10 popular stage musicals based on films

3 Apr 2019

Common source materials for musicals include plays, books and, most fruitful of all, movies. Here are some of the best-loved musicals which started out on the big screen, musically or otherwise, many surpassing their success in cinemas.

The Lion King (1997)

This Disney animation with original songs by Elton John, which loosely retells Shakespeare’s Hamlet based in the animal kingdom, quickly became the highest grossing film of 1994. Just three years later, the stage musical opened with three new compositions and spectacular life-sized puppetry bringing to life the animals of the African savanna. One of the most successful musicals of all time, it is the third longest running show on Broadway.

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Sunset Boulevard (1993)

Gloria Swanston and Stephen Sondheim both attempted stage adaptations of Billy Wilder’s 1951 film, before Andrew Lloyd Webber eventually realised the project that he had been considering for nearly 20 years. The triumphant 1993 American premiere of the musical gave Glenn Close her most memorable stage role as Norma Desmond, a faded silent-era actress who seduces a broke screenwriter with her illusory Hollywood life.

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Billy Elliott the Musical (2005)

Set during the 1984 miners’ strikes in northeast England, the brilliant film about a boy who dares to dream and challenges gender stereotype by choosing ballet over boxing had a quick turnaround from screen to stage. Many of the film’s creative team also worked on the stage production including director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, with music by superstar Elton John.

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A Little Night Music (1973)

Drawn by the idea of a tantalising Scandinavian summer night where the sun never sets, Stephen Sondheim turned to Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night for his third collaboration with director Hal Prince. While there are no musical numbers in Bergman’s comedy-drama about the foolishness of love, Sondheim reflected the theme of coupling and uncoupling in his music with a score largely in waltz time.

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42nd Street (1990)

The ultimate behind-the-scenes showbiz musical from a time when singers knew how to tap dance, and an unknown chorus girl could become a star overnight and save the day. Based on a novel of the same name, 42nd Street was a 1933 film with choreography by Busby Berkley. It became only the second film musical to be brought to the stage – a great gamble at the time after the failure of Gigi.

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Mary Poppins (2004)

Walt Disney had tried to secure the film rights to P.L. Traver’s novel since 1938 but it wasn’t until 1961 that he finally succeeded. Julie Andrews made her feature film debut as everyone’s favourite nanny who magically descends from the sky to solve all the children’s behavioural problems, an intervention of which many families may dream. The musical premiered in 2004 in Mary’s homeland, first in Bristol then in the London’s West End.

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The Producers (2001)

In Mel Brooks’ 1976 satirical comedy, a corrupt Broadway producer and his hysterical accountant realise they can make more money with a flop than a hit, and commission a Nazi musical named Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Adapted to stage by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, it was made into another film in 2005 featuring the original Broadway cast, including stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, and director/choreographer Susan Stroman.

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Singin’ in the Rain (1983)

Legendary dancer Gene Kelly directed, choreographed and starred alongside Debbie Reynolds in one of the greatest movie musicals of all time – MGM’s 1952 comedy-romance about a couple of silent film stars struggling with the transition to talking pictures. Closely following the plot of the film, the original Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, even recreated the famous ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ scene with real water on stage.

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Hairspray (2002)

Before she was a 90s talk show host, Ricki Lake starred as Tracy Turnblad in the 1988 cult film by American king of transgression, John Waters. Plump, big-haired Tracy sets out to racially integrate a popular TV dance show in 1960s Baltimore. Featuring rock and roll, early R&B beats and Tracy’s mum Edna as a drag role, the musical won eight Tony Awards and was turned into a second film in 2007.

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Muriel’s Wedding (2017)

Based on the quirky 1994 Australian film written and directed by P.J. Hogan and starring Toni Collette in the role that made her an international star. Collette played social misfit and ABBA superfan Muriel who dreams of marrying the perfect man to escape her dead-end home town. The stage musical was produced in 2017 by the Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures, with music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall and, of course, songs by ABBA.

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What is your favourite musical based on a film? Leave your comments below.

Victorian Opera performs A Little Night Music at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse from 27 June to 6 July.