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5 Surprising Musical Adaptations of Classics

Updated on June 7, 2017
Catherine McMahan profile image

Catherine is a college student majoring in Theatre and Creative Writing; she has a special interest in researching the history of Theatre.

From Page or Film to Stage

Some literature is able to weather the storm of timeā€”and modern playwrights and composers see that as an opportunity to create exciting new musicals based on stories that most people are already familiar with. Some of these musical adaptations, in turn, have become classics in the theater, meaning that these famous stories are far from outdated and will serve to entertain generation after generation. Here are a few classics that made the cut.

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1. Don Quixote

Do you remember that big, long novel about the man who fought the windmills? Yeah, Cervantes' famous "Don Quixote" has a musical adaptation. The musical, called "Man of La Mancha" was created by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh in 1964 but is still performed in theaters all over the country. It was originally a non-musical teleplay by Wasserman and was most recently produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in their 2014-2015 season. Full of catchy music and fun theatrical elements (such as the challenge of having Quixote's horse up on the stage), "Man of La Mancha" is probably playing at a community theater near you.

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2. Heathers

Nobody expected "Heathers," the 1988 black comedy film, to become the cult classic that it is today. Starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, "Heathers" is a brash and hilarious film that discusses peer pressure and teen suicide in ways that modern counselors and teachers might disapprove of. Originally a box office failure, the movie became a cult classic not unlike "Pulp Fiction." The musical version of this movie came out under the same title in 2014 and instantly became a success. The songs use the same great, uncut language from the film (unless you see the pg-13 version, which is done in high schools and community theaters across the country) and leaves you whistling the tune of a few new rock musical hits.

Are we going to Prom or to Hell?

— Veronica, Heathers the Musical
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3. War and Peace

I don't know about you, but when I think about Tolstoy's "War and Peace," my first reaction is far from "Oh, that would make a really good musical!" The book and its author are notorious for being agonizingly detailed and substantially longer than your average novel. But somehow, Dave Malloy read the text and created an incredible musical by the name of "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812." While the name might be a mouthful, the play itself has garnered enormous success, making waves on and off of Broadway and being nominated for twelve (twelve!) tonys. And while the play itself is amazing (not to mention the music) the production on Broadway is as innovative as the idea itself. For the show, the American Repertory Theater reconstructed its entire stage area to create an immense and immersive experience for the theater-goers.

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4. Spring Awakening

While the straight play "Spring Awakening" by Frank Wedekind may not be a household name, the 1890 play is definitely a classic in the world of theatre. The play itself critiques the sexual oppression of Germany in the time that it was written and explores a dramatization of the erotic fantasies that such oppression can breed. Such a serious, sad play doesn't seem like it can be translated very well into a musical, but in actuality the musical has taken off. The 2006 Broadway adaptation by the same name explores the same themes and principles as the original play with the added effects of rock music and instrument-playing. In 2015 it was notably revived by the Deaf West Theatre company, which employed a cast of both hearing and deaf actors. This revival was nominated for best revival of a musical at the Tony's in 2016.

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5. Anastasia

This particular classic story (the story of Princess Anastasia, who may or may not have survived the murder of her family in Russia) is quite believable as a musical because it has been done before, in the 1997 animated movie by 20th Century Fox Animation; however, after a number of years had past since the inception of that movie, this story seemed unlikely to get a stage adaptation. But here in the year 2017, the musical is happening and has already been nominated for two Tony's. While the show is based around the 1997 movie, only six songs were kept in a total of 16 pieces. The movie and story itself has been the source of much excitement for people all around the country, especially young theatre artists who grew up with the film and have an interest in producing the show some time in their lives.

Which adaptation would you go see?

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