Why Musicals Can’t Keep Their Hands Off of Literature

Written by Kevin LaTorre

Sunday afternoon in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, UT’s Theatre and Dance Department closed The Drowsy Chaperone, its farcical tribute to musical theatre. To the south, across the bridge, the ZACH Theatre continues its run of the musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol until December 31. Live musicals are enduring flights of fancy for theatregoers, as the continued vibrancy of the theatre scenes in Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London can attest. These days, with the end of the semester nigh, and the holidays just around the corner, I’m feeling a little more reflective than usual. I’m even dreaming of a white Christmas (for one brief Thursday night only!). So, sifting through the long-standing connection between literature and musicals seems appropriate, and finding any explanation may satisfy both my curiosity and procrastination.

As I’m now a young adult, I can look back and say that I was raised on musical theatre as much as I was raised on books. I heard my parents’ favorite show tunes long before I knew which musicals those songs belonged to. Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Wicked, and Aida, to only name a few. I acted in a few shows later on, and added to my own repertoire that way. Cursory experience led to a simple finding: many musicals are adapted from novels. Phantom and Les Miserables are both adaptations of French novels, the first written by Gaston Leroux in 1910, and the second by Victor Hugo in 1862. Wicked was adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I’ve already mentioned ZACH’s A Christmas Carol adaptation, and last fall I sat in the audience for UT’s musical production of Little Women (from Louisa Alcott’s novel). The list of page-to-stage examples could go on almost as long as the unabridged version of Les Miserables.

Why is the connection so well substantiated? What can a musical offer to a novel? It’s important to note that here I differentiate musicals from stage plays; they are wholly different experiences, for both performers and audience members. Also, musicals are often deliberately less realistic and more inventive than plays are. The imagination of live musical productions may hold the answer to their relationships to literature. Think about what a novel actually comprises when you hold it in your hands. Papers crowded with markings, and a cover to keep it all in place. That’s it. Anything else, whether it be meanings, themes, characters, humor, significance, nuance, or beauty, is subjectively supplied by the reader. With the writer’s clues, the reader makes a novel beautiful by imagination alone.

Now that I’m done getting misty eyed, I’ll point out that stage musicals provide a similar playground for the imagination through their use of music. Music has the same subjective beauty as literature—one easily filled in by whatever the listener chooses. This parallel allows the large themes of a book to fit cleanly into the larger background of music, and not be clumsily spoken with a straight face. Musicals provide the same open slot as books do, so that audience members personally experience something abstract of their own design. This is why I believe good books are so readily adapted into musicals: imagination translates easily into the auditory medium.

May we readers not turn up our noses because musical characters always seem to break into song without permission, or because Spongebob is an actual Broadway musical currently. We celebrate the same beautiful imagination, after all. And may we theatre nerds not mock the “highbrow” oddities of readers or the fact that any discussion with them may involve nonchalant references to a half-dozen “-isms.” Theatre is forever indebted to the creations of literature.

Or, if we’re feeling tribal, we can keep separate and snipe at one another while we all appraise the same monument from different angles. I won’t advocate either course here. I’m a student, not a preacher.

2 Replies to “Why Musicals Can’t Keep Their Hands Off of Literature”

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