Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ten Musicals Adapted From Unlikely Movies

Browse the internet and one thing becomes clear, people love their lists. AV Club posts a new inventory every week. Joblo has the Ten Spot. There are the Cinematical Seven. On top of the usual year end lists, the box office lists, best of lists.
In general I also love a list. I think AV Club’s lists are among my favorite. They are usually well thought out and represent the tastes and interests of number of the staff writers. Even something like Empire Magazines list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, which seems to exist only to be a provocation, is great fun.
Some sites though are very lazy about their lists. It is as if the editors of a site see a list as an easy conversation starter for talkbacks, and more importantly some editors seem to think that the lists are easy to slap together. This week I came across a list at Virgin Media titled, “From screen to stage: 10 weird movie musicals.” I thought the idea of a list of musicals adapted from unlikely films was a great one. However the list itself has got to be one of the laziest lists I’ve ever seen. It is poorly researched, reporting on vague ideas like they are shows just waiting to be produced. Their list also touches upon the musical version of Shrek that opened on Broadway in December. In a commercial theater environment post Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where Disney Theatrical has brought us musicals based on any number of their animated movies, who could find it “weird” that other cartoons found their way to the stage? They even include The Wedding Singer as one of their “weird” screen to stage adaptations. Say what you want about the quality of the source material and the musical itself, but a show based on The Wedding Singer is not out of left field. The movie is after all about a songwriter who makes his living singing, and the finally includes the lead character singing an original song to his love. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to adapt the movie into a musical.

In response to their list I have created my own. If you are interested in checking out Virgin Media’s insights into the upcoming crop of Movies Turned Musicals you will find their list here.

Before I begin, let me outline the two criteria for inclusion on the list.

1. It needs to be based on a movie. This eliminates The Lord of the Rings musical and Juile Taymor’s upcoming Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. (incidentally the little blurb I read about the show suggests it has more in common with Kiss of the Spiderwoman than the comic book.) While I don’t doubt that these shows were created as the result of the success of the movies, the musicals are not based on the movies themselves.

2. It has to be more than a half baked idea that is mentioned to MTV. This removes the Fight Club musical from the list, since there doesn’t seem to be anything going on with the adaptation beyond David Fincher's one off the cuff comment and Trent Reznor expressing interest in maybe writing the music. Besides given that the only person talking about it is David Fincher, it seems unlikely ever to happen. Fincher has been attached to too many projects that never materialized to even list here. It has to at the very least have had a reported workshop or reading. But unless something is too interesting to pass up I try my best to stick with musicals that have been produced, even if just regionally or at fringe festivals.

From Screen to Stage:
Ten Musicals Adapted From Unlikely Movies
1. Gladiator

Based on Ridley Scott’s 2000 Oscar winning film, this musical is still under development. The book and lyrics were written by Roger Hyams, and the music was by Gavin Greenway (incorporating the Hans Zimmer themes from the film).

Steve Blanchard (Maximus) rehearsing with Sean McDermott (Commodus).

This is the one entry that overlaps with Virgin Media’s list, and I thought it best to get it out of the way. The workshop was originally held at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood in May of 2006. Immediately the workshop there was some effort to bring the show to London’s West End. The internet was buzzing with the news that the show was to star Brian Stokes Mitchell as Maximus, and heading the production was to be William Nicholson. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for the Ridley Scott Film. Since those initial 2006 press releases and rumors there does not appear to be much forward movement.

2. The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein

Based on the 1974 comedy written by by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, the 2007 musical was written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; with music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. The Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.

Shuler Hensley (The Monster) and Roger Bart (Dr. Frankenstein) are "Puttin' on the Ritz."

You have to admit that adapting a musical from a movie about Broadway producers looking to make a musical flop is inspired. However when the same creative team set out to make a musical out of Young Frankenstein I was left scratching my head. It was a black and white movie that alternately made fun of and stole from Universal horror films. How do you even begin to convey that on stage? By the way have I mentioned Mel Brooks?

3. The Last Starfighter: The Musical

Based on the 1984 science fiction adventure film directed by Nick Castle, The Last Starfighter: The Musical features music and lyrics by Skip Kennon and a book by Fred Landau. It was first presented at the Storm Theatre in New York City in 2004. The Storm Theatre presentation was directed by Peter Dobbins with choreography by Jennifer Paulson Lee. The show recieved a full production in 2007 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the direction of Elizabeth Lucas and choreographed by David Eggers.

