There’s no denying that it’s certainly been the Year of Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical surprised no one when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in June, and swept 10 other categories besides. (For an excellent behind-the-scenes account, check out this audiobook.)
Hamilton is a singular sensation to be sure, but Broadway’s been bursting at the seams with talent and opportunity as of late. The 2015 Tonys made history when Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first all-female writing team to win the Tony for Best Original Score for Fun Home, their adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, which features a lesbian protagonist. This year, Tony history was made again when all four musical acting categories were won by actors of color. Then there’s the technological advances (in June, the revival of She Loves Me became the first Broadway show to be live-streamed) and the crossover talent attracted to the medium (Sara Bareilles and Steve Martin each penned a Tony-nominated show this year).
The fact of the matter is, no matter the audience,
theater and literature go hand in hand.
Of course, theater has always been highly collaborative, and its creators have drawn inspiration from a number of sources. Hamilton was inspired by Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004), a biography that was titanic in its own right, but it’s far from the first theatrical endeavor to be based on a book. There’s the obvious shows, like The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables , and Oliver!, which adapt the works of such classic literary giants as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. Then there’s Andrew Lloyd Weber’s oft-reviled—but no less popular—Cats, currently enjoying its first U.S. revival, which draws its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
The fact of the matter is, no matter the audience, theater and literature go hand in hand, and it’s a partnership that shows no signs of slowing down. Below, I’ve collected some of my favorite musicals—and a couple of plays—that take their cues from books (and if you want to further the discussion, feel free to ask for my Completely Unofficial List of Musical Adaptions of Nonmusical Films That Are Even Better than the Original). By no means is this a comprehensive list (sorry Mary Poppins! Sorry Secret Garden!), so please add your own favorites in the comments!
There’s a lot of bad happening in the world right now, and a lot that could be better, but I take comfort in the fact that we’re in the middle of a creative and cultural zeitgeist, and that so much art is more accessible now than it’s ever been. When it comes to that, at least, what other way is there to say it? How lucky we are to be alive right now.
Jane Eyre, 2000, Broadway
This oft-overlooked adaption of Charlotte Bronte’s novel never got the credit it deserved, opening on Broadway at the end of 2000 and closing just a few months later. The gothic romance lends itself well to the stage, though, and the score is undeniably haunting.
Little Women, 2005, Broadway
One of several Jeanine Tesori shows that features Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Violet, Shrek), Little Women, perhaps, didn’t translate as well to stage as other works. Critic consensus was that it was a cliff-notes version of Alcott’s novel, lacking the depth of the original. Still, there are some astonishing moments in the score (see what I did there) (I’m sorry) and some truly lovely ones as well. And for those bookish folks, many of Jo’s songs will surely strike a chord. (“I came to New York on a dream / I knew it might take a while / But all I’ve been hearing since I arrived / Is ‘leave it right there on the pile.’”)
The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1997, Broadway
I know this isn’t true for everyone (critics), but I’ve always had such a soft spot for Frank Wildhorn. He’s certainly tried his hand at adapting classic literature for the stage, with varying degrees of success. Best-known are probably Dracula (it opened on Broadway in 2004 but we don’t talk about it) and Jekyll & Hyde, widely regarded as his best, which went through several incarnations before beginning its Broadway run in 1997. But The Scarlet Pimpernel, based off of Baroness Emma Orczy’s 1905 novel about a foppish Englishman with a secret vigilante identity (the original superhero, as it were), has always been my favorite. It takes place during the French Revolution—no, not that French Revolution—and is stuffed to the gills with swashbuckling action, mistaken identities, and a healthy dose of romance. I mean, honestly, put the snobbery aside and tell me, what’s not to love?
Bridges of Madison County, 2014, Broadway
The ever-versatile Jason Robert Brown, beloved for such Off-Broadway babies as Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years tackles Robert James Waller’s 1992 bestseller. The critics may have been divided, but Brown, understandably, took home two Tonys for the score.
The Color Purple, 2005, Broadway
As it turns out, I can’t talk about The Color Purple like a rational human being. Next.
