A Trip to the Library

Looking for some cool summer reading...?

For many years, I've been collecting novels from which musicals have been adapted. It's really fun for a musical theatre obsessive like me to read these books and see how they relate to their stage adaptations. And it's really instructive to see how these stage versions were fashioned, to understand how different novels and stage musicals are as storytelling forms, and how successful adaptations have to fundamentally refashion these stories. In some cases, the adaptations are pretty faithful; in other cases, the adapters took huge liberties, though usually for all the right reasons.

Particularly for anyone who writes or directs for the musical theatre, reading these books is a wonderful master class; but really, it's fun for anyone who loves the shows that have sprung from these books. So here is my Top Ten list of novels on which musicals have been based.

Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, by Henri Murger (retitled The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, in English), is the source for Jonathan Larson's Rent (which New Line will be producing in spring 2014). I know everybody says the musical is based on the opera La Bohème,, but having seen the opera and read the book, I'm here to tell you -- the musical is not based on the opera. (I've written more about this in my analysis of the show, if you're interested.) This novel is one of the funniest books I've ever read. The central characters are all complete dicks -- irresponsible, self-involved, lazy -- and yet they're so much fun to spend time with. The characters have been softened a bit in Rent, but the parallels in character and story are everywhere. Anybody who loves Rent will love this book.

42nd Street, by Bradford Ropes, is one of the coolest discoveries I've ever made. It's nothing like the film or stage musical. In fact the action of what most of us know as 42nd Street, corresponds to only the last quarter or so of the novel. Most of the novel is about the crazy, fucked-up lives the people working on this show all lead. In fact, the novel spends very little time in rehearsal. There's lots of casual sex, lots of drinking, lots of adultery, lots of lies. It's a wild, outrageous, and very adult, pulp potboiler. And as I read it a couple years ago, I kept thinking, Now THIS would make a great musical! Maybe it could be called 42nd Street After Dark or something. Are you listening, Andrew Lippa...? This book is out of print, but quite a few libraries still have copies, so you can try inter-library loan...

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby, is one of my Top Five favorite novels ever. It's so funny, so dark, so insightful, so frighteningly honest. I remember reading it, constantly thinking to myself, Good Lord, he's telling the world everything that goes on in our heads! And the coolest part for me is that the show is very faithful to the book. They had to change some plot elements and combine some characters, but the musical really follows the book, and giving Rob onstage the (not always dependable) narrator's voice really invokes the spirit and energy of the novel beautifully. The show's creators found an equivalent musical theatre language for the novel's very personal voice (more on that in my analysis from my last book), and they understood that while the novel is about Rob's Hero Myth story, the musical is more specifically about Rob's relationship with his music on that journey. One thing that was fascinating to me is that the novel actually carries the story further than the show -- after the action of the show, the novel follows Rob and Laura as they try to make it work again. I can see why that didn't belong in the show, but it is an interesting lesson in adaptation.

Show Boat, by Edna Ferber, is a really great novel. I started reading it more out of curiosity than anything else. I had always hated Show Boat as a child, but I finally saw a really great production at the Muny, that didn't treat the show as A Classic, and that didn't take all the famous songs really fucking slowly. And I realized how good this show can be when treated right. So I was curious to see what the source novel was like. And it's a blast! It's very funny and it's really great storytelling. The show is fairly faithful to the novel, though it combines and rearranges some characters, but the action of the musical is a only a small part of the novel's sweeping epic. This book is a lot of fun, if only for all the detail of American popular entertainment during this period. It's a long book, but it's really great.

Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, is also long, but it's so funny and original and so massively insightful about human behavior. This book probably has the most interesting relationship on this list with its stage adaptation. The musical (and the teleplay it's based on) is about Cervantes. His novel and his erratic knight errant Don Quixote become devices on stage that make a larger point. I'm always baffled by the people who cast really old actors in the musical's lead -- the main character is Cervantes, who should be in his 40s or 50s, who then plays the part of the aging Quixote, as he tells his fellow prisoners his story. Casting an older actor as Cervantes loses that essential difference between author and character. And that double reality and the yin and yang throughout the show of storyteller and audience, makes the story far more than just a Hero's Journey. Still, though the show is not a straight adaptation of the book, all the themes the show explores are found in the source novel.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig, is a powerful, absorbing novel, one of those it's hard to put down. And it's a story that went through a fundamental re-imagining as it was adapted for the stage. The two versions are fairly close in their larger arcs, but the language and style of the two are very different. Again, the show's creators found a musical theatre equivalent to Puig's storytelling, and though the show had a few missteps in its development process, the final product is (in my opinion) Kander & Ebb's greatest work. Of the books on this list, I think this one was the most fun in which to see the similarities and differences between the versions.

Candide, by Voltaire, is an absolute masterpiece of satire. It's a short book, so it's a really fast read, and it's laugh-out-loud funny. I think the original version of the musical Candide may not have been as true to the novel's tone as the later versions -- my favorite Candide is Hal Prince's 1970s revision and revival, which I think best embraced the spirit of Voltaire's humor. This is a show I'd love to do someday, and it's one of my favorite novels, so hilarious, so fast-moving, so sharply satirical. I think the original production of Candide took itself too seriously, and lost the anarchy and craziness of Voltaire's satiric genius.

Passion d'amour, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (titled Fosca in English), is a really fun, fast-moving, romantic thriller, and its stage adaptation (also based on its film version, I think), Stephen Sondheim and Jim Lapine's Passion, is pretty faithful to its source. When New Line produced Passion, reading the novel helped so much in understanding these complicated characters and times, and in fully understanding the bizarre, fascinating behavior of the two leads. Also, reading the novel made me much more sympathetic to Fosca and Giorgio, and I think that made our production better, more interesting, more human.

Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum, is another really fun novel that's treated very respectfully by its stage adaptation, though again, translated into a fundamentally different storytelling language by Tommy Tune and his collaborators. Still, the two versions are very similar, just snapshots, moments, disconnected puzzle pieces that ultimately form a larger picture. You might call it pointillistic storytelling. I remember two lines from Vicki Baum's novel that obviously inspired Tune's approach -- “The music never stops at the Grand Hotel.” and “life goes on at the Grand Hotel.” Tune created a perpetual motion machine with his stage musical, with scenes and songs rarely played in their entirety, interrupted, interpolated, interwoven, into a swirling, high-energy, high-stakes adventure. Pretty much exactly like the novel.

The Robber Bridegroom, by Eudora Welty, is a really funny, really sexy novella, and like other shows mentioned above, this show's creators found a musical theatre equivalent to Welty's quirky, folksy style. They put onstage the very act of storytelling (more on this in my analysis essay), allowing a modern concept musical to have the same voice as its source novel, seemingly wild and unrestrained, horny and violent and utterly id-driven. This is an adult folk tale, about human appetites and drives. The 1975 musical, created at the height of the American Sexual Revolution had considerably more freedom to write about the smoldering sexuality underneath every moment of the story, than the 1942 novella did, but the stage show also made a more serious point about the intersection of sex and violence in America, a theme only subliminal, if there at all, in the original novella. Still, it's a really fun read. It's also fun to read the original Grimm Brothers' version of this story -- totally different from the novella or the stage musical.

Of course, there are also several cool books that have been source material for musicals, but that aren't really novels, including Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Tales of the South Pacific, and of course Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. And there are also several musical theatre source novels that I haven't read but really want to, including Wicked, Greenwillow, Little Me, Auntie Mame, Tenderloin, 7 1/2 Cents (the source for The Pajama Game), and The Sisters Liked Them Handsome (source for High Button Shoes). And yes, I have bought all these books, so one of these days...

If you want to explore these and other books, visit the New Line Bookstore -- we have a whole section of musical theatre source material.

When I have time off between shows, as I do right now, I like to make lists. There's so much wonderful stuff out there, and this blog gives me a chance to share with lots of people all the cool things I've discovered. I've also posted lists here of cool, lesser known stage known musicals; cool movie musicals; cool stage musicals about politics; and cool books about the art form,

Your summer is all planned. Enjoy!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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