4. Xanadu

Xanadu is a 2007 musical comedy with a book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, based on the 1980 Olivia Newton John flop of the same name which was, in turn, inspired by the 1947 Rita Hayworth film Down to Earth.

Cheyenne Jackson (Sonny) and Kerry Butler (Clio). Picture from AP Photo/Paul Kolnik Studio, Peter Lueders

Directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, the musical opened on Broadway where it earned an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Best Book.

5. Reefer Madness

Based on the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) (aka Dope Addict) (aka Doped Youth) (aka The Burning Question), this musical satire opened in Los Angeles in 1998. The book and lyrics were written by Kevin Murphy and the music was composed by Dan Studney and the show was originally directed by Andy Fickman (who has since moved on to Race to Witch Mountain).

The show open and closed quickly Off Broadway 2001 and was choreographed by Paula Abdul.

6. Silence! The Musical

Based on the 1991 Academy Award winning psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme, the musical was created by Jon and Al Kaplan. Silence! premiered at the Lucile Lortel Theater during the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival, and was directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli.

Jenn Harris (Clarice Starling) and Paul Kandel (Hannibal Lecter). Photo by Dixie Sheridan

The project originally premiered as a handful of songs on available on the internet. The recordings became so popular that the live show was conceived and staged. If you visit Jon and Al Kapan’s website you can enjoy their other parodies including: 24: Season Two: The Musical, "What's in the Box?" from Se7en: The Musical , "I'm Not Going to Be Ignored, Dan" from Fatal Attraction! The Musical, and "Murphy, It's You" from RoboCop: The Musical.

7. Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical

Based on a 1978 pornographic film Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical was a 2002 Off-Broadway musical. Conceived by Susan L. Schwartz the musical was adapted and originally directed by Erica Schmidt; with music composed by Andrew Sherman; Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt provided additional music and lyrics.

Needless to say while the musical was raunchy it contains far less sexual content than the movie.

8. Harold & Maude

Based on Colin Higgins screenplay for Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, this 1982 musical had book and lyrics by Tom Jones (one of the creators of The Fantasticks) and music by Joseph Thalken. The musical debuted in 2005 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee.

Eric Millegan (Harold) and Estelle Parsons (Maude) in the Paper Mill Playhouse production. Photo by Jerry Dalia

Like most everything else on the list, I haven’t seen the show, but tackling this adaptation seems problematic for two reasons. First: the original film has a classic soundtrack from Cat Stevens. Once you excise his music from the musical, one of the greatest things about the movie is lost. Second: cars play a very important role in the movie. Maude is constantly stealing cars, including Harold’s. One of the symbols of Harold’s growth is his relationship with his car culminating in his driving his jaguar/hearse over a cliff. Cars never translate well to the stage, and I imagine that the automobiles are lost in the translation.

9. The Fly

This 2008 opera was based on David Cronenberg's 1986 film The Fly which was based on the short story of the same name by George Langelaan. The music was composed by Howard Shore with the libretto being provided by playwright David Henry Hwang.

Ruxandra Donose (Veronica) and Daniel Okulitch (Seth Brundle)

It's an opera I know, but tell me that a singing Brundlefly isn't the strangest idea you ever heard? It should be noted that unlike most musical adaptations of movies the opera version of The Fly was created by a number of the 1986 film’s creative team. David Cronenberg, Howard Shore, and Denise Cronenberg (the director’s sister and frequent collaborator) all worked on both the film and the opera.

10. Little Shop of Horrors

Based on the low-budget 1960 Roger Corman comedy, this 1982 musical had book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music from Alan Menken. The original Off Broadway run was also directed by Howard Ashman.

Lee Wilkof (Seymour) and Marty Robinson (Audrey II)

Little Shop of Horrors is the father of all musical adaptations of cult films. Evil Dead The Musical, and the upcoming Toxic Avenger The Musical all wish to have half the critical acclaim and success of Menken and Ashman's five year and 2209 performance run.


