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Steal This Work: Getting to the Bottom of Broadway's Kleptomaniacal Trend

From Tim Burton to Woody Allen, this season is full of adaptation-heavy musicals.

Maybe it's due to a worldwide dearth of unique creative ideas or producers who are afraid to invest in concepts that are truly new and untested, or maybe it's just an extension of the green movement (what are adaptations if not recycled products?) — these days, when you consider the shows gracing the Great White Way, the percentage of productions that you could choose to experience on the screen or page instead of the stage are almost half.

All adaptations are not created equal, however. John August, book writer for the upcoming musical version of Big Fish, said of the screenplay he wrote for the feature film adaptation of Big Fish, "These characters live in this world that's right on the border of fantasy. If they could start singing, they would." So the musical became a traditional extension of the book to movie to musical adaptation. But some other adaptations this season go all Ouroboros when they get too close to their own story lines, while some just refuse to quit for so long that it's hard to remember where it even started. Take a look at a few of the more baffling (and exciting) examples below.

(© Liza Donnelly/TheaterMania)

The Traditional

Big Fish, which opens at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 6, was a 1998 novel by southern U.S. writer Daniel Wallace. Then, in 2003, the story was turned into a well-received movie screen-written by John August and directed by Tim Burton. Next month, a musical version, also written by August, will hit Broadway. As a novel, Big Fish was described as transformative and roomy, but it was also episodic, which isn't typical of traditional movie narratives, but it worked in film director Tim Burton's hands. So when it came time for Broadway, Big Fish gave up some of its big movie moments in exchange for songs by musical-theater writer Andrew Lippa. "A movie just works fundamentally different from a stage musical," August told TheaterMania. He went on to explain that when creating a story for the stage, you have to think about "what it's going to feel like with an audience watching this moment and how it's going to feel in a live space."

The "Wait, Could You Repeat That?"

As successful and even reasonable as the Big Fish adaptations sound, not all adapted Broadway productions manage to seem so sane. Take, for example, the upcoming Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway. Bullets is adapted from a 1994 Woody Allen movie called, you guessed it, Bullets Over Broadway. It's about, that's right, Broadway — also, bullets. More specifically, the story follows a young playwright and his struggles to get a play produced on yes, Broadway. In case it wasn't already Broadway enough, the movie was co-written by Douglas McGrath, who wrote the book for Beautiful, another upcoming Broadway musical this season (art imitating life?). Bullets (the movie) also starred two other people whose names currently grace Broadway marquees: Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the books for Kinky Boots and Newsies, two other movies that became a musicals) and Mary-Louise Parker (currently starring in The Snow Geese. An original play. Remember those?).

So, to be clear, the upcoming musical adaptation of Bullets Over Broadway will be a Broadway show about a Broadway show based on a movie about producing a Broadway show — and bullets. And there will be songs. For die-hard fans of Broadway and movies about Broadway, it really doesn't get any better.

The "You Have to Be Kidding"

The Broadway show/movie/sprawling French novel that has been the victim of possibly the most adaptations is, of course, Les Misérables. This tale of unjust oppression during the French Revolution and one man's quest for redemption was written by Victor Hugo only 150 years ago. The first documented adaptation was 116 years ago. Shockingly, it did not include songs, or any sound at all for that matter (since sound in movies wouldn't become common for another 30 years). During the following three decades, a few adaptations without sound were made just to prove a point of some kind.

But in 1980, this epic story about the French Revolution was revolutionized for the stage in the form of a musical. The addition of songs resulted in one of the most successful and crowd-pleasing musicals of all time. Capitalizing on the fact that the musical turned Les Mis into a household name, Columbia Pictures went back to the source material and released a (non-musical) version of the story in 1998. This movie starred Liam Neeson, Claire Danes, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush (who will soon be seen in the big-screen adaptation of the musical The Drowsy Chaperone). Then, in 2012, the inevitable happened when the stage-musical adaptation of Les Misérables was turned into the umpteenth feature film version. Depending on whom you talk to, that third stop on the trajectory either blew all previous versions out of the water by including not just songs but also close-ups of pretty and talented people singing them, or yet one more chance to stick it to Victor Hugo because he's dead and can't collect the royalties.

The bad news for the sourpusses in the latter camp is that in July, 20th Century Fox (the film corporation behind dramatic masterpieces like the TV movie musical From Justin to Kelly) began assembling a team to develop live stage productions based upon the studio's library of films. The company hopes these shows can hit Broadway and then return to the big screen in their new form. So get pumped for even more reusing — with inevitable movie remakes of movie musicals that have been revamped for Broadway — because who's not a fan of recycling? And movies? And musicals? And musical movies? And, speaking of Fox, the network just green-lit a pilot for a modern TV adaptation of Les Misérables, but with lawyers instead of revolutionaries. Uh, we're not kidding.

The cartoon accompanying this article is by Liza Donnelly. Look for more of Liza's work on TheaterMania in the future.