Okay just kidding. But it seriously is like, life-alteringly stunning. Although it was inspired, of course, by Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, I think most people are familiar with the movie adaptions, because obviously Oprah was all over that. The revival is running on Broadway right now, and honestly, if it weren’t for Hamilton, it would have gotten all the buzz this year. Cynthia Erivo still beat out Hamilton stars for a very, very well-deserved Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, and not to be dramatic or anything but this show contains one of the most exquisite duets for two women I’ve ever heard in my life. But why are you still reading this when the whole soundtrack is online? Go go go!
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2012, West End
Like its source material, the myriad-award winning novel by Mark Haddon, the stage play is notable for its crossover appeal with a younger audience. It won five Tonys, including Best Play, when it came to Broadway a few years after its West End debut, and its visual and sonic elements, used in conjunction with the 15-year-old main character’s autism, were particularly noted. If you’re in Chicago like we are, it’s touring here in December—so let’s go! In the meantime, check out this article about what happened to the New York production’s canine stars after they aged out of their parts.
Fun Home, 2013, Off-Broadway
This adaption of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir opened Off-Broadway in 2013 before transferring to Broadway where, as stated above, it made history at the 2015 Tonys. Actors of three different ages are used to represent Alison as she grows up and comes to terms with her sexuality and her relationship with her father.
The Light in the Piazza, 2005, Broadway
A mother-daughter trip to Italy takes an unexpected turn when daughter Clara falls in love with an Italian boy, while her mother worries about family secrets. This adaption of Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella has songs in both English and Italian and the score boasts some achingly beautiful, lyric harmonies.
Ragtime, 1998, Broadway
Confession time: I didn’t know Ragtime was a book. A lot of people, it turns out, don’t know Ragtime was a book. It is! E.L. Doctorow wrote it! It’s also a movie. But the musical, which navigates the landscape of early 20th century in the U.S. through the lives of Eastern European immigrants, African Americans, and white upper-class suburbinates, remains the best-known version. (Of course it does. Audra was in it.) And it’s glorious—and still painfully relevant. You can fight me on this if you want to, but in my oh-so-professional opinion, WHY ARE WE REVIVING CATS WHEN WE COULD BE REVIVING RAGTIME. (Although I guess the answer is because of Ragtime Ellis Island).
Wicked, 2003, Broadway
You had to know this was coming. Oh, the Wizard of Oz—that giant face that launched a thousand spinoffs. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired the movie-musical, of course, but also The Wiz (Broadway, 1975), an urbanized adaption that places the original novel in an African American context. But it’s Gregory Maguire’s Wicked that remains the smash hit among the original adult audience of the book and younger viewers. It opened on Broadway in 2003, and 13 years later, it’s still going strong. Do I even need to give you song recommendations? We all know them all anyway. (But if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch Donna Vivino’s version of “No Good Deed.”)
Books for Youth
Matilda, 2011, West End
With a truly brilliant set and excellent, high-energy choreography, Matilda the Musical brought one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved classics to life on the West End, with the Broadway run following shortly after. Certain people are still bitter today that it lost out on the Tony for Best Musical, but hey, if nothing else, all incarnations of this story succeed in teaching children (and adults) the world over that just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
Peter and the Starcatcher, 2009, Off-Broadway
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has a long and storied history with the stage—I mean, it’s a play—including the many productions of the 1954 Broadway musical (and 2014’s NBC live broadcast, which was met with fairly lukewarm reviews, except that one song was amazing). J.M. Barrie himself has been the subject of a show—Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 film, is currently running on Broadway, although not for much longer. But Peter and the Starcatcher, the play inspired by the 2004 middle-grade novel of (almost) the same name, Peter and the Starcatchers, is a truly magical theater experience. It moved to Broadway in 2013, where it snatched a handful of Tonys. I saw it in Chicago last October and I still think about it ALL THE TIME.
Tuck Everlasting, 2016, Broadway
2016 was quite a year for book-based shows on Broadway, and if Hamilton and The Color Purple revival weren’t enough, the Great White Way rounded out its audience with this musical inspired by Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel, which just had its 50th birthday last year. It scored a Tony nom for Best Costume Design, and book writer and Broadway dancer Tim Federle further strengthens its ties to the literary world: he’s the author of middle-grade novel Better Nate than Ever (2013) and its sequel, and his first YA novel, The Great American Whatever debuted this year to general acclaim. He’s also published a series of literary cocktail books, the first being Tequila Mockingbird (2013), so obviously I’ll just have to make him my best friend at earliest opportunity.