11. Heathers
Earlier this week Hollywood Reporter published a short article about the development of the musical version of Heathers. The show is being developed by Andy Fickman, who directed the musical version of Reefer Madness. He is working with Reefer Madness partner Kevin Murphy, who is writing the book and lyrics, and composer Larry O'Keefe, who received a Tony nomination for his work on Legally Blonde.

Apparently the material is far enough along that they put together a reading in Hollywood. The readings included Kristen Bell from "Veronica Mars" as Veronica Sawyer and Christian Campbell as J.D.. Bell and Campbell it should be noted were in the New York cast of Reefer Madness.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book-It Repertory Theatre

There is a theater company that is entirely devoted to doing adaptations of short stories and novels? Color me intrigued.
Book-It Repertory Theatre is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and to inspiring its audiences to read.
I don't want to get into the habit of cutting and pasting my blog entries, but I have no first hand knowledge of this Seattle based company. I’ve not seen any of their productions and I have not read any of their adaptations. Besides, the Book-It website puts it more eloquently than I can.

Regarding Book-It Repertory's History:
Book-It Repertory Theatre was founded by a group of theatre artists who love to read and are passionate about literacy. Recognizing the immense wealth of story, character and language that exists in classic and contemporary literature, these artists wanted to create opportunities for audiences and fellow artists to experience theatre through imaginative stagings of written narrative. By creating theatre exclusively from literature, Book-It strives to inspire the love of reading through a live, communal experience. From its early beginnings as a collective of artists experimenting in a workshop setting, to its current day as one of Seattle's most thriving, unique theatres with over 1,600 subscribers, Book-It's main purpose has always been to bring literature to life on stage, and inspire people to read.

Book-It believes that great books make great theatre. Witnessing compelling theatrical adaptations of our diverse culture's most significant stories gives individuals the tools to engage imaginatively, creatively and empathetically with the world around them, thereby laying the foundation for a healthy, happy and compassionate community.
There is an excellent article from Seattle Woman Magazine written by Ellen Hastings titled Book-It Repertory Theatre: A Tale of Two Women. Hastings spoke with Co-Artistic Directors Jane Jones and Myra Platt back in 2007. The three spoke about the history of the company and the evolution of Book-It's signature style.

When they mention having a signature style, I wonder what that means. I hope to get the chance to find out more. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Interview: Mat Lageman

For me the spring day in 1993 when Mat Lageman presented his Star Wars infused scene from Hamlet is a day that lives in infamy. Without the aid of action figures, Mat became an unknown forbearer of both Twisted Toyfare Theater and Robot Chicken.

Twisted Toyfare Theatre is a comic strip that began appearing in 1997 in the pages of Toyfare Magazine. The magazine’s staff creates each month’s strip by photographing action figures on sets that they have built themselves. The comic is known amongst comic and toy collectors for its bizarre humor and pop-culture references. An early strip (seen below) included Spiderman giving readers lessons on the Macarena.

The Emmy award winning animated series, Robot Chicken has its roots in Twisted Toyfare Theatre, as more than one Twisted Toyfare Theatre writer has joined the staff of Robot Chicken. The Adult Swim series, which also features animated action figures, first aired on Cartoon Network in 2005.

The jokes on the stop motion animated series tend to fall into two categories. Placing fantasy figures into situations that are meant to shock the viewer into laughter, because the sketch is at odds with their established personas. These sketches usually have violent or scatological results. One episode revealed that Roger Rabbit was responsible for the murder of O. J. Simpson’s wife. The second involves pop-culture characters being placed in realistic situations. One sketch for example revolved around a group of super-villains who are stuck in traffic while carpooling to work.

Mat Lageman’s scene for Bob Hetherinton’s directing class similarly placed pop-culture characters into incongruous situations, this time classic literature.
In darkness, the ghost of Ben Kenobi speaks to Luke Skywalker, to rouse Luke to revenge. Appalled at the revelation that his father has been murdered, Skywalker cries out, “O my prophetic soul!” As the ghost disappears into the dawn, Ben says Shakespeare’s immortal line, “May the Force be with you.” Intensely moved, Luke swears to remember and obey the ghost.
Inspired by recent viewing of Robot Chicken’s second Star Wars episode, I contacted Mat last month to see what he remembered of that day.

