Adapting pics like 'Little Miss Sunshine' is latest legit trend

More and more often, indie pics are going legit.

A recent announcement by the Sundance Institute Theater Lab noted that two musicals being developed there — “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Like Water for Chocolate” — are based on alums of Sundance’s film fest.

After a long list of Broadway shows adapted from big-name movies — “The Little Mermaid,” “Legally Blonde,” “Young Frankenstein,” et al. — an increasing number of creatives are gravitating to smaller, quirkier pics for tuner inspiration, including indies, foreign-language films and docs.

Gotham legiters, for instance, are keeping an eye on Lincoln Center Theater’s brewing musical adaptation of 1988 Pedro Almodovar pic “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” On the other side of the country, La Jolla Playhouse recently commissioned a musical version of the 1997 doc “Hands on a Hard Body,” to be developed with Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

The trend is not new, with such past tuners as the 1973 “A Little Night Music” and 1982’s “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Nine” finding inspiration in foreign or niche flicks.

But the trend has shifted into high gear recently, partly because small-scale pics often mean a lower budget for stage adaptations — and a lowered bar for expectations.

“I do think that with smaller, boutique films, there’s inherently more freedom in not feeling the weight of the famousness of better-known property,” says Scott Frankel, composer of “Grey Gardens.” That 2006 tuner, another Sundance lab alum, took an unusual amount of liberty with the source material (the Maysles brothers’ docu), inventing an entire first act that served as prologue to the movie’s events.

For legit creatives, the appeal of such indie endeavors seems obvious.

“It’s from an innovative, independent point of view,” Sundance legit lab a.d. Philip Himberg says. “It’s not pat. It’s going to have some complexity to it.”

The impetus is not surprising, as Broadway tuners have gotten edgier, such as “Avenue Q,” “Spring Awakening,” “Passing Strange” and “Next to Normal.”

And that roster includes other film-inspired works, such as “Grey Gardens” and the 2002 “Hairspray,” whose roots are in a 1988 indie from John Waters.

The musical version of “Little Miss Sunshine” (more than $95 million worldwide gross, two Oscar wins) originated with two of the pic’s producers, Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub. “We always had some kind of a stage production in the back of our minds, and reserved those rights,” Saraf says.

The producers found their creatives in composer-lyricist William Finn and book writer-director James Lapine, the collaborators behind offbeat, small-scale tuners “Falsettos,” “A New Brain” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

According to Saraf, the musical will have its own independent ethos because no one involved is interested in a straight transfer of the screen material. “We don’t want to trade on the success of the movie and just exploit that brand further,” he says.

“Sunshine,” which does not have a precise production trajectory yet mapped out, will be developed at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab’s annual session at White Oak in Yulee, Fla., Oct. 25-Nov. 8, as will “Like Water for Chocolate.”

The latter — from Mexican composer-lyricist Lila Downs, co-composer Paul R. Cohen and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (“In the Heights”) — is credited as being based on the novel, in part, Himberg says, to help free the creative team from expectations tied to the 1992 film.

“Chocolate” is in very early stages, and “Women on the Verge” and “Hard Body” are also in the midst of various stages of initial work. “Verge” is written by “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” duo David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane and directed by Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific”), while “Hard Body” is being developed by creatives including book writer Doug Wright and lyricist Amanda Green.

Such indie-minded tuners, of course, generally move forward without the commercial cushion of a crowd-pleasing property.

As Himberg notes of these kinds of left-of-mainstream stage tuners, “Success is not guaranteed at all.”

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