Holiday from H’wood

Movies are suddenly so last year among the 2003-04 crop

Journalists depend on sources, but do musicals really need them?

After “The Producers,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Hairspray” scooped up the past three Tony Awards for musical, everyone thought that a tuner not based on a film might as well head for a fallout shelter. What was next: “Bruce Almighty: The Musical” or “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Lethal Weapon 4”?

This season has been different. The only new tuner adapted from a film was the short-lived “Never Gonna Dance,” based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pic “Swing Time.” Instead, four of the eight 2003-04 tuners weren’t based on any source material. Two of those, “Avenue Q” and “Caroline, or Change,” have been nominated for musical. If either takes the top Tony, they join a short list of recent winners (from “Titanic” to “A Chorus Line”) that have no source and a completely original score.

This season’s dearth of tuners based on films “may be a brief interruption, a hiccup,” says Adam Epstein, a producer on “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby” (slated for spring 2006), both adaptations of John Waters films. “Most of these things are planned three or four years in advance.”

This season is the calm before the storm. Movie-to-stage adaptations that look to hit Broadway in the near future include “Cry-Baby,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Marty,” “Moonstruck,” “The Color Purple,” “Young Frankenstein,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Man in the White Suit,” “Shrek,” and “Spamelot,” an adaptation of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Adaptations of films aside, totally originals have always been few and far between in the tuner canon. Musicals are such complicated and risky endeavors that many writers feel safer not starting from scratch.

And sometimes, “it has less to do with an artistic decision and more to do with a commercial decision,” says John Weidman, book writer of the totally original “Assassins.” “If the musical is already branded, you will get the built-in audience that recognizes the product.”

So old it’s new again

Best-sellers and hit plays used to provide that crucial marketing element, and several vintage musicals are based on such literature. Today, “Wicked” is practically an anomaly for taking its story from a novel, in this case, Gregory Maguire’s deconstruction of the Wizard of Oz tales.

For those who haven’t read “Wicked,” the stage musical is more original than borrowed. Book writer Winnie Holzman used Maguire’s premise but didn’t “take the novel to the stage beat by beat.” For example, the friendship between the two witches and the love story between Elphaba and Fijero are central to the tuner but not to the book.

“The novel became a source book,” says Holzman. “In a funny way, it was something that we put aside. We went back to it once and a while when we wanted to get an Ozian reference or a word that would sound like Oz, or an image.”

Another staple of vintage Broadway, the backstage bio, made a big return in 2003-04. Like the book writers for “Gypsy” and “Cabaret,” Martin Sherman leaned heavily on a biography to write “The Boy From Oz,” in this case Stephen MacLean’s Peter Allen tome. As with those earlier writers, he also took many liberties.

In the show, “Peter’s life after he met (his boyfriend) Greg is somewhat idealized, of course,” Sherman says. “I saw no reason why a musical couldn’t have a gay relationship that was as idealized as most heterosexual relationships are in musicals.”

So what’s original?

No musical is totally original in its source material. “Bombay Dreams” technically has no source material, yet the book contains various traditional plot elements of Indian cinema, aka Bollywood: an obvious villain; a crying mother or doting grandmother; and two lovers who for some reason “can’t get together, whether it’s caste, religion, income, one’s married, whatever,” says Meera Syal, who wrote the original book for the West End and co-wrote the Broadway book with Thomas Meehan.

“Avenue Q” composer Jeff Marx and lyricist Bobby Lopez took their inspiration from “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “The Electric Company” and “Captain Kangaroo,” not to mention comedic influences such as “South Park.”

Book writer Tony Kushner says many characters in “Caroline, or Change” are loosely based on people from his life. “I don’t want people to come and say this is point by point an autobiography,” he says. “My mother did not die, thank God, when I was 8 years old, although she did die when I was 33, and the piece sort of began as part of the process of dealing with that.”

Despite these few original musicals, it would be difficult to call it a mass movement. For the moment, Hollywood takes a holiday on Broadway. But wait until next season.