HG: Where did the original idea for your Star Wars Hamlet come from?

M@: The idea came from of all things...THE LION KING. Watching that movie, I saw the Hamlet parallels and wondered: "What other Hamlet themes are out there that I missed?" The idea came like a thief in the night.... who.... brought a dime bag of pot with him.

HG: Which scene was it? I seem to think it was Hamlet's first meeting with the Ghost)

M@: Yep. First meeting with the Ghost. This is painful.

HG: Who were your partners in crime? Who was in your cast?

M@: Ray Nardelli played Hamlet/Luke Skywalker and Tim Shinner was Ghost/Ben Kenobi.

HG: How long did you rehearse it?

M@: We had 2 rehearsals. The only thing I wanted was Tim not to laugh on the line I added at the end: “May the force be with you.” The rehearsals were short and I wanted it to be serious...sadly they were more funny the more serious I had them be.

HG: Were Tim and Ray able to get through the scene with straight faces?

M@: Yes, but Tim smirked after the "may the force be with you" delivery.

HG: Was it in costume?

M@: Yes it WAS in costume. Tim was in a large brown robe with a collapsible lance, which was the “light saber”, and Ray wore a long white shirt with the robe's sash around it and a gun holster.... I cannot remember if he had the gun or not. I can't believe I remember as much as I do now...

HG: Maybe this was covered in the class critique, but I need to know: What were you thinking?

M@: This is exactly what I was thinking: a.) Can I Pull It Off? b.) Can I Get Away With It? c.) How Far Is Too Far?

HG: What was the class’ response to the scene?

M@: There was a resounding laughter when Tim said: “May the Force be with you.” There was a cackle of Charlie Clark. Ray Nardelli looked ashamed at what he did. Brian Fagan couldn't believe I messed with Shakespeare’s writing. What I walked away with feedback wise from that day was kudos for the attempt but “no, No, NO!” The overall response was: "Too Much!"

HG: Were you surprised by the laugher in the class?

M@: No. Not at all. It was a gamble and I thought it would come but I HAD to see if I could pull it off. There are times where no matter how many people will tell you the oven is hot that I still find myself waltzing towards the burner just in case they're wrong.

HG: And Bob Hetherington’s response?

M@: Bob Hetherington in his Bill Cosby sweater just shook his head and said: “There are levels in hell for directors like you."

HG: Earlier you said, "Sadly they [Ray and Tim] were more funny the more serious I had them be." Do you mean the more straight they played the scene the funnier the scene became?

M@: Yes. The more they played it straight the more funny it was. Some of the most hysterical scenes ever performed were done with absolute seriousness. Monty Python is a perfect example. The material is preposterous and silly but the delivery is committed and serious. Star Wars Hamlet or as I like to call it: The Denmark Strikes Back is silly...the idea is silly...the whole concept is absurd and obviously silly....BUT...I still touch the burner...

...just in case they're wrong.

HG: What grade did you get?

M@: D+ & the phrase: "This was an exercise in insanity & futility!" I was proud. It doesn't work and that should have been apparent from the start. It was a class. I fell so I could learn to fly. I abandoned the project but I had a whole cast list and everything. I will STILL do it one day as a joke and do a series called: 'Forbidden Shakespeare'

In the age of Twisted Toyfare Theatre and Robot Chicken and You Tube mash-ups what Mat’s Star Wars infused scene work from Hamlet is old hat. But for a select few (meaning me) what Mat had done back in 1993 was a revelation. That day inspired some of my own short plays, including “Master-Smurf Theatre,” and “Scooby Doo and the Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

I can’t help but wonder if Mat would get a better grade now that American culture has caught up to his way of seeing the world. It is with that mindset that I have recruited Robot Chicken in an effort to give you just a taste of Mat Lageman’s Hamlet!

"Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing/To what I shall unfold."

