- Some say that the theater is dead.
And that is probably because most playhouses the world over are closed at the moment.
Owing to a worldwide pandemic.
And yet the musical lives on, on Disney Plus.
As the nation has been wrapped with a film version of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.
But this show wouldn't have even been a twinkle in Broadway's eye, if it weren't for the fact that composer slash lyricist slash human embodiment of theater kid energy Lin-Manuel Miranda hadn't stumbled upon a copy of the biography he used as the basis for the show.
Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton the musical is not based on the life of this guy.
It's based on this book.
Though it seems like an unlikely topic for a musical, Miranda had this to say about the process of adapting it in a conversation with legendary Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim.
- Well, that leads me to a really good bit of advice you gave me early when I was writing Hamilton.
I was drowning in research.
- And what you told me was, just write the parts you think are a musical, and that forms its own spine.
- And it had us come to the realization that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater is built off of books.
And so, like every television program that starts looking for new ideas, it's finally come to this.
The It's Lit musical episode.
(upbeat music) At it's best, a musical uses all its mediums to maximum effect.
Writing, dialogue, singing, dancing, lighting, and so on.
It knows when to use a song and when to pull back.
It knows when to go ham on the acting and when to not do that.
But since you have to be a master of so many schools, it could be argued that that's why musicals are so difficult to pull off and are so often regarded as cheesy and ham-fisted instead of having that emotional punch that they're going for.
That said, you could argue that musicals will hit you in the fee fees in a quick and potent way.
So good book adaptation was still the novel's emotional core and turn it into song.
A successful musical will find that emotional core of the story and use music to express that.
Kidnapping a young soprano through means of deception and hypnotizing, make it a romantic song.
♪ And listen to the music of the night ♪ According to New Yorker staff writer, Adam Gopnik on Les Miserable, the real absence from novel to musical is rooted in the DNA of the musical theater, which welcomes big emotions but not always too complicated or ambivalent ones.
While the rent bemoaning, gravity defying musicals of today seem like the product of a relatively young art form, musical theater comes from a long tradition of storytelling that has its roots in opera, where plot and dialogue are moved primarily through sung music.
And operetta, more dialogue driven and lighter and usually more comedic in tone.
But even some of the most popular operas were adapted from books such as Puccini's La Boheme and Donsiletti's Lucia Di Lammermoor.
Not to mention the scores of operas based on Shakespearian works like, Verdi's Otello or Gounod's Romeo and Juliet.
You get the idea.
So flash forward to the 1920s when the Vaudville vignette style of musical was en vouge and the songs rarely moved the plot forward and were more showcases for dancing and singing.
In comes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1927 musical Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's 1926 novel of the same name.
Record fast turnover there.
Here, songs like Old Man River and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, drove the story forward discussing complex themes of tragic love and racial prejudice.
And without the promise of just being popcorn entertainment such as it were.
From there the book musical, ie a musical play where songs and dancing are integrated fully into a story with emotional and dramatic goals, not a musical based on a book, exploded into popularity.
And it is this era that we get many classics of the genre adapted from books.
However, it starting in the 1980s we really start seeing shows veer into, Thing You've Heard Of, the musical territory, where musicals are not just based on books but that adaptation is the selling point.
Musicals based on books continue to be beat big business.
Even Love Never Dies, the famous disaster sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is based on a published book.
It's called the Phantom of Manhattan.
And it was written by acclaimed mystery writer Frederick Forsyth.
Also, shout out Lestat, the musical based on Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and yes, I paid to see twice, best $20 I ever spent.
So despite the enduring popularity of musicals based on books, it must needs be remarked that when we talk about musical theater and its relationship to books, there is something of a lingering snobbery.
In his 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin claimed that every original work of art has an aura of authenticity that is gradually stripped away by the process of copying and reproduction.
Film scholar and my advanced project professor at NYU Film, Robert Stam has argued, "Literature will always have an axiomatic superiority over other forms of adaptation because of its seniority as an art form."
This hierarchy also it has something to do with what he calls iconophobia, the suspicion of the visual and the concomitant logophilia, the love of the word as sacred.
From this perspective, adaptations are by definition, belated, middlebrow or culturally inferior.
However, other scholars have argued that there is a middle ground or a place for adaptation and other forms of media.
In her essay on the art of adaptation, professor and literary theorist Linda Hutcheon says, "While no medium is inherently good at doing one thing and not another, each medium (like each genre) has different means of expression and so can aim at certain things better than others.
If the artist has a paint brush, his or her vision of the same landscape will emerge as masses instead.
A poet, by the same analogy, will be attracted to representing different aspects of a story than the creator of a musical spectacular."
So if we did an in-depth analysis of this topic with lots of different musicals as examples, this episode would be as long as well, Les Mis.
But this is PBS, it's a nonprofit, we don't have that kind of budget.
So, let's look at some musical adaptations that turned into big hits.
What did they change and what did they keep?
Gregory McGuire's 1995 novel Wicked makes for a great example of how adaptation can completely change the tone of the original source material while still retaining the plot elements that made it compelling.
Based on L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books, Wicked is told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, or as she is referred to in the novel, Elphaba Thropp.
While the musical is a bubbly, high energy, pop pastiche about her backstory, the novel is a way more nihilistic and detached and much more concerned with the racial justice subtext of Oz and Elphaba's fight against injustice.
Stephen Swartz musical adaptation takes that and completely changes the tone, recasting Elphaba, and Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, as two young women exploring how their friendship changes as they grew up together.
Wicked the musical smartly understood that while the source material was popular for a reason what people want in a musical is slightly queer-coated femme stories between a dark haired woman and a blonde with songs about being a magical hashtag girlboss.
Which is to say that it is basically a Disney musical.
