Plays booking a novel source

Theater returns to literary adaptations and both benefit

With a journo’s typically unreliable 20-20 foresight, it’s a good bet that the novel-to-stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse” looks to be one of the major events of the 2010-11 Broadway season. Then again, whether this Brit transfer turns into another hit (like “Nicholas Nickleby”) or a flop (like “Coram Boy”) won’t be answered until April 14, when Nick Stafford’s legit take on the book about a boy and his long-lost horse opens at LCT’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

But this much is certain: American playwrights are catching up to the Brits when it comes to finding legit material on the bestseller lists.

Yanks aren’t exactly new to the form, with favorites like the Goetzes’ “The Heiress” and Frank Galati’s “The Grapes of Wrath” proving durable staples of American theater. But there’s a fresh wave of lit adapations hitting the boards that suggests a renewed interest in the textures of the novel, even though such material isn’t as remunerative for the playwright doing the adaptation because of royalty splits that give 25-50% to the original author.

The roster of new and recent productions includes:

n Marsha Norman’s “The Master Butchers Singing Club,” adapted from Louise Erdrich’s novel, debuts at the Guthrie this month.

n At the Public, the Elevator Repair Service follows its adaptations of “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Sound and the Fury” with a six-hour production of “Gatz,” based on “The Great Gatsby,” beginning previews Sept. 26.

n Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit concludes on Sept. 5 its current run of “Confederacy of Dunces” by Tom Keys, a production that follows Mary Machala’s adaptation of the John Kennedy Toole novel last season at Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theater.

n Denver Center Theater preems Caridad Svich’s “The House of the Spirits” on Sept. 23.

n And not to count the Brits out, Trevor Nunn’s staging of Sebastian Faulks’ WWI-set bestseller “Birdsong,” adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff, goes up Sept. 18 on the West End.

Many in the commercial theater, however, are looking further ahead, to Rupert Holmes’ stage redo of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” which opens Arena Stage’s new space, the Kreeger Theater, in April 2011.

From a monetary standpoint, the legit project intrigues because 1) it was suggested by Grisham’s agent, David Gernert; 2) producer Daryl Roth plans to take it to Broadway; and 3) Holmes has radically restructured the novel to be a courtroom drama.

Once upon a time, courtroom dramas were a Broadway staple: Remember Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16,” Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” and Reginald Rose’s jury-room drama, “Twelve Angry Men”? But TV, thanks to “Perry Mason” and shows of its legal ilk, co-opted the genre.

Regarding the new “A Time to Kill,” it’s no coincidence that the director will be Scott Ellis, who turned the Roundabout’s recent production of “Twelve Angry Men” into a hit, reviving interest in not only Rose’s play but the genre itself.

Says Holmes, “Of late, when I turn on TV, I find myself starved for something that someone made up, starved for a yarn. All I seem to get now are documentaries about people who know they are being filmed.”

With TV serving up a full plate of reality shows and the movies driven by f/x-centered tentpoles, the door is wide open for theater to start telling great stories again via novels.

“Working from a pre-existing plot helps playwrights learn about plot, a thing they are chronically bad at. So I recommend this to students all the time,” says Norman, a Pulitzer Prize winner (“?’night, Mother”) who teaches at Juilliard. “A big adaptation really helps you learn the difference between plot and story, something any playwright must know.”

Producers and playwrights know that the biggest Broadway moneymakers have been story-driven melodramas like “Proof,” “Doubt” and “August: Osage County,” which at its heart is a grand soap opera. And while those are original works, plays based on novels also bring the added marquee value of a known title.

In terms of box office, that luster helps — even at a nonprofit venue like the Guthrie, where the “Master Butcher” novelist is a local celebrity and resident. “There’s no question there’s a strong value having Louise Erdrich’s name attached,” says Joe Dowling, the theater’s artistic director. “Also, she’s very popular nationally; it’s not just a local thing.”

With “A Time to Kill,” the drawing card may be as much the 1996 Joel Schumacher film as the Grisham novel it’s based on.

That kind of novel/movie/play synergy is something playwright Prince Gomolvilas experienced firsthand with his stage adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel “Mysterious Skin.” Movie crix praised the play for “brilliantly replicating” the film, about a sexually abused boy.

“But I never saw the film,” says Gomolvilas, who opened his “Mysterious Skin” in San Francisco in 2003, one full year before the Gregg Araki movie saw the light of a movie projector.

Still, Gomolvilas won’t bite the hand that helped his play win exposure. “The book is a seminal classic in gay literature, which was very helpful. Then certainly, when the movie made a splash, it really helped boost the Orange County production in 2005,” he says.

A revival of “Mysterious Skin” begins previews Sept. 9 at L.A.’s East West Players.

As Holmes does with “A Time to Kill,” Gomolvilas radically altered the structure of the source material — with Heim’s blessing — by returning to a nearly forgotten but once-beloved legit genre.

“My play is a mystery. It’s about an 18-year-old boy, who, investigating his past, believes he has been abducted by aliens. In the novel, the perpetrator (of the sexual abuse) is told upfront,” says Gomolvilas.

On the advice of Nunn, Wagstaff is taking a more “respectful” approach with “Birdsong.” She and her director “discussed the responsibility you have to a much-loved book,” Wagstaff recalls.

“When something is well known and loved by the audience, be as faithful as you can while making the play work in its own right,” advises Wagstaff, who has gone over her play “line by line” with Faulks.

If there’s any downside to bringing a novel to the stage, it’s one that legit agents are quick to point out.

“My clients strive for original material, thank God,” says one agent. “Because you don’t make as much money with an adaptation, especially on the really popular titles.”

Indeed, the original author shares anywhere from 25% to 50% of the royalties with the playwright; there’s no chance of a movie/TV sale; and even worse for the legit ego, if not the pocketbook, the novelist’s name often appears a point-size bigger on the poster.

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