ABOUT M@: Mat Lageman is originally from Columbus, Ohio and he studied acting at Wright State University. After school he moved to Chicago to study Improv at Second City. While in there he performed in Flanagan's Wake (a Irish variation on Tony and Tina’s Wedding), and he was also a founding member of the Baum House Theater Company. Right around the time I made my own way to the City of Big Shoulders, Mat relocated to LA where he is currently an Ensemble Member of Improv Olympic's Mainstage Sketch Cast. His one big dream is to bring the soothing music of Motorhead to those who are lost and alone.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ripe for the Picking: STRAY TOASTERS

Often when I read, I’m on the lookout for ways to adapt it. What would this comic look like as a puppet show? What would this novel be like as a play? You know this collection of short essays would be a wonderful dance concert! (Seriously, I have had that thought.)

Unfortunately theater is dead, and everyone is waiting for Hollywood to come knocking with a million dollar option. So while I have bookshelves filled with titles I would love to adapt I know that I don’t have the finances or the clout to secure the rights.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at my bookshelf and see what is "Ripe for the Picking."

I am wary of venturing away from the theater and into movie adaptations, but for me this is a special case. Welcome to the Hollywood edition of Ripe for the Picking. Today’s subject is the 1988 comic book mini-series Stray Toasters.

Written and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, Stray Toasters concerns criminal psychologist Egon Rustemagik’s investigation of a series of murders of young boys. His search leads him into another series of murders involving women whose bodies have been mutilated into bizarre science projects.

Back on March 22, 2004 Variety was reporting on story that the comic had been picked up by an effects company known as The Orphanage for a film adaptation. It was also reported that a screenplay for the movie had already been written by Sienkiewicz and Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson. And that was it. Five years later and I can find no further information about the movies development.

One of the debates that I’ve always heard surrounding adaptations is: Should an author adapt their own work? There are arguments to be made for either way. In the case of Stray Toasters, I wonder if one of the problems in developing the material is the involvement of the creator Bill Sienkiewicz.

For me the comic is something that I have dipped into every few years ever since its publication twenty years ago. And I have to tell you the comic doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sienkiewicz work contains some great visuals, and a cast of characters that I really enjoy, but his writing comes up short. I always believed that he needed to embrace the classic noir aspects of his story. The comic told from an omniscient point of view contains pages of monologues from every character: the killer, a devil named Phil on vacation in the city, and autistic child, everyone. This diffuses the mysteries in the comic, and fractures the story needlessly. For any adaptation to be successful one of the choices that would need to be made is to focus the story on Egon Rustemagik. Egon is a great character burnt out and just released from a high security mental institution. A detective film told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator is a wonderful idea.

In my head I have always seen the movie as a low budget affair with practical effects as opposed to an elaborate and CGI heavy affair. My movie adaptation had more of a Robocop aesthetic than say a sleek film like I, Robot.

Here’s hoping that I get to see Stray Toasters in the movies someday.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Interview: Kevin P. Hale

Kevin P. Hale has agreed to be my guinea pig in my first interview addressing how playwrights approach adaptations.

Kevin is a graduate of Wright State University’s defunct directing program and currently works in the professional rights department at Dramatists Play Service, Inc. in New York.

He is the artistic director of Playlab NYC, a theater company dedicated to “unleashing the imaginations of artists and audiences by engaging them in the spirit of play.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Kevin and I have been friends since we met on the third floor of Hamilton Hall (WSU’s freshman dorm). He and his wife used to host an annual Christmas party based on my own “It’s a Rocky Horror Christmas, Charlie Brown!” He acted in my adaptation of “Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children” in college, and he generously attempted to create a platform for my own ideas of theater with “©” at Playlab NYC.

Our interview was conducted over the course of this last week via email and instant message. The topic of discussion was his musical The Circus of Dr. Lao, based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Charles G. Finney. Kevin provided the book with music and lyrics by Chicago’s own Jon Steinhagen. I caught a developmental concert reading of the piece at Theatre Building Chicago’s “Monday Night Musical” series back in January of 2006.

A brief synopsis of the novel from Fantastic Fiction:

The Circus of Dr. Lao is set in the fictional town of Abalone, Arizona, a sleepy southwestern town whose chief concerns are boredom and surviving the Great Depression. That is, until the circus of Dr. Lao arrives and immensely and irrevocably changes the lives of everyone drawn to its tents. Expecting a sideshow spectacle, the citizens of Abalone instead confront and learn profound lessons from the mythical made real - a chimera, a Medusa, a talking sphinx, a sea serpent, the Hound of the Hedges, a werewolf, a mermaid, and the elusive, ever-changing Dr. Lao.

