B’Way looks to H’wood

Tuners use names & themes from pix, create original scores

Musicals may be out of favor on the bigscreen, but Hollywood’s movies are increasingly being transformed into tuners for the Broadway stage.

In various stages of current development, a number of legit shows are based on material familiar to any movie buff. They include SFX Theatricals’ “The Sweet Smell of Success,” with composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, book writer John Guare and director Nicholas Hytner at work on the 1957 film noir about a ruthless New York columnist (Burt Lancaster) and a lackey press agent (Tony Curtis). Marty Bell, Anita Waxman and Elizabeth Williams are also attached as producers. A summer 2000 workshop is planned.

Composer Henry Krieger (“Side Show”) and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) are collaborating on a musical version of “Moonstruck,” the 1987 romance for which Cher won an Oscar. In his first endeavor as book writer, John Patrick Shanley is adapting his “Moonstruck” screenplay to the stage, with Ira Pittelman and Bill Haber producing.

Next month, producer Margo Lion plans a reading of a new musical based on John Waters’ 1988 “Hairspray,” with composer Marc Shaiman (“South Park”), lyricists Scott Whittman and Shaiman and book writer Mark O’Donald providing the translation to stage. Rob Marshall directs and choreographs.

Ron Kastner has just acquired the rights to the 1951 Alec Guinness classic “The Man in the White Suit,” although no talent is yet attached to the musical version. The producer said he was currently meeting with writers and directors.

Original scores

These four projects-in-development are different from such current Hollywood-to-Broadway fare as “Saturday Night Fever” and “Footloose,” as well as Disney extravaganzas “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” To varying degrees, those tuners replicate music and songs already known to moviegoers.

By contrast, these in-development scores will be 100% original. But the new tuners’ movie pedigree is undeniable — and so is the instant name recognition that comes with that starry lineage.

“Title recognition is something that would be an important secondary condition,” said Michael David of the Dodgers, which produced “Footloose” and has been workshopping a stage version of “Hans Christian Andersen,” the 1952 Danny Kaye movie. “You have to first believe that the work itself is good. If you are just trolling for names that people will recognize, you’re wasting your life.”

Certainly the field is littered with failures, from classic fiascoes (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Carrie”) to respectable disappointments (“Big,” “Sunset Boulevard”).

“Musicals based on movies are tricky,” said one producer who nonetheless has a screen-based tuner on the pike. “People’s emotional attachment to beloved films is so incredible. It’s easy to disappoint.”

Foreign less familiar

Interestingly, some of the more commercially successful translations to stage have involved foreign films that are classics but not as familiar to the general American public: Federico Fellini’s “The Nights of Cabiria” serviced “Sweet Charity,” the Italian master’s “8-1/2” gained a fraction to become Tommy Tune’s “Nine,” Jerry Herman succeeded in adding songs to “La Cage aux Folles,” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” provided Stephen Sondheim with arguably his biggest popular hit, “A Little Night Music.”

Producer Jeffrey Seller (“Rent”) revealed that 63 movie-based musicals have been produced on Broadway since 1960, with 14 of them — 22% — having recouped or turned a profit. That’s about average for all tuners: So much for brand recognition.

The trend is not new: Back in the 1960s, Lauren Bacall scored in “Applause,” based on “All About Eve,” and Burt Bacharach succeeded in turning Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” into “Promises, Promises.” The difference today is that the phenomenon has become the norm rather than the exception.

“Hairspray” producer Margo Lion remarked that, historically, many of the ideas for musicals have originated with the producer. “I guess we’re not drumming them up,” she said of musicals based on novels and plays. “The culture has moved away from the written word.”

One-way street

Unfortunately for legit producers and creatives, an eyeballing of the 1999-2000 theater season shows that the Broadway/Hollywood connection is now a one-way street going from West to East. While such current revivals as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Cabaret,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Music Man” were all quickly snatched up by movie producers after their initial Broadway success, Hollywood no longer returns the compliment.

Such long-running hits as “Rent,” “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago,” which began life 58 years ago as the Ginger Rogers starrer “Roxie Hart,” do not appear at present to be on any film studio’s fast track. Ditto the long-languishing “Dreamgirls.”

Will they ever make it to the screen?

Some industry insiders point to a possible last best hope: Although HBO would not confirm, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the 1992 musical that headlined Gregory Hines, is currently in development at the cabler, with original director and author George C. Wolfe attached as helmer.

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