With so many movies being made into musicals I thought it would be interesting to compile a list of what I consider to be the best musicals made from an existing source material, be it book, movie, or other medium. Before continuing on to the list, I’ll tell you my criteria:
- I have to have actually seen the musical in question and read/watched its source. This cuts out a lot of musicals, so if your personal favorite isn’t here, that may be the reason. (Sorry, Les Mis, I just don’t have the time for that brick)
- The musical has to be an interpretation of the work, not the exact same words from the original regurgitated on stage *coughcoughTheLionKingcoughcough*
That’s pretty much it. It was still a bit challenging to fill out the list, though, as some shows I wanted to include I hadn’t yet seen or read the movies/books on which they were based. On with the countdown!
Based on: Book and Movie
The Color Purple, original novel by Alice Walker, is probably most famous for its film version by Steven Spielberg. The story is about Celie, an “ugly” black woman and the hardships and triumphs she goes through in her life. She is sexually abused by her father who sends away the two children she conceives to try to hide his guilt; she is forced into an abusive marriage; and most tragically, her sister, the only person to love her all her life, is forbidden from ever contacting her. Despite these hardships, however, Celie manages to make friends, give love, and even learn to love herself.
The musical has a lot of great music and the cast recording is a worthy addition to any thespian’s collection with its score covering gospel, jazz, and musical theatre ballads. Of particular note is the anti-abuse anthem “Hell No!” sung by the character Sofia (played here by Felicia P. Fields and by Oprah Winfrey in the movie):
Based on: Movie
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opened on Broadway in 2005 and remains the funniest musical I’ve ever seen. It tells the story of two con men, Freddy Benson and Lawrence Jameson, and their friendship-turned-rivalry as they swindle wealthy women and eventually make a bet to see who can get the most from a particular target. There’s a very fun twist at the end which I won’t tell you about but makes everything even more enjoyable.
The show’s score is jazzy with hilarious lyrics and even one or two showstoppers.
Based on: Books and Movies
Ah, what a wonderful musical based on a wonderful character. The Harry Potter books center on the title character and his dealings with the evil wizard Voldemort. A Very Potter Musical does also, but does so in a hilarious parody which still manages to be heartfelt and emotional. Created by dedicated fans for fellow fans, the musical became an unexpected hit online and spawned two excellent sequels which in and of itself is quite impressive, since musical sequels almost never live up to their predecessors (I’m looking at you, Love Never Dies).
Based on: Book
Wicked is probably my favorite musical. The Oz story has always been one of my favorites and I’ve always enjoyed alternate twists on the tale. Wicked is one of those twists.
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked centers on the two main witches from The Wizard of Oz and tells the story of how one came to be celebrated and the other villified by the people of Oz. Maguire’s novel is much more political and dark
and tedious than the musical, but I feel the musical supports roughly the same message but tells a rather different story. Many characters and plot points are altered, but both the novel and musical warn of the way truth can be manipulated to sway public opinion, preach against cruelty to animals, and tell that people are more complex than they seem.
One of the most popular musicals on Broadway (and in the world) today, the power of this musical is difficult to overstate. Nearing its tenth anniversary on Broadway, the show has been officially translated into six languages so far and connected with audiences in cultures which do not have the connection to the original Oz story which is so present in America.
Based on: Movie
Every aspect of this musical works, from its refined sets and costumes to its lush score and intricate characters. The story is about a mother and daughter vacationing in Italy in the 50’s. The mother, Margaret, is overprotective of her daughter, Clara, who is developmentally challenged after a childhood accident. The two grow and learn to let go of each other for the first time in their lives as Clara begins a romance with a local Italian boy.
As much as the musical is about young, romantic love, it is also about fading romances, familial love, and personal growth.
Based on: Book and Movie
The Wiz is a retelling of the classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with all black characters. The music really breathes new life into this tale and gives it a fresh presentation, and the all-black cast helps give minorities a starring role in musical theatre, a genre which is still very dominated by white people. The story remains the same: young Dorothy is transported to the magical land of Oz, gets unwittingly involved in the squabbles of witches and false wizards, and makes friends on her journey of self-discovery; only the presentation changes, but this change makes for a very different experience altogether.
Based on: Movie
Despite being produced by the same creative team as the movie, Billy Elliot the Musical makes itself a very unique interpretation of the story to the point that it feels like it was always meant to be a musical. Heartfelt storytelling and an energetic score add to this musical, but its true strength is in the performance of the actors playing its title character. Watching such young people push their talents and literally carry a show so incredible that even if the rest of the musical weren’t excellent it would be worth seeing. Thankfully, that’s not the case.
The show is about young Billy, who discovers an unexpected passion for dance, and how this passion causes tension, confrontation, and eventually growth in his family and community. The musical touches on politics, class warfare, gender stereotypes, and chasing dreams, and does so fantastically on each count.
Based on: Book, possibly Movie
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden has been interpreted rather famously on screen multiple times. As such, it is difficult to say exactly how much of the inspiration for the Marsha Norman/Lucy Simon musical came from the novel and how much from cinema. The fact that the musical adds in many of its own plots also makes it harder to pinpoint the source, but I would guess that it was primarily the novel with perhaps a bit of the 1949 Margaret O’Brien film in the mix.
This musical’s strength is its beautiful score which is one of my all-time favorites. The music has a very classical sound, heavy on the strings, and simply soars. I highly recommend the cast recording.
Based on: Book, Movies, Musical
Much like The Secret Garden, the original novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux has been interpreted many times and the source for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical could be any combination. It was mentioned in a documentary of the show, however, that his first inspiration for creating his version was a viewing of Ken Hill’s musical based on the novel.
The Webber musical is by most accounts the most successful piece of entertainment ever and with good reason. The score is sumptuous; the sets and costumes divine; and the drama romantic and tense. The story of the disfigured man longing for love and the talented young girl fighting to reach maturity in the midst of great pressure from all sides is a classic and the Webber musical knows exactly which elements to emphasize and how to do it in order to make it the best it can be.
Based on: Play
For a long time I thought West Side Story was a crummy musical. I saw the movie in high school when my class read Romeo and Juliet and I hated it. I thought it was boring and cheesy and just all around junk.
I was wrong.
I got to see the 2009 Broadway revival and it blew my mind. I only saw it to catch one of my favorite performers, Matthew Hydzik, and was not ready for how much I would love the show. The musical retells the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and sets it in 1950’s New York with rival gangs replacing Renaissance Italy’s feuding families. The musical is one of the great classics of the theatre and it earns that spot with memorable music, smart lyrics, high romance, and a stark look at the consequences of racism and hatred.
Well there you have it, my top ten musical adaptations. It was more challenging than I thought! Hope you enjoyed my selections.