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  • 05.10.17

Inside The Creative Problem Solving Of Broadway Film Adaptations

“Groundhog Day” and “Waitress” are film classics in their own rights, but these directors are out to make them mainstays in musical theater.

Inside The Creative Problem Solving Of Broadway Film Adaptations
Waitress, 2007 [Photo: courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures]

Films adapted to Broadway and vice-versa is by no means an even exchange. Both share the common creative challenge of avoiding a straight regurgitation of an existing work. However, filmmakers have a far more varied collection of storytelling tools at their disposal. It’s easy to take for granted techniques like close-ups and scene editing, but for Broadway directors and stage designers, they become paramount issues to solve.

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Directors Matthew Warchus and Diane Paulus have had to contend with all of the above and beyond in their Broadway musical adaptations of Groundhog Day and Waitress, respectively.

Answering The Most Important Question Of All: Why Should This Be Made?

Warchus: [Groundhog Day is] kind of a popcorn film, romantic comedy, and yet it’s quite a long way from being middle-of-the-road storytelling. It’s got a depth and a dimension to its ideas that I think are unusual. So the fact that it’s a story that’s told mainly through comedy but it’s got enormous dimensions means that is a good candidate to adapt into a musical, because when you’re thinking about turning any story into a musical, you’ve got to think are the ideas in it big enough to sing about?

Paulus: Any time a movie is up for adaptation to a musical you really have to look at the film and decide does it deserve another life? There are certain films that have achieved ultimate realization as a film and for those, I think leave them alone. I’m hoping there will never be Godfather: The Musical. That’s not to say that a film like Waitress wasn’t a perfect gem as a film but when I looked at it, I thought there is a heartbeat inside that could give it a separate life as a musical. So that’s the first test for me: Is there something in the original DNA that merits another form?

Translating Car Chases, Close-Ups and Pie Fantasies To The Stage

Warchus: Film is a much more literal medium and theater is more poetic–the audience’s imagination is used to complete the pictures all the time. And so your tone and styles onstage are likely to be more abstract more playful, more imaginative. A good example in this particular case is we have a car chase in the stage version of Groundhog Day. A car chase in a movie is a genre cliche and but on stage, it’s very rare. But the ways we do it, the use of puppetry and blacklight techniques, are quite old-fashioned. With theater, you’ve got thousands of years of history to draw on, stylistically–you can be very inconsistent. And songs are rather like closeups but even more so. [When] you have a character in a film and you want access to their thoughts, and what’s happening inside their inner life, you use close up. And of course in theater we have no close-ups at all. Everybody is in a wide shot the whole time, but songs allow you to do close-ups, and suddenly you can feel much more than in a movie.

Paulus: In the film were these pie fantasies which were so cinematic. All of a sudden you had aerial shots of all the ingredients going in the bowl and sped up in time. I remember one of the early conversations I had with Barry Weissler who’s our producer on Broadway–he said we could have these videos of her pie projected. I said to Barry that is exactly how we’re not going to do it because that’s the cinema’s answer to those pie fantasies. Our choreographer for Broadway Lorin Latarro said this is a story about a woman who is stuck in an unhealthy marriage but she actually has an extraordinary fantasy life, and [it’s] expressed through pies. So she said we should physicalize all these pies. For instance, in the show Jenna has a pie ‘My Husband Is A Jerk Chicken Pot Pie,’ and rather than just see ingredients go into a bowl, you actually see Jenna get thrown a suitcase. She’s talking about stuffing ingredients in the pie, she’s grabbing clothes, she’s shoving it in her suitcase. That was a defining choreographic idea.

What Theater Can Do That Movies Can’t

Warchus: When you talk about theater, there’s jeopardy the whole time: Can they all run live in one single take without something going wrong? And we have to do that not just once–we have to do it over and over again. And we’ve experienced quite a bit of jeopardy on Groundhog Day–the lead actor had an injury during one performance which was an extraordinary thing to deal with. Things like that make you long to be working on film. But the live [theater] is an exciting thing. It’s all about giving the audience a collector’s item of some kind, an experience they’re not going to ever forget. I happen to be completely in love with theater, and I want to try to communicate that love to the audience so that they come out and think, ‘Wow I had no idea that two hours in a room with a group of people watching a group of people do this stuff could make me feel all of these different things.’ People remember that [for] the rest of their life if you get it right.

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Paulus: What’s different about the theater is that you’re experiencing something in real-time together as an audience. In the film world, it’s a voyeur relationship. In the theater, you’re present as an audience. And in musicals, you’re really present because you’re interrupting the show and clapping at the end of a song–you’re screaming for the character. I’m addicted to the musical theater because it allows space for that audience to hoot and holler. I love that aspect of the audience coming to the theater and being another player in the event and being in relationship to what’s going on stage–to me that’s why we’re in a live art form.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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