Must Musicals Be True to Their Sources?

Some of the best shows of all time went rogue

Rent and La Bohème.

In discussing what makes a good musical -- something I do a bit more than the average person, I will admit -- I come across a lot of entrenched attitudes in people. One of the supposed shibboleths that I frequently encounter is the notion that musicals need to be faithful to their sources. A good musical sticks as close to its roots as possible, the thinking goes, and any show that strays too far is automatically bad.

 Yeah, I call BS. For me, the only thing that matters is what's on stage. The key question should always be, "Is the show working as a show?" So, it doesn't really bother me when authors take some dramatic license in the adaptation process. As cases in point, the following items represent some of the best musicals ever created, works that are almost universally regarded as classics, as well as examples of how these musicals diverge from their source material. The point: fidelity to one's source is neither necessary nor desirable.

Cabaret - Cabaret is based on the play I Am a Camera (1951) by John van Druten, which was itself based on Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939). During all that adaptation, the story of the musical ended up considerably far afield from the Isherwood original, including making Sally Bowles a much more important figure in the protagonist's life than she actually was.

What's more, the 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret completely left out Isherwood's homosexuality, a detail that more recent productions have been quite deliberate about restoring. Fun Home - In the graphic novel Fun Home, upon which the award-winning musical is based, author Alison Bechdel is ambiguous about whether her father actually killed himself, whereas the musical is unequivocal that he deliberately stepped in front of a speeding truck on a interstate highway.

Gypsy - The memoir Gypsy (1957), by Gypsy Rose Lee, is by many accounts a work of fancy, in the eyes of some people, utterly fictional. Gypsy's sister June Havoc went so far as to write her own account of their childhood together, although that book is also considered unreliable at best. The musical then takes its already apocryphal source and plays fast and loose with the "facts." For example, the character Herbie, with whom Rose becomes romantically involved, never even existed in reality. "Herbie" is a composite of a number of men in Rose's life, a device to represent how Rose treated her men. A fiction based on a fiction. But, damn, is it a good show.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - This Pulitzer Prize-winning musical was based on a satirical nonfiction book of the same name. Shepherd Meade's 1952 bestseller had no story line to speak of, and was organized like a self-help book. There were a few recurring characters in the book -- such as Bud Frump and J.P. Biggley -- and they play prominent roles in the musical. But on the whole, the musical How to Succeed is about as different from its source as War and Peace is from the Moscow phone book. 

My Fair Lady - This one's a doozy.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw is very explicit about what happens after the curtain of Pygmalion (1913). In his author's note to the published version of the play, he expressly states that Eliza Doolittle marries Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the gooey-eyed fop who has fallen in love with her. The musical throws this notion out entirely and has Eliza returning to her teacher Henry Higgins, presumably to live a life together as non-romantic equals. If Shaw had not been a life-long, avowed atheist, he'd be turning in his grave.

Oklahoma! - The ground-breaking musical Oklahoma! was based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. The play has the same basic plot as the musical, and many of the same characters. But Rodgers and Hammerstein felt that the character Ado Annie needed a love interest, so they invented Will Parker as her dim-witted foil.

Imagine Oklahoma! without the comic interplay between Will and Ado Annie? Yeah, I cain't neither.

Rent - As many people know, the ground-breaking musical hit Rent is an updated version of the Puccini opera, La bohème. Author Jonathan Larson not only updated the time of the show, he changed the genders of a number of the characters, altered their sexualities, and made them drug users and HIV positive. He also changed the ending, specifically altering the fate of the character Mimi, in a way that some people find somewhat ridiculous, but with the intention of giving hope to a generation desperately in need of same.

Sweeney Todd - The original legend of Sweeney Todd has the demon barber killing for fun and monetary gain. The Christopher Bond play version, upon which Sondheim's masterful musical is based, adds in the element of revenge. A folk character, who was once used to scare little British children into behaving and eating their vegetables, becomes a wronged and sympathetic man, albeit one who takes his desire for revenge just a tiny bit too far. Just a bit.

Wicked - The musical Wicked bears only scant resemblance to the 1995 book by Gregory Maguire, except for retaining some of the characters and the essential scenario. Many people, myself included, think of the musical as an improvement over the book, which is long, slow, meandering, and dense. What's more, the character Elphaba isn't particularly likable in the book. In the musical, she's a good person who is constantly misunderstood.

The ending of the musical is also significantly different from that of the book: on stage, we see Elphaba escape. In the book, as well as in its sequel, Son of a Witch, we are led to believe that Elphaba is, in fact, gone.

West Side Story - Juliet lives. And done.