HG: What was the original impulse to adapt The Circus of Dr. Lao?

KPH: There was a 1963 film adaptation starring Tony Randall that I saw on late night television in college. It was called the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and it was very much structured like The Music Man. I immediately thought I would like a shot at adapting the film.

While working at North Shore Music Theatre, I had the opportunity to meet Jon Steinhagen. Jon had come to the theater for a workshop of a musical on which he had collaborated. At dinner one evening the director of the workshop asked me what material I thought would make a good musical. I said without hesitation, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Jon smiled and said, “I have three songs for it sitting in a trunk.”

A few years later, he approached me with the novel and asked if I really wanted to collaborate on the show with him. Once I read the book, it became clear that it was a much more interesting jumping off point than the movie.

HG: How do you begin work on the adaptation?

KPH: I began with a detailed outline of the book, and then started looking to see what characters could be combined, what were the most theatrical of the sideshow acts. I honed the outline down over several drafts, bouncing them off of my collaborator.

Once we had the basic shape I cobbled the novel into a rough book that would grow and change as Jon began providing me with songs.

HG: How familiar should a writer be with the original text?

KPH: They should know it backwards and forwards. I am always making little connections, like “Oh you know when Frank Tull makes that comment about the circus, it would totally work coming during that moment when…”

The book begins to cross-pollinate other scenes and characters, and if you are not familiar with the original work those little “ah-ha” moments get lost.

HG: How faithful should the adaptation be to the original text?

KPH: The correct answer, the textbook answer is that the writer has no obligation to be faithful to the original material at all. I can agree with that on an intellectual level I suppose, but what is the point. If you are going to throw it all away then why adapt it at all?

I guess what it boils down to, is what do you love about the original work that makes you want to adapt it? Whatever that impulse is, that is the thing to which you need to be faithful. I need to be very clear on it and write it down. When I loose my way, I can go back and see what why I wanted to adapt it in the fist place.

HG: How faithful do you think your adaptation is?

KPH: It’s been a couple of years since I have read it, but I believed it to be very faithful. It was very important to me to capture Finney’s sensibility.

However the writing of the novel is much more fractured than our show. It almost points the way to the cut up techniques popularized by William Burroughs. I had hoped to capture that by creating more isolation of the individual towns people and the side show attraction they visit, but as the town began to get a story arc the show began to get more cohesive. It was the organic direction that the script wanted to go into, and it wasn’t for me to fight it.

HG: As writers we are always told that we can’t be too in love with the material. What got cut from the story that you were attached to?

KPH: Honestly? The hedgehogs. At the end of the novel Lao presents the spectacle of a Witches Sabbath, and one of the many creatures present at the rites are hedgehogs. One of the things Finney writes about the hedgehogs is that they are “quiet little pincushions that hate the rain and are unimpressed by the revolutions among the men whose countrysides they adorn.” I wanted very much to find away for the hedgehogs to have a song about their perceptions into human beings.

HG: What is the current status of the musical.

KPH: It’s dead. Theatre Building Chicago had the reading in the beginning of 2006. John Sparks, the artistic director, seemed to think it had a lot of promise and spoke with Jon Steinhagen and I about including the a skeletal production of the show in their annual new musical festival “Stages.”

Jon and I were working on the rewrites when at the end of February we were contacted by Charles G. Finney’s estate. In March of ’06 we got a cease and desist email from Buddy Thomas at ICM, and that was the end of that.

HG: Meaning?

KPH: The novel was not in the public domain as Jon and I had believed. We had done a very cursory Library of Congress search back in 2003, and didn’t find any rights holder so we proceeded to work on the show. Once we realized the stage rights weren’t going to be available to us that was the end of it.

It breaks my heart. I would have an easier time letting the show go, but I really thought it was a good piece. I’m the first one to tell a person that my writing isn’t stage worthy, but I did think our adaptation had merit.

HG: Did you consider trying to secure the rights once you were made aware of the estate and the agent?

KPH: Jon and I didn’t get the impression that the rights would be made available to us. There was a lot of talk about interest from George C. Wolfe and Stephen Sondheim. I don’t know how old any of that interest was, but it became clear that the aspirations were for a Broadway production with big bucks and known talent behind it.

