MATERIAL FOR A MUSICAL: THE ART OF ADAPTATION Tony nominees all drawn from previous sources

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- "Originality," quipped Voltaire, "is nothing but judicious imitation."

Though the degree of judiciousness varies, all four of the shows competing for best musical in tonight's Tony Awards ceremony (9 p.m., Channel 11) could be described as imitations. Each is adapted from a previous source; in some cases, even the sources are adaptations.

Fortunately, originality is not a Tony category. If it were, few musicals would qualify since almost any one you can name -- from "Show Boat" to "My Fair Lady" to "Les Miserables" -- is an adaptation.

Instead of being awarded for something that has never been done before, the Tony is awarded for quality. In a season with only seven new musicals -- three of which have closed -- this year's nominees display a surprisingly high level of stagecraft, performance and variety.

However, when one looks at these shows, a fundamental question arises: Why do some adaptations work better than others?

First, a glimpse of the nominees and their sources:

*"Miss Saigon," which has been aptly described as the most publicized show in history, is a Vietnamized version of Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," which derives from a 1900 play by David Belasco, whose source was a novella by John Luther Long.

*"The Secret Garden" is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 1911 children's novel of the same name.

*"Once on This Island" is taken from Trinidad-born author Rosa Guy's 1985 novel, "My Love, My Love," a Caribbean-inspired retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Little Mermaid."

*"The Will Rogers Follies" -- admittedly a bit of a stretch in terms of an adaptation -- is an amalgam of two real-life sources: Will Rogers' biography and a Ziegfeld Follies show.

It isn't difficult to figure out the advantage of an adaptation. The use of a previous source provides a foundation that is a recognized and often proven commodity. But this can have a downside as well. A recognizable source comes burdened with audience preconceptions. And, using a masterpiece as a foundation does not guarantee a hit.

To succeed, a musical adaptation must meet two important tests. Its source must be a suitable subject for a musical; specifically, the characters must have a reason to sing. And second, the musical must enhance the original in some way.

Of this year's nominees, "Miss Saigon" would appear to spring from the strongest, most sure-fire source. Yet considering that "Madame Butterfly" is arguably one of the most manipulative operas in the repertoire, its Broadway counterpart is surprisingly vapid emotionally. Where "Butterfly" tugs at the heartstrings, "Saigon" merely tweaks.

Updating isn't the problem. There's no reason that Pinkerton -- an American naval officer who seduces and abandons an innocent geisha -- couldn't be a GI assigned to the embassy in Saigon, and that Butterfly couldn't be Vietnamese.

"Miss Saigon" does drain some of the pathos by making the Pinkerton character sympathetic and his Butterfly a bar girl; the showiest character on stage is her pimp, played with sleazy razzmatazz by Jonathan Pryce. But the chief reason the musical isn't as moving as it should be is a socially conscious subplot tacked on at the beginning of the second act. This is where actor Hinton Battle sings the song "Bui-Doi," which translates as "dust of life" and refers to the Amerasian orphans left behind by GIs. When he sings, documentary footage of the children is presented on a large screen.

"Miss Saigon's" creators -- Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, assisted by the American lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. -- may have seen this gesture as public education. But the effect comes closer to private exploitation.

If it is possible to put aside the ethics of incorporating real-life tragedies into a Broadway entertainment, consider the impact this footage has on the show dramatically. Nothing that happens subsequently -- not even the heroine's suicide -- can touch the drama in the faces of these children. If children and dogs on stage are considered scene stealers, imagine the effect of footage of starving Third World orphans.

The team behind "The Secret Garden" -- librettist Marsha Norman, composer Lucy Simon and director Susan H. Schulman -- also chose to add something to a fairly simple story. A tale of regeneration and renewal, the children's novel is about a little girl named Mary Lennox who is orphaned when a cholera epidemic kills her parents in India. Sent to live on an isolated Yorkshire estate with her brooding, widowed, hunchbacked uncle, Mary surreptitiously cultivates a locked garden; as it blooms, so do her spirits, as well as those of her invalid cousin and his melancholy father.

To broaden the story's appeal, the show's creators augmented it with an adult layer built around the theme of romantic love. Not only is the uncle, played by Mandy Patinkin, introduced much earlier than in the book, but more significantly, the cast has been expanded to include a retinue of ghosts -- the spirits of the uncle's wife, Mary's parents, their friends and Indian servants.

Unlike "Miss Saigon," in which extraneous themes are tacked on sheerly for effect, the ghosts in "The Secret Garden" enhance thematic material that is present, albeit underplayed, in the book. The only difficulty is that the ghosts make a muddle of the opening scene. Although that scene is set in India, the dominant ghost is Mary's deceased aunt -- a woman Mary never met and who, as far as we know, never traveled to India.

This initial confusion is particularly unfortunate since, ideally, the first scene of a musical sets up the action that follows. If you're patient, however, the ghosts eventually give "The Secret Garden" a fuller life than it would have had if it had remained merely a children's show. And in keeping with its mature orientation, the show boasts the most musically sophisticated score of any of the nominees.

Although it is peopled with gods, not ghosts, "Once on This Island" -- the adaptation of the Caribbean-flavored "My Love, My Love" -- also veers toward the supernatural. Relying on a storytelling format, librettist Lynn Ahrens uses actors to physically embody the island gods who determine the fate of Ti )) Moune, a native girl who falls in love with a wealthy landowner's son. Nursing him after he's injured in a car accident, she offers her soul to the god of death in exchange for sparing his life.

Romance and a full heart may give the characters in "Miss Saigon" and "The Secret Garden" reason to sing, but the island gods are an inherently tuneful lot. Furthermore, the sounds in Stephen Flaherty's music and the movement in Graciela Daniele's choreography seem to embody the gods' various specialties -- death, love, even earth and water.

The ending of "Once on This Island" is the only other significant difference between the musical and Ms. Guy's novel. The book ends tragically, but Ms. Ahren's libretto offers hope for future generations. It's a choice that not only seems better suited to the exuberant style of the musical, but it also harks back to the conclusion of Andersen's "Little Mermaid," in which the soul of the rejected mermaid lives on as the froth on the waves.

And what of "The Will Rogers Follies"? In a sense, playwright Peter Stone faced the most difficult task. Instead of working from single source, he was working from two -- the life of Will Rogers and the format of the Ziegfeld Follies. Although Rogers was a headliner with the Follies for a decade, he never appeared in a show based on his life.

Crafting this one must have been tricky since certain Ziegfeld conventions had to be followed, such as ending the first act with a wedding and staging the action on a giant staircase populated by long-legged chorines. Mr. Stone found an immensely clever way to meet this challenge: He threw in a -- of self-conscious irreverence.

Keith Carradine, who plays the title role, constantly draws attention to the alterations made to convert Rogers' biography into a Follies show; he even makes frequent references to his death in an airplane piloted by Wiley Post, who is portrayed by an actor repeatedly saying, "Let's go flying, Will!" In the end, of course, Rogers does go flying; even Ziegfeld could only alter history so far. Post's fatal suggestions might seem peculiar at first, but one of the show's most impressive achievements is that it leaves you feeling a glow, not a loss.

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