I was about to settle in to watch my new DVD of Bridesmaids when I saw it. The dramatic Ken Burns effect zeroed in on an empty stage with bright lights and flashy text excitedly telling me about "an all-new musical." This "all-new, original musical comedy" is, of course... Bring It On: The Musical? The swishing and percussive sounds in the commercial now began to mirror the thought processes in my head. After the "wait, what?" moment, I experienced abject horror, optimistic enthusiasm, and a couple things in between. Allow me to explain.
To begin, I have to admit something: I love Cats. Yes, I said it. One of my earliest memories is that of sitting in the theatre and realizing that one of the "cats" was crouched next to me. Cats is therefore one of the reasons I am sitting here typing this post about having a complex reaction to a commercial for a musical. But I would like to remove myself from the situation for a second and look at Cats from an ontological perspective. What is this musical and where did it come from? It was inspired by the T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which provides the characters for the show, combined with Andrew Lloyd Webber's music.
A musical from a book is hardly rare. One of the most popular and successful musicals of the recent past, Wicked, is based on the Gregory Maguire novel of the same name. Yet here the connection between the book and the musical is slightly more complicated. Maguire was involved in writing Wicked, which seems to condone the major plot changes that occur between the two mediums.
I do not mean to imply that I consider this is a negative change. Quite the contrary, I have always given Maguire a lot of credit for creating distance between the two. Simply put, the differences between the novel and the musical allow each piece of art to be evaluated on its own merits. Wicked's compelling plot, well integrated songs, and emotional depth make it specifically affective/effective on the stage. Yet seeing Wicked does not replace reading the book, and vice-versa, therefore the shift in medium seems motivated and sound. Both play and novel now become part of a larger chain of associations in the Wizard of Oz universe. It thereby presents itself as an even stronger example of the book to musical success story.
But what about the shift from movie to musical? When I first saw 12 Angry Men on stage, I was blown away by it. I realized that there was a movie as well, but I was very surprised to learn that the movie had predated its theatrical version. In terms of musicals, Reefer Madness also follows this trend, taking a cult movie and making it into a hilarious musical. There is also the reverse process, illustrated by Chicago, which I consider a well-done movie version of a popular musical.
With engaging productions like these falling under the category of musical adaptations from other mediums, why does part of me shudder at Bring It On: The Musical? It all has to do with several unfortunate experiences. Sitting through Catch Me If You Can, Young Frankenstein, and even Spamalot, to name a few, have made me incredibly wary of the movie to musical leap. The first example changed so much that the plot was thin and barely recognizable while the latter two changed so little that I could recite the words along with the actors. Catch Me If You Can also gets a prize for being a musical based on a movie based on a book based on a true story.
Why do these productions lack the engaging pizzazz of some of their musical counterparts? I will not say that they were unsuccessful, especially monetarily. But though I enjoyed the production of Spamalot, I was let down by their lack of originality. And here I recall the words that give me pause: "an all-new original musical comedy."
How exactly can a musical claim to be "all-new" and "original" while sharing the name of the film on which it is based? Adding a colon and "the musical" does not necessarily make a production a discrete work, forever cleaved from its namesake. In most of these types of musicals, it seems more appropriate to say: "the staged movie, plus some music."
To be fair, this commercial throws some pretty big names at me, enough to make me consider the possibility that this one could be different. Bring It On: The Musical apparently comes to us from the creators of In the Heights, Avenue Q, and Next to Normal. I never saw In the Heights, but Avenue Q and Next to Normal were two of my favorite musical experiences. Those two pieces of theatre were brilliantly original and, in very different ways, emotionally affective.
Maybe it's just that I've been many times bitten, and am now shy. It is a tempting idea to be able to engage with movies in a new and more immediate way, but so far it has proven difficult to manage. We, the fans, are ghosted by our oft-repeated viewing experiences of the fixed performance that we insert into our DVD player, or watch on our iPod. Producers should stop to think: what will this do better or even do differently in musical form? If there is no good answer to that question, your pockets will be as empty as the seats, despite what The Producers tells us. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. I would love to be proven wrong about this. I say this to you, movie musicals: when you go on stage, you better bring it!