All I can do is hope that one day Steinhagen wins a Tony Award and is able to secure the rights. And hope that Jon is still returning my calls at that point.

HG: What advice do you have for writers working on adaptations?

KPH: Double check, triple check, and quadruple check that you have secured the correct rights to write the adaptation. And don’t take the Library of Congress’ word for it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ripe for the Picking: LEMONS NEVER LIE

Often when I read, I’m on the lookout for ways to adapt it. What would this comic look like as a puppet show? What would this novel be like as a play? You know this collection of short essays would be a wonderful dance concert! (Seriously, I have had that thought.)

Unfortunately theater is dead, and everyone is waiting for Hollywood to come knocking with a million dollar option. So while I have bookshelves filled with titles I would love to adapt I know that I don’t have the finances or the clout to secure the rights.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at my bookshelf and see what is "Ripe for the Picking."

On New Years Eve mystery writer Donald E. Westlake died at the age of seventy-five. Among his many accomplishments as a writer, were a series of crime novels about a ruthless criminal who went only by the name of Parker. Parker was the main character in 24 novels written under Westlake’s penname Richard Stark.  

Parker had an associate from time to time named Alan Grofield. The remarkable thing about Alan Grofield is that he only a part time criminal; his one true love is the theater. Westlake writing as Stark went on to write four novels for Grofield: The Damsel (1967), The Dame (1969), The Blackbird (1969) and Lemons Never Lie (1971). In 2006 pulp publisher Hard Case Crime reprinted Lemons Never Lie.

In the book Alan Grofield journeys from his Indiana theater to Vegas to hear Andrew Myers’ plan to knock over a brewery in upstate New York.
Unfortunately, Myers’ plan involves killing -- so Grofield walks out on the deal, and returns to his theater. Myers doesn’t like being brushed off, and Grofield must protect his wife and his theater from this angry criminal who vows to get revenge.

As more and more theaters seem to be going bankrupt during these difficult economic times, I think the time is ripe for a play where the main character turns to crime to keep his theater company open for one more season.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Script Review: The Count Of Monte Cristo

Because of raising a family and personal finances, I don't get much opportunity to get to the theater these days. To make up for not seeing shows on stage I try to read as many plays as I can get my hands on, and from time to time I'll try to post a review of the stage adaptations that catch my eye.

Alexandre Dumas' the Count of Monte Cristo: An Adaptation for the Stage by Charles Morey.

Charles Morey is the the artistic director of the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City. According to his bio he has tackled a number of stage adaptations including: The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and A Tale of Two Cities.

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO tells the story of Edmond Dantès journey of revenge. While in prison, Dantès meets Abbé Faria, a priest and intellectual, who has been jailed for his political views. In conversation with Faria and through flashbacks we learn that Dantès seemingly perfect life stirred up jealousy among three men. Together, they draft a letter accusing Dantès of treason. A fourth man sees through the plot to frame Dantès, but for his own reasons decides to send him to prison for life.

In prison, Faria turns Dantès into a well-educated man, and tells him of a large treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. When Faria dies, Dantès is given an opportunity to escape and swims to freedom.

Years later, Dantès reappears calling himself the Count of Monte Cristo. Armed with damning knowledge about each of the four men, Dantès sets an elaborate scheme of revenge into motion. In the end all four men are driven to death, ruin, or insanity. Dantès ultimately learns the importance of forgiveness and he seemingly picks up life where he left off as a sailor seeing the world.

Like any two and a half hour adaptation of such an epic novel, Morey cuts the plot pretty close to the bone. However the economy of the story-telling means that the action never lets up. My one complaint is that I found the ending to be unsatisfying and a little tacked on to the play. It is a little pat for Dantès to learn a lesson about forgiveness when he has successfully destroyed all of his enemies. I’m more of a Jacobean mind set, and feel that Dantès’ single-minded thirst for revenge would ultimately lead to his own destruction. That he simply is able to ride off into the sunset after satisfying a twenty-year grudge might be true to the tone of the novel, but it rings false.

I enjoyed the script very much and would welcome the opportunity to see it on stage. Morey's solid work makes me want to seek out his other adaptations.