TV Takes a Crack at Broadway

Broadway musicals based on movies? They’re so prevalent that they’ve experienced a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash. But musicals based on TV properties? They’re much less common, even if a spate of upcoming projects — including a Vegas stage show about the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty” and a musical adaptation of “The Honeymooners” targeting Broadway as early as next season — makes it look like a new trend.

It’s not that there are no stage productions based on TV series out there. “I Love Lucy Live on Stage,” a recreation of the filming of two episodes from the series, is currently on the road, and a “Happy Days” tuner played a U.S. tour and just wrapped a stint in the U.K.

But stage adaptations of TV shows face creative hurdles that are a heightened version of the stumbling blocks for movie musicals — a fact that may go some ways toward explaining why so few TV-based musicals make it to Broadway. (Rialto alum “The Addams Family” was seen both on TV and on the bigscreen before it hit the boards, but the musical’s creators always said the original Charles Addams cartoons provided their true inspiration.)

Stage producers generally agree that the better known the movie — and the more associated with an iconic performance by a particular actor — the harder it is to craft a musical from it, as creatives butt up against audience expectations of high fidelity to the source material. In the majority of cases, big-hit musicals based on films — “Kinky Boots,” “Once,” even “Hairspray” — sprouted from movies that had never had a pop-culture moment, allowing more freedom on stage to tinker with the pre-existing tale and serve up a show that’s satisfying enough to stand on its own. (Major exceptions: Disney’s Broadway oeuvre, including “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”)

If a TV show has achieved enough of a profile for stage producers to sniff around, then chances are the series was a long-running success watched by millions. Besides, nearly every TV title is closely linked to the actors who portrayed the main characters, just as “Honeymooners” features an iconic lead performance by Jackie Gleason. On top of all that, TV shows don’t offer just one or two stories for stage creatives to choose from — – they’ve got an overwhelming plethora, one for each week on the air.

That seemed to be part of the problem for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which debuted over the summer in Indiana. “The main problem with ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ is that it really has no discernible dramatic arc, no silly over-arching story upon which one can hang one’s hillbilly hat,” noted the Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Jones in his review. “This weirdness is a consequence, perhaps, of the show being adapted from something like a hundred hours of episodic television.”

For “Honeymooners,” which premieres next fall ahead of a proposed Broadway run, the trick lay not in picking which episode’s plot to recreate, but to come up with a new story that’s true to the world and characters of the show. “Making it authentic as a new American musical is the most important goal,” said Jeffrey Finn, the commercial producer attached to the project. “It’s great to serve up the famous lines, but we’re taking the beloved characters and making a musical about universal subjects like marriage and friendship and achieving the American dream.”

In the show, with book by Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss and songs by Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills, buddies Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton become jingle-writers on Madison Avenue.

Other TV-inspired projects in the works include a brewing Broadway-aimed musical adaptation of 1960s TV show “Hazel” (seen by industry types in a reading this fall), as well as “Green Acres” and “Hee Haw.”

As for “The Duck Commander Family Musical,” the Robertson-family stage bio hoping to get to Vegas in 2015, the multimedia project, with its video footage of the family and of duck hunting, sounds a lot more Vegas than Broadway.

Still, TV seems likely to inspire more stage productions in the future, thanks to the allure of high brand recognition. “Having that ‘Honeymooners’ brand is a huge benefit,” said Finn.

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