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Here's an Idea . . . Take This Film to Broadway

'Footloose' is just the latest in a growing trend of remaking movies into big-budget stage productions. Few succeed, so why does everyone keep trying?

October 18, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In the 1984 film "Footloose," the pop-hit song "Holding Out for a Hero," sung by Bonnie Tyler, underscores a scene of a tractor race. No tractors grace the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater, where the musical version of "Footloose" opens Thursday, but the creators of the new $6.5-million Broadway musical are hoping to capture some of the same driving energy that made the movie one of the top box-office grossers of the 1980s.

It won't be easy. There have been a handful of successes in adapting films to the musical stage--"Applause," "42nd Street," "La Cage aux Folles," "A Little Night Music" and, notably, Disney's mega-hits "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast"--but the Broadway landscape is also littered with carcasses of shows that have looked to the movies for inspiration. Musical adaptations of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Victor/Victoria," "Nick and Nora," "Whistle Down the Wind," "High Society," "Big," "Sunset Blvd.," "My Favorite Year," "The Goodbye Girl," "Singin' in the Rain," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Red Shoes," "Big Deal," and the notorious flop "Carrie" are just some of the productions that have failed to transfer the cinematic magic of the source to the stage.

Why is it so tough? According to those who have labored long in the field, the challenges are twofold, relating to both craft and audience expectations. "What people forget is that the musical art form is completely different from film," says Nick Scandalios, executive vice president for the Nederlander Organization, a national producing company. "You can't just transcribe a screenplay onto the stage, which is a far less literal medium. Unless you can create a suspension of disbelief and moments that require you to sing, it won't work no matter what the film is."

Moreover, audiences come to such musicals with their own preconceptions, which can exaggerate otherwise forgivable shortcomings. The more beloved the source--i.e. "Gone With the Wind," "Sunset Blvd."--the trickier the endeavor.

"If the show has a history of some goodness, theoretically you co-opt that goodness," says Michael David, chief of Dodger Endemol, the corporate Broadway powerhouse behind "Footloose," as well as the Tony-winning "Titanic" (which predates the film and is unrelated). "Of course, with the tangible assets come tangible liabilities, as well," the producer adds. "The downside is that people come with expectations. The question becomes, 'Will we screw it up?' That's always the nightmare."

What David and his team are trying not to screw up is one of the most popular films of the 1980s, which in its stage version is being directed by Walter Bobbie ("Chicago"), with book (co-written by Bobbie) and lyrics by Dean Pitchford. Tom Snow has written the music, with the exception of four songs: "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins, "The Girl Gets Around" by Sammy Hagar, "Holding Out for a Hero" by Jim Steinman, and "Almost Paradise" by Eric Carmen." It tells the story of a troubled youth from Chicago, played by Kevin Bacon in the film, who moves to a small, conservative Texas town where dancing is forbidden. Much to the chagrin of the town's elders, the teenager soon has the whole town dancing, including the minister's daughter, who finds herself smitten with the rebel newcomer. The characters in the movie version do not sing, but the film boasts a plethora of pop hits on its platinum-selling soundtrack, including "Let's Hear It for the Boy," "Almost Paradise" and "Footloose."

"We're not trying to put the film on stage," says Bobbie. "We're using it as a source for a whole new Broadway musical, and when you do that, you have to find theatrical conceits through which to tell the story. Suddenly you're asking yourself questions like 'What does the minister have to sing about? His wife? What does his daughter have on her mind?' "

As a result, onstage Ariel, the minister's daughter played by Jennifer Laura Thompson, has "Holding Out for a Hero" on her mind, a number now set in the local burger joint. Five of the film's seven songs have been folded into other scenes, supplemented by nine new songs written by Pitchford and Snow, all in an effort to build worthy stage legs.

Despite odds that appear to be against transferring films to the stage, theater producers have been raiding film catalogs more than ever in the past four years, beginning with "Sunset Blvd." in 1993 and "Big" in 1996. "Doctor Dolittle" is currently playing in London, along with "Saturday Night Fever." "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Easter Parade" and "A Star Is Born," "Sweet Smell of Success" and "Bright Lights, Big City" all are in development. "The Full Monty" and "The Witches of Eastwick" are also being considered for future projects.

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