The movies they SHOULD make into musicals, What early interviewees are up to now, and three shows to see next week...
The West End is full of cynical screen-to-stage adaptations. Here are five films that should be turned into shows. Plus: an update on the artists that featured in this newsletter in 2021, and more...
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This week: an essay on the cynical-but-safe movie-musicals currently dominating the West End and why they are so depressing; a check-in with the writers, directors, designers and theatremakers that featured in this newsletter back in 2021; and shout-outs for two touring shows, and one happening at the Bush Theatre.
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Five movies they SHOULD make into musicals.
A lot has been written lately about the amount of musicals in the West End. David Hare decried them in The Spectator, grumbling incoherently that they are the “leylandii of theatre.” David Benedict defended them in The Guardian, arguing that for producers they offer the only arithmetic that adds up. And Michael Billington emerged to observe that ‘twas ever thus, that we are witnessing a golden age of musicals – Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret and Nick Hytner’s Guys and Dolls – and, of course, that the real issue was the absence of classic plays.
I am not going to offer my opinion in this tired debate – FYI, I am a huge hypocrite who poses as a musical theatre snob but ends up loving every musical I ever go and see – but I will make an adjacent point, one already explored by Kate Wyver: I find it extremely depressing how many of these musicals are adapted from films or TV shows.
Frozen, Dirty Dancing, Mamma Mia!, Newsies, Heathers, Back To The Future, The Lion King, Moulin Rouge!, Pretty Woman, Only Fools and Horses, The Great British Bake Off and Matilda were all on screen first, and they will soon be joined by The Time Traveller’s Wife, Groundhog Day, Mrs Doubtfire, Spitting Image, and The SpongeBob Musical.
Look, I get it. Times are tough. Producers are anxious. They need bums on seats and the surest way of doing that is by giving them something they already know – a film adaptation, a TV adaptation, a jukebox musical or a remounting of an already successful show. I acknowledge, too, that several of those shows above are the product of long, thoughtful adaptation processes by talented and dedicated creatives. And I know, too, that culture has always cannibalised itself. Ancient Greek dramatists adapted existing art for the stage. Shakespeare did it. Sondheim did it. I am just not sure that it has ever been done at the same rate, with the same degree of cynicism.
It is not only modern musicals, either. Plays are guilty of it, too: there are adaptations of Stranger Things, Brokeback Mountain and Game Of Thrones on the way. The film and TV industry is obsessed with it, too: Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Lord Of The Rings, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter. They just can’t leave stuff alone. On stage and screen, taking an existing thing and turning it as another thing is cynical but safe – in the short term.
In the long term, though, I worry. I worry that theatre is being infected by the same sickness as film and TV, reducing all culture to intellectual property to be re-packaged and resold as something new. There is an argument that these movie-to-musical shows are gateways to the wider world of theatre, but I worry that we are actually training audiences to stick to what they know and not try anything new. I worry that we are looking after the industry of today at the expense of the industry of tomorrow.
It is why the West End shows I admire most – beyond those that tell entirely new stories like For Black Boys and Standing At The Sky’s Edge – are those that take an existing work of art and do something really radical with it. Shows like Oklahoma!, Girl From The North Country, or Hadestown. Shows that hook an audience with something familiar – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bob Dylan, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth – and give them something fresh and weird and deep and different and exciting.
That work of art can be anything, a much-loved film included – but if you must make musicals out of movies, at least do it with some verve and imagination. Let’s not just look up the top-rated rom-coms of the 1990s on IMDB, stuff them with songs and stick them on stage. Let’s try something new. Here are five ideas you can have for free:
1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with a score by Anaïs Mitchell
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the best Coen Brothers movie in my opinion: an episodic adaptation of the Odyssey set in the American South in the 1930s, which slyly takes in all sorts of social and political issues, has a cast of weird and wonderful characters, and manages to be wackily funny throughout. It already has a fantastic folk soundtrack - Harry McClintock, Norman Blake and, of course, The Soggy Bottom Boys - but how great would those songs sound on stage, re-arranged for a live band and supplemented by someone steeped in folk - someone like Hadestown’s Anaïs Mitchell (you should check out her band Bonny Light Horseman), or Big Thief’s Adrienne Lenker, or Johnny Flynn? Inside Llewyn Davis might work, too…
2. 24 Hour Party People, staged immersively, with a score by New Order.
24 Hour Party People is one of my favourite films - partly because it is a precursor to other Michael Winterbottom projects I deeply love, like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip, and partly because it is thoroughly soaked in the club culture of Manchester in the late 1970s and 1980s, so much so that it makes me nostalgic for a time I never experienced (there must be a German word for that). Again, there is a ready-made soundtrack from Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays. Existing members of the bands could re-work their own songs and supplement them, and Rebecca Frecknall could turn a theatre into the Hacienda for a night, like she did for Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. Bez could come along to opening night…
3. 28 Days Later, Shaun Of The Dead, or Train To Busan, or any zombie movie, with a jukebox score.
I haven’t really thought this one through, but I would love to see someone attempt to adapt a zombie movie into a stage musical. Horror is not done enough on stage as a genre. If you ever get the chance to see Swedish director Jakop Ahlbom’s mime-movie-mash-up Horror - it was at London International Mime Festival a few years ago - then I would urge you to buy a ticket. Come to think of it, he could direct. Throw a few tunes in - I guess it could be a jukebox thing - and you’ve got an absolute thriller.
