
A Toronto edition is scheduled for Oct. 31.
Whether or not it qualifies as a fair exchange, Toronto plans to send "The Lord of the Rings: The Musical" to London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane May 9.
Canadian critics had their reservations about the Toronto world premiere of the $27 million stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fabled fantasy trilogy and Peter Jackson's trio of Oscar-winning movie spinoffs.
When not speaking Elvish or Olde English, 55 actors and acrobats used a variety of British accents, including Welsh for the dwarfs, a West Country twang for the hobbits and a North Country accent for the ents, to bring to life the epic struggle of the denizens of Middle-earth for the Ring of Power. The struggle took place on a computerized, 30-ton stage floor.
India's A.R. Rahman ("Bombay Dreams"), Finnish folk group Värttinä and British composer Christopher Nightingale created the score. The lyrics feature a mix of Elvish and English.
Budgeted at $23 million and shorter by a half-hour, the "trimmed, tightened and reworked" British version is said to be the most expensive stage production ever to be staged in London.
Henry Edwards is the arts critic for Flatironmag.com.