If it’s on celluloid, grab the rights and stage it. That’s the current maxim for London’s legit producers.
But for every box office bonanza like “The Graduate,” there’s the ghost of the legendary flop “Carrie” to send shivers up a producer’s spine. Despite those haunted memories, movie adaptations are crowding out new plays on London’s commercial stages this fall.
Lesley Manville and Diana Rigg will topline Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” at the Old Vic beginning Aug. 27; Christian Slater will take on the Kevin Spacey role in “Swimming With Sharks” at the Vaudeville starting Oct. 5; and the Blondie back catalog will bring a whole new tone to “Desperately Seeking Susan” at the Novello beginning Oct. 12. All that plus the Turnblad family finally trundling into the Shaftsbury Theater in “Hairspray” starting Oct. 11.
Further ahead, even though details and venue are yet to be confirmed, Steven Berkoff is already talking up his 2008 adaptation of “On the Waterfront,” with Mark Ruffalo in line for the Marlon Brando role.
And of course there are titles already running: “Billy Elliot,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Fame,” “Footloose,” “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “The 39 Steps,” as well as the Young Vic’s recently closed, limited run of “Ma vie en rose,” about an 8-year-old boy who longs to be a girl, adapted from the 1997 Belgian pic by Alain Berliner.
In the past, the traffic went in the opposite direction. “The Philadelphia Story,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Amadeus” are just some of the more celebrated cases of Hollywood turning to the stage for product.
This time around, instead of blockbuster pics, creatives are bringing smaller, independent or foreign-language films to the stage.
The vogue for translating screen titles into stage fare is, however, not quite as new as it looks. Back in 1966, Bob Fosse made a worldwide hit from Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” — he called it “Sweet Charity” — and even Stephen Sondheim got in on the act in 1973 turning Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” into “A Little Night Music.” Fellini’s “8½” also got the screen-to-stage treatment in 1982, as the musical “Nine.”
“Why would someone want to replicate the script of a film?” asks stage and screen helmer Tom Cairns,who’s in rehearsal with Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of “All About My Mother.”
Cairns argues their stage production will be a different creature. “Although it’s obviously sensitive and accurate about Almodovar’s characters and story, Sam has found a way, in that he builds upon the story’s setting of life on- and off-stage that has effectively turned the piece into a real play. That’s what made it attractive to me.”
He and Adamson believe that rather than being an imitation of the movie, the play has taken on a life of its own and become its own source. That, in turn, has determined the casting.
“The film has been a sort of fair-weather friend,” says Adamson. “We cast from the playscript. It would be utterly wrong and totally impossible from an acting point of view to cast from the movie. The job is to bring the playscript to life. The play is an homage to the film, yes, but not a replica.”
The two of them recognize that were they working on a film more deeply ingrained in the broad public consciousness, they would be less free to experiment. “And,” says Adamson, “there would literally be no point in doing it.”
Nick Frankfort, who, together with his producing partner Tobias Round at Creative Management Prods. is producing “Swimming With Sharks,” holds similar views. But then he, too, is handling a niche property.
Their governing principle is that the adaptation should play to the strengths of theater, using dialogue to allow audiences to engage with character over properly developed scenes.
Frankfort is very aware that though his taste is for “a good evening of actors giving towering performances,” film is usually driven by the picture.
“Theater doesn’t have the luxury of multiple locations. How do you tell those narratives using one space?” That formed part of the brief to their commissioned writer Michael Lesslie. Successive drafts suggested that the way forward had been found, as well as providing a stronger female role for a movie about a sadistic boss that was close to a male two-hander.
Nonetheless, the show, helmed by Wilson Milam (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”), remains a high-risk proposition. “But it is something of a cult movie,” argues Frankfort. “It comes with a title people might know, which makes it a little easier for potential audiences to part with their money. People are understandably reluctant to pay for something they’re not sure of.”
Is he concerned that the West End is in danger of becoming overrun with second-hand projects like this?
“Obviously the ideal is for producers to commission new plays and musicals, but the economics don’t work that way these days. But as with all other media, presentation of ideas now come from a variety of sources.”
Angus Jackson, director of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” which takes the Rosanna Arquette-Madonna movie and turns it into a tuner with songs by Blondie, reaffirms that people want new work even if it’s based on an existing piece. And, he says, to a degree it’s easier than adapting a novel.
“In terms of form, it’s more comparable. You have two hours of narrative and characters. Having said that, you can do things on film you cannot do onstage. Film can instantly make a point with an image or a cut.”
Jackson, however, is excited by theater’s ability to juxtapose. He cites the original stage version of Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” in which one of the female characters played two scenes with two different men concurrently. “On film you cut between them, but it’s not the same effect.”
Theater, he believes, has a further advantage.
“Onstage we don’t have to complete the picture to the edges because audiences do that in their imagination: What completes the image is the emotional response.”
He and Cairns are refreshingly unrepentant about the business of adaptation. As the latter observes, “It’s totally expected that a play will be constantly reinterpreted by different creative teams. The re-imagining of films is a relatively new development — nobody has quite decided how it should work.”
Jackson agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with it if you create new theater out of it. Film is a mature medium now. Let’s adapt it and have some fun while we do it.”