4. American Graffiti, with a score by Brandon Flowers.
American Graffiti was one of the first American high-school, coming-of-age movies, an early entry in a long list that includes Grease!, Dazed and Confused, and American Pie. It already has an iconic soundtrack of early rock and roll that features Bill Haley & His Comets, Buddy Holly, and The Beach Boys. Who better to rework some of those songs and add some new stuff than that charismatic chronicler of smalltown American adolescence, Brandon Flowers. Come to think of it, a jukebox musical of The Killers is overdue, too. Sam’s Town is almost a musical concept album already…
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a score by Thom Yorke
Other deeply philosophical sci-fi films would work, too - Alien, Arrival, Moon - but this makes the most sense. Stanley Kubrick’s weird and wonderful 1968 movie already has a classical music soundtrack - mostly Strauss - but how well would it work on stage with a score by Radiohead’s weird and wonderful Thom Yorke? The tricky bit would be doing justice to the extraordinary visuals of the movie. Merle Hensel and Vicky Featherstone have already done one incredible sci-fi on stage in Alistair McDowall’s spaceship-set horror X. I’m sure they could come up with something stunning.
What The Crush Bar’s 2021 interviewees are up to now.
For various reasons, there is no interview with an emerging artist this week. Instead, I thought it would be nice to look back at the earliest interviewees in this newsletter, and shout about what they are up to these days. The Crush Bar launched in January 2021, and its first year featured chats with all of the artists below…
Vera Chok has done her first lead role in a feature film, in Forest Fringe’s collaborative production Dream Agency. It’s being screened at London Independent Film Festival tonight.
Performer Maimuna Memon got nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Chris Bush’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge, which transfers to the West End next year.
Writer Nina Segal has a bunch of shows on: The Good Person of Szechwan at the Lyric Hammersmith right now, War and Culture at the New Diorama Theatre next week, and Shooting Hedda Gabler at the Rose Theatre this autumn.
Paul Smith and Middle Child Theatre have announced their 2023 plans, which include a national tour and London transfer of new play Modest - you can read more about that in this piece in The Guardian by Natasha Tripney - a move to a four-day work week.
Actor and writer babirye bukilwa has been cast in Domino Day, a major new drama on BBC Three from Lauren Sequeira.
Cara Baldwin and Burnt Lemon Theatre’s Tokyo Rose can be seen for free as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Performance Festival – along wish a load more musicals.
Three shows to see next week
Co-directed by Bush Theatre artistic director Lynette Linton (who staged Sweat to huge acclaim several years ago) and Daniel Bailey (whose superb production of Tyrell Williams’ Red Pitch will be returning later this year), and written and performed by the one and only Lenny Henry, August In England is a one-man show that explores the injustice of the Windrush scandal through the eyes of a West Bromwich fruit-and-veg salesman. It feels significant in lots of ways, not least because it marks Henry’s playwriting debut. You can get tickets via the button below.
There have been several Édouard Louis adaptations on British stages in recent years, including Eline Arbo’s Dutch stunning production Weg Met Eddy Bellegueule, which ran at the Edinburgh International Festival last August. Surrogate Productions’ touring adaptation of Who Killed My Father?, Louis’s powerfully political 2018 study of his own dad’s life and death, debuted at the Tron Theatre last year, when I found it extremely moving. Written and directed by Nora Wardell and performed by Michael Marcus, it is now embarking on an extensive Scottish tour, which kicks off in Cumbernauld on Thursday, and arrives in Edinburgh on May 11. You can get tickets via the button below.
This new show from acclaimed director Katie Mitchell and company Headlong is an experiment in “zero-travel touring.” The play is staged by a local cast and creative team in every venue it travels to. No flights, no trains, no vans. In a meta-theatrical twist, the play itself is a monologue about a theatre-worker attempting to tour a play in an environmentally sustainable way. Written by American dramatist Miranda Rose Hall, it was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize last year. You can read more about the play and the project in Natasha Tripney’s piece for The Guardian here, and you can catch it on its “zero-travel tour” at the Barbican, Shakespeare North, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Stoke’s New Vic, Theatre Royal Plymouth, or York Theatre Royal. Tickets via the button below.
Shouts and murmurs
Here are some other bits and bobs that caught my eye this week, and that you might be interested in…
These extracts from Gregory Doran’s new memoir in The Guardian are lovely. Did you know the RSC has a real human skull bequeathed to them to use in Hamlet? There is an interview with Doran by Nick Smurthwaite in The Stage, too.
A couple of exciting seasons got announced yesterday by the Kingston Rose and the Bush Theatre. A new Nina Segal play at the Rose, the return of Tyrell Williams’ Red Pitch and Anoushka Lucas’ Elephant at the Bush, plus the long-awaited London transfer of Edinburgh Fringe hit Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen are a few of the highlights.
If you want a bit more from me, then I have got interviews with actor Mariah Gale, who is playing Bottom in The Globe’s new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and with the one and only Jane Asher, who is in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, both in The Stage.
Thanks for reading
That is it for this week. If you want to get in touch about anything raised in this issue - or anything at all, really - just reply to this email. Or you can find me on Twitter, where I am @FergusMorgan.
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See you next week.