Theatre and the movies have always fed off of each other. But while theatre has been with us for millennia, film didn’t take its baby steps until the late 19th century. It developed its basic technology and unique character as an art form from then until the 1920s, when its popularity exploded.
Most early films resembled stage plays that had been caught on camera, but in the ’20s and ’30s cinema shed its awkward dependency on theatre. Sound allowed for subtle performances. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lang’s Metropolis staked out stunning new territory in effects, design and direction, and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane introduced at a stroke many of the film techniques we take for granted today.
Although by 1940 film was firmly in a groove of its own, it continued to plunder the stage for stories, from A Streetcar Named Desire in the ‘50s to Ron Howard’s recent Frost / Nixon. Entire genres were made over into film from the stage, viz: vaudeville’s transition into the musical.
But until recently the traffic’s been one-way. Movies got made from plays but, aside from stagings of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s made-for-TV Cinderella in 1958 and written-for-film State Fair in 1996, screen-to-stage shows were virtually unheard of. So how come a short walk down Shaftesbury Avenue these days takes you past perhaps a dozen theatres where they’re running?
The Lion King, Once, The Bodyguard, The 39 Steps, The Commitments and upcoming Shakespeare In Love are just some of the hit celluloid-to-stage productions currently doing great box in the West End, and major movie stars are increasingly choosing to come down from Mount Hollywood to appear in them.
The trend began in the 1990s, as Disney sought new ways to expand its animated film franchises. Economically it was a no-brainer; if it’s been a hit as a movie, why wouldn’t a good show based on that be a hit too? Stage technology had come a long way, and what might have been cynical cash-grabs turned out to be innovative shows with a charm of their own and an immediacy that film couldn’t offer.
First came Beauty and the Beast, then Tarzan, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. But it was The Lion King that set the gold standard for stage-to-screen shows, with Julie Taymor’s beautiful design and inspired, original direction honouring the film but creating something entirely new. Critical and audience acclaim arrived by the bucketload, and the door opened on a whole new genre of theatre.
Dirty Dancing was the first non-Disney movie to break really big on stage. The 2004 musical based on the 1987 chick-flick followed the film closely, its combo of sexy in-the-flesh choreography and iconic zingers creating a party atmosphere among audiences. Its London premiere in 2006 had the biggest pre-sell in West End history, earning £6 million. Its initial run lasted five years, and it enjoyed a smash revival last year that’s just closed in London prior to touring the UK.
Dirty Dancing’s instant party vibe can be felt in other screen-to-stage adaptations, among them Roddy Doyle’s current Palace Theatre hit The Commitments, which combines gritty comedy and drama with a bum-kicking onstage band offering soul classics and an invitation to dance in the aisles. Imminent Grease 2 adaptation Cool Rider at the Duchess Theatre promises a similarly good time, as well as that knowing undertone of cheesiness that just seems to play really well on stage.
The play-plus-concert experience unique to stage-to-screen musicals can be found at The Bodyguard, which provides the Whitney hits and gripping storyline of the movie, but with a central performance by the country’s finest female soul singer Beverley Knight as its unique selling point.
At the other end of the scale, understated romantic musical Once reaps benefits from the audience intimacy that live theatre provides.
And with Simon Beaufoy’s The Full Monty about to reveal all at the Noël Coward Theatre, London audiences are about to have the singular experience of enjoying first-rate comedy-drama by an Oscar-winning writer coupled with the three-Pernods-later sensation of sitting front-and-centre at a male strip show.
Screen-to-stage productions allow for novel reinterpretations of source material. Graham ‘The I.T. Crowd’ Linehan rewrote classic Ealing film The Ladykillers in his own style, while the Criterion Theatre’s long-running hit The 39 Steps takes a serious Alfred Hitchcock adventure movie and lovingly mangles it into a very daft and enjoyable comedy.
Some shows even manage to outdo the success of their celluloid predecessors. Conmen comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a successful movie, but its stage musical incarnation – soon to be revived at the Savoy Theatre – won 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards along with rapturous audience approval. Similarly, Fame has transcended its late ’70s screen success to become a perennial hit in revivals.
These days, even TV’s getting in on the act, with I Can’t Sing! – the X-Factor Musical presenting a screwy Harry Hill take on the telly talent contest to audiences at the London Palladium from 27 February.
It’s not just screen stories that are coming to the stage but screen stars themselves, drawn by the selfsame immediacy and proximity their audiences love. Brit movie star de jour Carey Mulligan will make her West End debut in Skylight in June, while Natasha McElhone and Sex In The City’s Kristin Davis will go head-to-head in movie thriller adaptation Fatal Attraction.
With Magnificent Seven and Man From U.N.C.L.E. legend Robert Vaughn and Jeff ‘Lawnmower Man’ Fahey currently appearing together in screen-to-stage jury-room white-knuckler Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick Theatre and Angela Lansbury set to follow them there soon in Blithe Spirit, the West End’s starting to look more like West Hollywood every day.
For more information and to book seats for any of the shows mentioned in this article, click the live links. To learn about our exclusive Dine With The Stars dinner-and-show packages, click here.