Turning classics into musicals isn't easy Theater: Yes, 'Romeo and Juliet' gave us 'West Side Story,' but great plays and music don't always mix.


Scads of hit musicals, from "Show Boat" to "Sunset Boulevard," have been adapted from novels and movies. But musicals based on classic plays are relatively rare.

When you get past Shaw and Shakespeare, the list grows thin. And, even the works of these two masters have spawned some musical clunkers. Is there anyone -- besides collectors of such trivia -- who remembers the short-lived 1968 musical, "Her First Roman," based on Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra"? Or "Rockabye Hamlet," eight years later?

Yet when a representative of this sub-genre of musicals hits, it hits big. You have only to consider "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story" (a production of which opens at the Lyric Opera House Dec. 3).

Center Stage's resident dramaturg, James Magruder, who wrote the book for the theater's musical version of Marivaux's "Triumph of Love," believes the key is figuring out whether the source is missing something, whether music can enhance the original. "What does it complete that's not there?" he asks.

In the case of "Triumph of Love," the music is intended to increase accessibility as well as enhance the emotions, or, as Magruder puts it, give the show "more heart."

In addition, of course, the characters should have a reason to sing, and romance is always a good reason.

The difficulty of improving or enhancing classics, Magruder feels, helps explains why even Rodgers and Hammerstein generally worked from second-rate sources. The more exemplary the source, the tougher the musical adaptation.

Working from a classic play, however, can have advantages. "It's always easier to have a really solid structure," says "Triumph's" lyricist, Susan Birkenhead.

Granted, some of these structures are too involved to streamline into musicals. The ones that work, says producer Margo Lion, who commissioned the musical "Triumph," "are often tale-like, simple story structures. I think they lend themselves to interpretations in a new way by music and lyrics. Frequently they're complicated in terms of subplot, but you can strip a lot of that away. There's always someone who wants something, an obstacle and a resolution."

Another potential pitfall, says Jeffrey Stock, the show's composer, is sacrificing the classical sound of the original language. Center Stage's approach, he explains, is to maintain the 18th-century period sound while offering a 20th-century comment on it. In other words, the show has a post-modernist sensibility.

If Center Stage's production of "Triumph of Love" makes it to Broadway, it won't be alone. The revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is still going strong and should get an added boost in February from the unconventional casting of Whoopi Goldberg in the Nathan Lane role. And, another musical fashioned from a classic play has just been announced.

"Play On," a loose musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," moves the action to Harlem in the 1940s. The show has a score of 21 Duke Ellington songs; a book by Cheryl West; choreography by Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes; and a cast that includes Baltimore native Andre De Shields. "Play On," which also began at a regional theater, San Diego's Old Globe, will open on Broadway in March.

Some successful conversions

Here are some of the musicals that have been made from classic plays:

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," source: comedies of Plautus

"The Boys From Syracuse," source: "The Comedy of Errors," William Shakespeare

"Cyrano: The Musical," source: "Cyrano de Bergerac," Edmond Rostand

"Ernest in Love," source: "The Importance of Being Earnest," Oscar Wilde

"Kiss Me, Kate," source: "Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare

"My Fair Lady," source: "Pygmalion," George Bernard Shaw

"Play On," source: "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare

"The Threepenny Opera," source: "The Beggars Opera," John Gay

"West Side Story," source: "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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