Special Reports

Story of the Week: Movies That Became Musicals Are Now Becoming Movie-Musicals

The cycle of cultural regurgitation continues with The Color Purple and Mean Girls.

Fantasia Barrino stars in The Color Purple, and Avantika, Reneé Rapp, and Bebe Wood star in Mean Girls, both upcoming motion pictures based on Broadway musicals.
(© Warner Bros / Paramount)

Early 2024 will be a particularly exciting time for musical-theater fans as film adaptations of The Color Purple and Mean Girls will be released within weeks of each other. Both trailers are currently showing before screenings of The Eras Tour, with producers hoping to capture a chunk of that crucial Swiftie market.

But wait, I hear you ponder, aren’t both of those titles already movies? They sure are, although their original iterations didn’t feature nearly as many songs. There’s precedence for this: Hairspray is a John Waters film (1988), a Tony-winning Broadway musical (2002), a movie-musical (2007), and a live television event (2016). If The Color Purple and Mean Girls are as successful as that franchise has been, we can expect to see more movie-musical remakes hitting the silver screen.

Story of the Week will look at both upcoming films and why these stories are being remade as movie-musicals. I’ll also tackle the question of why we see so much cultural recycling.

What’s going on with The Color Purple?

The Color Purple is set to release on Christmas Day 2023. It stars Fantasia Barrino as Celie, a Black woman living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century (Barrino played Celie for nine months during the original Broadway run). She’s in a loveless marriage with “Mister” (Colman Domingo) but experiences a sexual awakening with the arrival of juke joint singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson). All the while, she thinks of her long-lost sister Nettie (The Little Mermaid’s Halle Bailey plays young Nettie, while Ciara plays her as an adult). Corey Hawkins (Topdog/Underdog) plays Mister’s eldest son, Harpo, and Danielle Brooks reprises her performance as Harpo’s strong-willed wife, Sofia.

Brooks was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Sofia in the 2016 Broadway revival, which opened less than a decade after the original run ended. Featuring a gorgeous score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, The Color Purple has already amassed a sizable fanbase as a musical — and in many ways, the source material naturally lends itself to the big emotional ballads and production numbers that are essential to the form.

Director Steven Spielberg flirted with musical storytelling in the 1985 movie (which is based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel). The “God Is Tryin’ to Tell You Somethin’” scene is seared into my brain as a great moment of musical cinema, despite the fact that the original Color Purple movie wasn’t actually a musical in the truest sense.          

 We can expect unapologetic musical spectacle from director Blitz Bazawule, who previously worked on Beyoncé’s Black Is King. The cast is full of stage veterans, and the trailer makes it look like a visual feast. And, of course, I’m really looking forward to hearing Fantasia sing “I’m Here” again. All said, I have high hopes for this one.

What about Mean Girls?  

Mean Girls is set to hit theaters January 12, 2024, less than three weeks after The Color Purple and just in time to take advantage of the MLK Day long weekend. It’s been nearly 20 years since the release of the original 2004 film, which starred Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron, a high school student who moves from Africa to suburban Illinois, where she must contend with an apex predator named Regina George.

The Broadway musical opened in 2018 and ran a respectable 804 regular performances (and 29 previews), only to close with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. It featured music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. I remember having a lot of fun, even if I’d be hard-pressed to hum even a few bars of this mostly forgettable score.

Tina Fey wrote the screenplay for the 2004 film, the book for the musical, and has now written a new screenplay for the movie-musical. She will also reprise her role as Ms. Norbury. The film is being co-directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., who are best known for the FX series Quarter Life Poetry (you’re in good company if this is the first time you’ve heard about it).

Angourie Rice is playing Cady, with Reneé Rapp reprising her performance as Regina George (she was a replacement on Broadway in 2019 and 2020). Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) is playing Janis, and Jaquel Spivey (who was nominated for a Tony for A Strange Loop) will make his feature film debut as Damian in what has the potential to be a scene-stealing turn. Ashley Park, who played Gretchen Wieners on Broadway and has since become a lot more famous from her roles in Emily in Paris, Joy Ride, and Beef, is set to make a cameo in an undisclosed role.

Mean Girls is up there with The Breakfast Club and Breaking Away as one of the great films about being an American teenager, and I hope the movie-musical resonates with a whole new generation of viewers. Of course, they could always stream the original and might get just as much out of it.

Could we see a Back to the Future movie-musical in the future?
(© Evan Zimmerman and Matthew Murphy)

Why do producers keep remaking the same stories?

The uncomfortable truth is that the easiest way to get a movie greenlit in Hollywood is to have a title that already has a track record of making money. Why does it seem like the same five superhero stories are endlessly remade? Because Spider-Man: No Way Home made $1.9 billion at the box office, that’s why. They wouldn’t make them if you didn’t shell out cash to see them.

We can observe this on Broadway too: Despite being a not-very-good musical, Back to the Future is doing great at the box office (it grossed $1.2 million at the Winter Garden last week and box office receipts have been fairly consistent since it opened in August). As someone who panned the show, I understand this is because Back to the Future is critic-proof, with a built-in audience of people who love the movie. Most ticket-buyers would rather go with a title they know over something new, especially when most full-price tickets exceed $100 (the average paid admission last week at Back to the Future was $113.57).

Rising production costs lead to higher ticket prices, contributing to a cycle of risk-averse behavior on the part of both producers and audiences. The result is that two of the big musicals on Broadway this spring will be bestselling novels that became popular films: The Outsiders and The Notebook. If they’re at all successful onstage, we can expect movie-musicals to follow.

 And, of course, we cannot ignore the 800-pound gorilla on the horizon: the much-anticipated two-part film adaptation of Wicked, the first half of which is set to hit theaters Thanksgiving 2024. That property takes a less circuitous path as a bestselling novel that became a blockbuster Broadway musical before ever being adapted to film. It’s hard to imagine a non-musical Wicked movie ever being created after this — but don’t underestimate the entertainment industry’s penchant for regurgitation.

While I understand the financial incentives for remaking old stories, I’m still skeptical that it reflects well on our culture, an increasingly nostalgic feedback loop driven by AI algorithms and spreadsheets. If you’re as bothered by this development as I am, there’s one thing you can do to counteract it: Take chances on titles you’ve never seen by artists you don’t know. Until audiences become more adventurous, producers are just going to keep delivering more of the same.