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Screen to stage adaptations are ruining musical theatre


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This year's Tony award nominations were infiltrated with adaptations. The Best Musical category nominated Mean Girls, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, The Band's Visit and Frozen, all originally created for the screen, and have somehow shimmied their way onto the stage. But, if this trend continues, it will ruin musical theatre. 

Casting our minds back to last year's Tony's, Dear Evan Hansen snatched up the majority of the awards, and the year before that Hamilton wiped the floor. They were worthy winners, but their success is a result of them both breaking the mold and stretching the limits and expectations of musical theatre - I'm not sure I can say that Frozen has done the same. 

The key distinction between adaptations and original stage musicals is that the latter are constructed with an awareness of the limitations and advantages of working within the theatre. This may seem obvious, but it affects not just how we tell stories, but also what kind of stories we are telling. 

Take, for example, the Book of Mormon, a musical that has been celebrated for years after winning Best Musical (among other awards) at the Tony's in 2011. This musical works on stage because its controversial nature exploits the immediacy of the audience. On the screen, audience members would be able to distance themselves from the story making them, potentially, more critical and judgmental of the story being told. But in the theatre, the audience becomes part of the story, and the controversy simply heightens the tongue-in-cheek comedy that is being performed. 

Therefore, it is imperative that original stage musicals, like the Book of Mormon, are being told in order for theatre to continue to grow as an art form, with its boundaries constantly being questioned. It is also an outlet for particular stories to be told, an example here is Everybody's Talking about Jamie, which depicts the tale of a drag queen - a story more significat on the stage, due to it being the home of drag, compared to the screen. 

I'm not insinuating that adaptations are unable to push the boundaries too, or that they are inherently bad - the Lion King is evident of that, with its breathtaking puppetry causing it to have a seemingly permanent place on the West End. Rather, what I am saying is that adaptations, particularly from the screen, do not need to create groundbreaking theatre. More often than not, their reputation will prevail and people will attend the show for years, simply as an opportunity for them to see their favourite songs live. Similarly, adaptors may struggle to shake the expectations of their prospective audiences, which could be limiting to their creativity.

Again, I believe that adaptations are acceptable in small doses, but with every single nomination for Best Musical being an adaptation, and at least half of the shows on at the West End right now also being adaptations, we must begin to question whether we are losing sight of what theatre really is. 

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