Complete with an I want song, a power ballad, tacked on unnecessary hetero love story, animal fun times and a happy ending that was not there in the novel.
(laughs) But where Wicked seems like an obvious pick for a musical adaptation, what could seem less obvious than a musical based on the life of the United States first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton?
Well, if the musical feels extremely biased towards Hamilton a lot of that is because Ron Chernow, the guy who wrote the biography off of which the musical is based, is extremely biased towards Alexander Hamilton.
He loves the guy.
So while the show is about this one guy's life as written by Chernow, it expands that, by way of theme of who lives who dies, who tells your story, knowing and accepting that you can't control how people will frame your place in history after you're gone.
Miranda's major change is focusing on the exploration of legacy as an emotional experience rather than an intellectual or academic one.
Miranda worked closely with Chernow to bring in the multi-racial casting as a specific feature of the theatrical production.
Miranda says his intent was to tell a story about America then, told by America now, using different styles of music and dance, specifically hip hop, in a way that you just can't do with the book.
According to Miranda, "We want to eliminate any distance.
Our story should look the way our country looks.
Then we found the best people to embody these parts.
I think it's a very powerful statement without having to be a statement."
But if we're going by sheer ambition verses execution, perhaps the biggest success story is Boublil and Schoenberg's 1985 musical, Les Miserables, or as we call it in the theater kid community, Les Miz.
According to the Oxford Handbook of the British Musical, a thing that exists, the novel's spiritual and sentimental tones necessarily become simpler and more forceful in a sung-through musical that is played out on a theatrical stage.
The musical echo's Hugo but understands that his narrative range and depth could not be merely recited if it were to succeed as a modern opera.
Based on Victor Hugo's book of the same name, which is approximately 60,000 pages long, how does one distill the emotional core of this book and render it into song?
Well, here's what we got.
The revolutionary subplot.
John Valjean's personal journey.
And of course, young love.
(bell dings) What is telling is what is cut out.
The book is very concerned with French history.
The musical, I mean, it's there but less so.
There's a huge chunk in the second half of the novel that goes back to the Battle of Waterloo and explains that for a few hundred pages.
In the musical, it gets a passing mention.
♪ And close 10 RDA, he was there so they say ♪ ♪ at the deal of Waterloo ♪ But it's never the focus.
The show keys in on the big emotions, both macro, the political movement embodied with songs like, Do You Hear the People Sing.
♪ Sing the song of angry men ♪ And the micro, the personal emotional journeys of the characters.
To again cite that Oxford musical handbook, "Whether personal taste accommodates the mega musical genre or not, the fact remains that Les Miserables has become the foremost example of this musical form by successfully intensifying the original novels melodrama."
And of course it would not be an episode that I co-wrote without a mention of our sad boy, our favorite literary trashcan, the Phantom of the Opera.
Andrew Lloyd Webber claims that a chance finding of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel was the thing that inspired what would become the most successful Broadway musical in history.
This novel has everything; kidnapping, extortion, a fallen chandelier, a torture chamber in the guest bedroom.
The musical cuts that part out.
But although he saw incredible potential there, since the novel was originally serialized, it was also kind of all over the place.
Said, Lloyd Webber, "The Gaston Leroux novel is a very confused confection- sometimes a faux history story, then sporting a touch of George du Maurier's novel, Trilby, next a horror story, then it's French detective time, now and then it's spiced with Beauty and the Beast with a dash of satanic Paganini."
Also, the Phantoms name has got to go.
In the very first treatment Lloyd Weber wrote for the musical, he notes, "Also in the novel he's called Erik.
No way, Erik, The Musical?
So what does Lloyd Andy horn in on in this somewhat totally inconsistent novel with an underwhelming name for the lead?
Simple, it's a tragic romance about unrequited love.
The novel has the seeds of this story of unrequited love, among many other things, but Lloyd Weber decided that should be the primary focus.
So the musical makes the Phantom, in Lloyd Andy's words, no monster, but a handsome hunk.
(laughs) Michael Crawford, sex Adonis.
(laughs) He has this hypnotic power, and Christina's drawn to his musical genius.
Lloyd Weber also took elements that happened offscreen, or were teased in the novel, and turned it up to 11 for maximum musical melodrama.
Again, Lord Andy, "Here was the plot I could fashion into the high romance I had been longing to write.
The Phantom has composed his own passionate opera for Christine to perform."
Comment's performance, The Phantom acts out his wildest fantasy by taking the lead opposite her himself.
Christine publicly shames him by unmasking him in front of the entire opera house.
And when did Christine give the Phantom back the ring?
It's not in Leroux's novel.
So while Erik, the Phantom, was always a tragic, sympathetic character, the major change here is to make him relatable.
Arguably the audience has meant to relate more to the Phantom than to anyone else in the show.
In revisiting his opinion of Les Miserable 25 years after the show opened, the Guardian Theater critic, Michael Billington, who originally trashed the show, had this to say in retrospect, "What I find intriguing is that we think we live in a very cool, smart cynical age.
Yet when the chips are down, what we really crave is a contest of good and evil and lashings of spectacle."
It's easy to be down on a musical adaptation of the book, just in the same way it's easy to be down on a film adaptation.
But literary and media studies have been making a case for the power and mark form of musical adaptation for years.
As Pulitzer prize winning New York Times Theater Critic, Brooks Atkinson, put it, "As an art form, the musical stage is entitled to serious consideration.
By the richness of its medium, which blends music, dance, verse, costume, scenery, and orchestra, the musical drama makes complete use of the theater.
It is the one element left in a form of literature that was all poetry originally."
So while it is sad, that Broadway has been dark for the longest time in its history, if the success of Hamilton on Disney tells us anything, the love is still there.