We all know about books being adapted into film or television, but one area that people sometimes forget that adaptations happen is on the stage. Plays and musicals are often inspired by books. Here are five that you might not be aware of…
One of the biggest musicals of all time, running for 21 years and 8,949 performances in London alone, it was adapted from a collection of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. Originally published in 1939, the book was written by Eliot during the 1930s, and contains a number of whimsical poems and illustrations.
Unlike other entries on this list, the book has no narrative through-line, and as such was a difficult project to adapt for Lloyd Webber. He originally began composing the songs that would be in the show during the 1970s as a songwriting exercise, to see if he could write music to predetermined lyrics.
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He chose the book because it was a childhood favourite of his. He put on a show using these songs, called Practical Cats, at the 1980 Sydmonton Festival, and it was well received, resulting in Eliot’s widow giving him a number of unpublished poems, which would go on to be included in the final show.
The original London production of the final show received rave reviews, and many claim it changed the face of musical theatre. The show received dozens of awards, made Andrew Lloyd Webber a household name, and made ‘Memory’ one of the most well known and successful musical songs in history. In 2019, Cats was released as a live action film.
The King and I
The fifth musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I was incredibly well received, becoming the fourth longest running musical ever at the time. The show was based upon the book Anna and the King of Siam, a semi-fictionalised biographical novel by Margaret Landon, which took the personal accounts of Anna Leonowens, a British governess who travelled to Siam to teach the children of King Mongkut.
To begin with Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t want to adapt the book into a play, having found the lack of structure and narrative through-line difficult to turn into a cohesive story.
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However, the pair saw the 1946 film adaptation staring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, and changed their minds on the matter, and the stage show premiered on Broadway in 1951 and was a hit with both the public and the press.
The show received worldwide fame when it was adapted to film in 1956, starring Yul Brynner (reprising his stage role as the King) and Debora Kerr as Anna Leonowens. The film was a massive success, and won several Oscars. The play has had several revivals over the years, including one in the 70s where Brynner played the king again. The most recent revival, in 2015, starred Ken Watanabe as King Mongkut.
Premiering in 1980, Les Miserables is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, and has been produced in more than forty countries and twenty one languages. Based upon the 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, the story follows the journey of an escaped prisoner and group of young revolutionaries who attempt to overthrow the government in Paris.
Adapted from the (depending on which edition you have) several hundred page long book by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Annie Chourau, the play was initially met with negative reception from critics.
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Despite this, it received record ticket sales. Over time critical opinion changed, and Les Miserables would go on to be performed in the West End from 1985 to 2019, playing more than 13,000 performances.
Despite its shaky beginnings, the show has become one of the longest running musicals in history, and has had a number of tours, regional performances, and concerts. It was also made into a live action film in 2012 starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe.
Despite being based upon historic events, Hamilton is not simply based upon the life story of Alexander Hamilton, but the 2004 book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the show, has said that he was inspired to write the show after reading the book whilst on holiday in Mexico, and many of the focal points of the story were covered in great detail in the book, with Chernow working as historical consultant on the early production in 2015.
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In 2009 Miranda was invited to perform music from his show In The Heights at the White House, but chose to feature the first song from Hamilton. Despite receiving laughter during his performance he stuck with with his project, and it opened off Broadway in 2015. The musical was an instant hit, and had a multi-million dollar advance in ticket sales, making more than $30 million before the first how even opened.
Hamilton has gone on to have numerous sell-out performances, and has earned dozens of awards. In 2020 a filmed version of the stage show featuring the 2016 cast was released on Disney+, where it received even more praise from the public.
Phantom of the Opera
Another hit show from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Phantom of the Opera was adapted from the 1910 French Gothic Horror novel by Gaston Leroux.
Originally opening on the West End in 1986, starring Michael Crawford in the title role, the play won a number of awards and received critical acclaim.
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The show was an instant hit, and would go on to be one of the longest running musicals in history, continuing on from its original release until theatres shut down this year due to Covid-19.
Over that time it has had a number of productions around the world, including on Broadway, and touring productions, as well as a 25th anniversary stage performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, which was transmitted live to cinemas around the world.
Phantom of the Opera has become one of the most instantly recognisable musical shows of all time, and has even received a sequel show, Love Never Dies.