I’ve been a musical theater nerd since I was a wee babbie. In fact, I used to dream of performing on Broadway someday (ha), and even though I haven’t made it to the Great White Way, I still sing songs from musicals every chance I get. I have never been ashamed of this. I am a ham.
But one of my favorite things, as somebody who adores musical theater and also has a passionate love of books, is getting to see those two things come together into one big Song-and-Dance-and-Story fest. When the characters from my favorite novels come tap-dancing out under the stage lights, I am filled with effervescent joy. (That’s right, I said effervescent. Probably sounded just as creepy out loud as it did in my head, didn’t it?)
But it isn’t always rainbows and lollipops. Sometimes these adaptations are terrible. Sometimes, the things Broadway does to great novels are absolutely horrendous. Straight-up nightmare fuel. Or at least bad enough to make me want to distance myself from everything connected to them.
So here’s my top three best and worst of literary Broadway:
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Based on the novel by Baroness Emma “Emmuska” Orczy, this beloved musical follows Sir Percival Blakeney as he employs his wits (and wealth) in saving aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. Hot on his heels is the villainous Chauvelin, dedicated to catching the elusive “Scarlet Pimpernel,” Blakeney’s alter ego. Caught in the middle is Sir Percy’s wife, Lady Marguerite, who’s starting to think the man she married is a complete imbecile (his stupidity is an act to throw her off his tracks). Then she’s forced to aid Chauvelin in his quest to catch the Pimpernel, if she wants to save her brother’s life. Drama ensues. The music ranges from emotional ballads to hilarious comedic ditties. The plot differs significantly from the book (which focuses on Marguerite and her discovery of who the Pimpernel is, while the musical focuses more on the character of Sir Percy), but it stays true to the book’s adventurous spirit. Sir Percy remains the perfect British fop, Marguerite remains the witty but tortured heroic woman, and Chauvelin remains the beady-eyed falcon stalking his prey.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder: The 2014 Tony Award-winning show A Gentleman’s Guide is the new comedy I’ve been yearning for. It’s based on Kind Hearts and Coronets, a film starring Alec Guinness (of Obi-Wan fame). However, most people don’t know that the film’s source material is, in fact, a rare and almost-forgotten book: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. In all three stories, the son of a disinherited woman decides to take revenge and kill the eight relatives ahead of him, so he can become an Earl. How could that plot be comedic?
Well, first of all, the relatives kind of deserve it. The selfish son of a banker who takes advantage of women; the rich older woman who wants to do good in the world (and make sure everyone knows she’s doing it, mind you); the manic patriarch who simply “can’t understand the poor.” All eight are portrayed by one actor, the talented Jefferson Mays, for some incredible comic relief. Of course, a story like this wouldn’t be complete without a love triangle: the handsome Monty Navarro, the titular gentleman, balances his murderous ways with his love affair with the beautiful (and married) Sibella, and later he romances his distant and pious cousin Phoebe. How will it end? Probably not well, I’m going to be honest. The play’s about murder, and Monty is narrating from prison. But there’s a whole lot of fun along the way.
A Tale of Two Cities: I will defend this musical with my life. I adore it. I adore the source material. True, the play had a very short run and the only copy of it you can see is the 2010 concert version that was filmed for PBS, but it’s worth it anyhow. Another show set during the French revolution, this one features the doomed Sydney Carton, a damaged alcoholic lawyer who falls in love with the beautiful Lucy Mannette, and it doesn’t disappoint. The music alone is enough to make you love this play. Madame Defarge gets some serious song time, belting out songs fueled with rage and a lust for revolution. Lucy and Charles Darnay are sappy and sweet but, nevertheless, still human. And Sydney…do not get me started on how I adore each and every one of Sydney Carton’s songs. And his jokes. (I love the broken, beaten, damaged heroes, you see.) And of course, there’s his chilling closing line: “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…It is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” (I’m crying now. Look what you’ve done.) Sure, the play is nothing like the novel. Sydney gets way more attention, and so does Lucy, for that matter. And the play lacks Dickens’ subtlety, but the heart of the story is still there. Everything is beautiful and everything hurts.
Dracula: Oh, how I wanted to like this musical. I really, really did. The original novel by Bram Stoker is a classic, one that I enjoyed (though admittedly it took a second read). I also love the composer, Frank Wildhorn, and some of the songs were actually beautiful on their own. But the musical as a whole is a giant bundle of awkwardness. The story stays true to the original narrative, but things become remarkably less threatening when the monster you’re hunting starts singing at you threateningly. It was a better idea on paper than in practice; some things just do not translate into musical theater. I know that now. I have a confession, though: I did download several of the songs from iTunes in a moment of weakness. I like “Loving You Keeps Me Alive” and “At Last,” ok? I have no defense for purchasing “Life After Life,” though. I’m garbage. Musical theater addict garbage.
Wuthering Heights: I have to admit I never liked the book much, and the musical is much, much worse. With hit songs such as “Cathy” and “They Say He’s a Gypsy,” this show is laughably terrible. Highlights, you ask? “CATHYYYY, ONLY YOU ARE REAL TO ME. CATHYYYY ONLY YOU CAN SET ME FREE. IN A WORLD WHERE I HATE ALL I FIND, ONLY YOU EASE THE PAIN IN MY MIND.” I did not make this up. Those are direct quotes. Revel in Heathcliff’s angst. Revel in it.
Love Never Dies: We get it, Andrew Lloyd Webber. You’ll always be remembered for Phantom of the Opera, and you couldn’t let it go. The fans couldn’t let it go. Scores of screaming fangirls cried for our beloved Phantom, wanting him to be happy. As someone who used to scream “WHY DID CHRISTINE CHOOSE RAOUL???” every day (middle school was…a dark time), I can say from experience that you have to be careful what you wish for. That’s right, ALW made a sequel to Phantom.
Based on the book The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsyth, which is proof that anyone can write fanfiction and make a living on it, the story picks up ten years after the original one left off. The Phantom, now the head of a freak show on Coney Island (along with Madame Giry and Meg, for some reason), pines for Christine, who is coincidentally coming to America to sing, because of course she is. So the Phantom invites her to sing for him instead, and if she won’t sing for him, he’ll kill her ten-year-old son. Skip ahead (SPOILER ALERT!), and there’s a stunningly beautiful moment when the Phantom learns he can do math and discovers that Christine’s kid is actually his, because OF COURSE IT IS. So yes, we should have just accepted the tragic ending of the first musical and left it at that.