New Line, MGM lead way in reel deals on B'way

This summer, a small production company hit the jackpot with one of its film releases. A top exec at the indie recently called a legit editor at Variety to ask, “We want to turn this into a stage musical. How do we do it?”

The phone call sums up most of Hollywood’s attitude toward legit: An awareness that a screen-to-stage adaptation is a potential goldmine, but cluelessness about how to start mining.

Disney shows and a few exceptions aside, most film-to-stage adaptations have been produced with minimal involvement from Hollywood: A short list would include “The Producers,” “The Graduate” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” along with Lincoln Center Theater’s current “A Man of No Importance” and Broadway’s upcoming “Dance of the Vampires” (based on Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers”).

But with Broadway’s infatuation with films continuing to heat up, Hollywood may finally be waking up to the idea of getting in on the act.

The example of “Hairspray,” Broadway’s biggest hit since another movie-turned-tuner, “The Producers,” may help to change the studios’ hands-off approach.

New Line, which owned the copyright to “Hairspray,” joined the musical as a producer prior to its Seattle tryout run. The success of the stage version of the John Waters film has prompted the company to up Mark Kaufman from its music division to oversee film-to-theater projects. Kaufman shepherded “Hairspray” internally.

“Maybe there is a different value (for films) in our library beyond the sequels and TV shows that typically come to mind,” New Line co-chairman Michael Lynne says. “Now we’re looking at it all more proactively. Lots of other properties may lend themselves to this treatment.”

Lynne offers “Pleasantville” as a theatrical possibility and notes that “Don Juan de Marco” has already been optioned. New Line retains the option to produce after workshop productions.

MGM may be the next studio to pave a path to Broadway.

MGM Onstage was formed in January with Darcy Denkert, a 25-year vet of the studio who previously worked in theater, installed as president. Denkert and Dean Stolber, executive director of MGM Onstage, took MGM’s 4,000 titles and whittled the list to 175-200 that would be pitched to producers, composers, writers and agencies.

MGM Onstage, which formed after “Marty” (set for a regional-theater tryout this season) and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (in the West End) had been licensed, has 25 projects in negotiations and development.

A selective list: “Millie” producer Hal Luftig has optioned “Legally Blonde”; “Theater of Blood” is being developed by the “Shockheaded Peter” creative team with the Royal National Theater in London; Blake Edwards is writing a book for “The Pink Panther”; Alan Menken is composing works for “The Idolmaker”; novelist-screenwriter Evan Hunter is at work on “The Night They Raided Minsky’s”; and “Moonstruck” is in the hands of its original screenwriter, John Patrick Shanley.

“In some case we’ve attached our own teams and we’re also in discussions with agents and trying to match talent with projects, which would then go to producers,” says Denkert, a former theatrical lawyer who has long worked with MGM’s library. MGM retains a stake in the shows, but its involvement is structured differently for each production.

Meanwhile, discussions are taking place on the lots of Universal and Warner Bros. about upping their legit involvement, even if neither company has announced its connection with any legit projects.

Disney, of course, created the model with its hits “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” (The studio’s plans include a Cirque du Soleil-inspired “Tarzan.”) But as with feature-length toons and direct-to-video sequels, other studios noticed Disney’s success for years without attempting to emulate it.

Fox was first to take the plunge, with “The Full Monty.” Lindsay Law, the former Fox Searchlight president, oversaw the legit “Full Monty” with Fox backing him. He points out that the studio apparatus can actually be advantageous to musical theater production.

“The great advantage of having a corporation behind a project was how swiftly the musical was developed,” he recalls. “They told the creative team ‘Here are your deadlines’ and provided early financing for workshops. That’s not normal. Creative teams tend to disperse while the producers are looking for money and the focus gets lost.”

Having a team at the ready can be crucial: Were Theatre Under the Stars’ $2.2 million production of the premiere of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” ready for Broadway, awards show honcho Pierre Cossette would be prepping its run. TUTS president-CEO Frank Young says the production could tour civic light operas throughout the U.S. beginning in the summer. Or “we’ll give it to Samuel French and see if it can be licensed to community theaters.”

“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for example, was oft-delayed on its road to Broadway from its initial, deliriously received workshop. Some who saw the show in all of its various incarnations believe the musical that ultimately opened on Broadway — to mixed notices — was weakened by all the delays.

And gestation periods can be substantial: Tom Hanks’ Playtone has had its musical version of “That Thing You Do” in development for a year and a half with helmer Des McAnuff (“The Who’s ‘Tommy’ “).

Remaining aboard while a film property moves to the stage can also help studios capitalize on the show’s success with ancillary products.

MGM’s Denkert notes that taking an older work such as “Minsky’s” elevates the value of the homevideo and new products such as the cast album. (CD sales put cash in New Line’s coffers, for example). “That’s provided you tell the same story in different ways so that (the play and the movie) play off each other,” she says.

Studios also have a vested interest in making sure that they retain some control of the creative process, since a lot can go wrong and tarnish the brand name. For every “Producers” or “Hairspray,” there’s a “Footloose” or a “Saturday Night Fever.”

The key, says “Full Monty’s” Law, is to exploit the component of the film that makes it resonate with audiences, but make the show different enough so audiences feel they’re getting a new experience for their $100. “You see (the creative team) applying what they did for ‘Full Monty’ to ‘Hairspray.’ ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ as a musical, was problematic because it adhered too closely to the film — and they didn’t have (the film’s star) John Travolta.”

If some studios are dragging their feet about taking more interest in film-to-stage transfers, at least one Hollywood individual is stepping up to the plate himself.

Garry Marshall is workshopping a musical version of his TV show “Happy Days” at his Falcon Theater in Burbank.

With a book that he penned, the production recently dropped its plan to use 1950s hits in favor of bringing in a score of new songs by Carole King, who wrote many 1960s classics with then-husband Gerry Goffin.

If the show’s a success, Marshall next plans to cook up a stage version of his movie hit “Pretty Woman.”

“It’s an odd business — you don’t get paid upfront,” he says of the legit industry. For now he has been able to hold onto his Howard Cunningham actor, former “Cheers” star George Wendt, but he lost his Jenny Piccolo — Marissa Jaret Winoker — to “Hairspray.”

And he’s learning the ropes of the business pretty fast. Asked about a professional production that might follow the workshop staging, Marshall displays an acute awareness of the perils of the tryout process. “We’ll knock their socks off in Lincoln, Neb., or Kansas,” he says.

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