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Tuners seek heat from offbeat movie curios

Music for Screens: Summer 2012

Stage tuners are increasingly locating source material in the Indie and Cult sections of the Netflix queue. A new generation of songwriters and librettists is drawn not to the big-name Hollywood hit, but to the delicate romance, psychological drama or midnight fan favorite.

This year’s Tonys were dominated by a low-budget street fable-turned pub night out (“Once”), and a silk purse adaptation of a 1992 sow’s ear cherished by devotees (“Newsies”). But those triumphs are only the latest high points in a long-running trend with no signs of slowing.

Splashy, award-winning legit versions of such modest movie comedies as “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Xanadu” have led to a rummage sale among the likes of “Evil Dead” and “Re-Animator,” not to mention Gotham-bound “The Nutty Professor” and “Kinky Boots.”

Meanwhile, esoteric fare like “Light in the Piazza” and “Billy Elliot” (and even one documentary, “Grey Gardens”) has inspired an explosion of projects recently premiered or in development, including “Dogfight,” “Far From Heaven,” “Big Fish” and “Bullets Over Broadway.”

According to musical authority Peter Filichia of MasterworksBroadway.com, tuners turned to movies in the 1950s, when librettists “began to realize that the dramatic structure was already there; it made everything so much simpler.” “Ninotchka” became “Silk Stockings” and “Lili” turned into “Carnival,” but precious little artistry was ever called for in translating a “Gigi,” “Gone With the Wind” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” to the stage.

Today in particular, serious musical pros — and most are serious indeed — resist wrestling with blue-chip titles that are already complete unto themselves.

Though critics and chat rooms decry all newly announced adaptations, “Grey Gardens” and “Far From Heaven” lyricist Michael Korie deems it unfair to lump together “Saturday Night Fever” or “Ghost” on the one hand, with “Billy Elliot” on the other. “One is commercial purely. The other is transformative, driven by music and an artistic endeavor.”

Within subtle, trenchant movies, scribes encounter strongly structured stories offering opportunity for personal expression. “Many writers are drawn to the edginess of the culture now,” says producer Margo Lion. “The ideas explored (in contempo film) are urgent to the people writing about them.”

“Wedding Singer” lyricist and co-librettist Chad Beguelin cites an even more practical reason for not messing with a cinematic smash: “Fans don’t want to see their beloved film altered too much.”

“Big” without the giant piano (and arguably Tom Hanks) just wouldn’t be “Big.” But even with a giant piano on stage, “Big” doesn’t feel big enough.

“You can feel like you’re seeing an understudy when you don’t see someone of the caliber of the original Hollywood star,” Filichia notes.

As Lion puts it, “There are enough things you’re fighting upstream with in a musical. Competing with a huge box office hit is that much harder.”

More tempting is an obscure story offering the possibility of new dimensions through adaptation, with little risk of disappointing the few who’ve already seen it. Composer Michael Weiner is adapting 2003’s dramedy “Secondhand Lions” with lyricist Alan Zachary and librettist Rupert Holmes.

“‘Lions’ worked,” says Weiner, “but there are things in it you want to know more about, narrated flashbacks and characters who don’t appear. You get genuinely strong source material that works on a bare level, something to draw from while doing things you couldn’t do in a movie.”

Changing audience tastes have also come into play, according to Korie. “One size no longer fits all,” he says. “You can have ‘Newsies,’ ‘Fela!’ and ‘Once,’ and they don’t have to have the traditional staples — nostalgia, spectacle, family appeal — all in one show.”

If younger people text their way through tuners, Korie believes they crave “the visceral connection of theater” but with “the edgier, un-corny storytelling they know from HBO.”

This audience is drawn to naturalistically acted narratives dependent less on dance than on the lyric complexity they associate with rock and rap. Indie film stories – whether cult phenoms or intimate dramas – readily embrace those factors.

“Some of these little musicals may make it, some may not,” Korie concedes. “But producers are getting smarter in marketing them using the Internet. They will do better and better. And they’ll become the future.”

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