Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

It does seem like good timing. Tuesday, February 26th, marks the 211th birthday of Victor Hugo, the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Man Who Laughs -- and Les Misérables.

Les Mis tells the story of Jean Valjean, a nineteenth-century French convict sentenced to 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her children. After being released -- and subsequently breaking his parole -- Valjean is pursued by the doggedly-determined police inspector Javert. (Javert's rigid code of morality allows no room for him to see the imbalance between Valjean's minor crime and violent punishment.) The book spans a thirty-year period, finishing with the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.

Hugo's book was a smash hit upon publication of the initial volume (the 2,500+ page count resulted in the novel being published in five parts). It's been adapted into films and plays countless times -- but it's most famous adaptation is undoubtably the musical. Starting life in 1982 as a French concept album, it has, according to its website, been seen by over 65 million people, and is the world's longest-running musical. Last year's film adaptation of the musical, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, was a box office success, and it received several Academy Award nominations.

So in honor of Les Mis, let's take a look at some other musicals ... that started life as something else entirely.

-- Carrie

In 1974, Stephen King's novel Carrie was published for the first time. Telling the story of a misfit high school student who discovers she's got a telekinetic power -- which she's not afraid to use if pushed too far -- the book was King's first published novel. It was also the book that started King on the fast track to authorial superstardom. The book was a bestseller, prompting a film version (starring Sissy Spacek in the title role) just two years later.

That film is regarded as a horror classic to this day. Less fondly remembered is the 1988 Broadway production of the story -- which is remembered, but only for being one of the most notable flops in Broadway history. While audience response was to the show was positive, critical reviews were mixed, and the show closed after only 21 performances.

But in 2012, the show's original authors joined with a new director to rework and re-imagine the musical for a new audience. With music by Michael Core (Fame and Terms of Endearment) and lyrics by Dean Pitchford (Fame and Footloose), the musical was released as an Off-Broadway revival. The acclaim was, once again, mixed -- but the cast album, when released, debuted as the No. 1 selling album of the week on Billboard's "Top Broadway" chart.

-- A Christmas Story

There's a good chance you've seen A Christmas Story, the classic 1983 movie telling the story of Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old whose sole goal of the Christmas season is to acquire a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun under the Christmas tree. Capturing the feel of many viewers' childhood memories, this comedy classic has become a holiday staple for thousands of fans.

The film was originally based on a book, Jean Shepherd's short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, published in 1966. But it wasn't until 2012 that the film was adapted again -- this time, into a Broadway musical.

Set in Indiana in 1940, critics said that the musical worked to retain the snapshots-of-childhood quality of the original movie. (And, yes, for you fans of the movie: the leg lamp gets a whole musical number in its honor.) While the musical closed on Broadway after Christmas, it seems likely that it will return to theater venues every holiday season for some time to come.

-- Wicked

Gregory Maguire's book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a re-imagined version of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although Maguire's story is far more sympathetic to the "Wicked" Witch in question. Elphaba, the future Witch, grows up as an awkward and misunderstood green-skinned girl in the Land of Oz. The book was a New York Times Bestseller, and led to Maguire writing three more books in the series.

With The Wizard of Oz already one of the most popular musicals ever created, it seems the idea to turn Wicked into a musical must have been a no-brainer. Wicked: The Musical debuted in 2003, and went on to be a smash hit, winning three Tony Awards and remaining on Broadway since its debut, where it's still running. (It's the twelvth-longest running musical in Broadway history.)

-- Spamalot

The British comedy troupe Monty Python is legendary. And of all their shows, films, and performances, their 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail probably remains their most legendary work. Loosely telling the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, the plot set-up serves to string together a variety of hilarious skits, including encounters with a three-headed knight, a witch trial, a Trojan rabbit, a wedding party, and, of course, the Knights who say "Ni!"

The movie is a cult classic, and the musical adaptation Spamalot was billed as being "lovingly ripped off" from the original. Indeed, original Python member Eric Idle wrote the book and lyrics (as well as the music, with help from John Du Prez and Neil Innes). While the humor has a different flavor to it than the original movie -- it is, after all, a music-filled stage performance, as opposed to a film -- the musical retains many of the movie's original elements, with obvious affection.

Like Wicked, Spamalot was a hit, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005.

-- Catch Me If You Can

After running away from home at the age of 16, Frank Abagnale, Jr., needed a way to make money. His plan was, perhaps, an odd one: pose as a professional, and banks will be more likely to cash your fraudulent checks. What's even odder is how well the plan worked.

Over the next five years, Abagnale successfully posed as an airline pilot, bumming free flights in the process as well as passing plenty of bad "paychecks." He also posed as an attorney (he passed a bar exam on his third try and was hired by a firm), a college professor (he taught a summer course in sociology), and a doctor (he was hired as a night-shift supervisor at a hospital). By the time he was captured, he had cashed $2.5 million in bad checks, in all fifty states as well as 26 foreign countries. He spent five years in various prisons in France, Sweden, and the U.S., but was eventually released for good behavior -- and under condition that he assist U.S. federal law enforcement agencies on the matter of spotting check forgeries.

Since then, Abagnale has been associated with the FBI for 35 years, assisting on manners of fraud and identity theft, writing books and giving seminars on fraud prevention, and eventually setting up his own security company. And his honest success allowed him to pay back every bad check he ever wrote.

At its heart, Abagnale's story is one of redemption -- which makes his real-life exploits good fodder for the stage and screen. The Stephen Spielberg-directed movie came first, in 2002, but the story was later turned into a musical, with songs penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray fame). The musical centers on Abagnale's exploits, and on Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent determined to track Abagnale down -- if with decidedly more sympathy than Les Mis's Inspector Javert.

I had the opportunity to see the musical on Broadway in 2011, and it remains my favorite musical to date: great songs, fantastic dance numbers, and characters at the heart of the story that you relate to and root for.

-- Post by Ms. B

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