Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.
I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.
To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.
A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.
A must-have moment
Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.
Is it cinematic?
Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.
So, a whole fake orgasm number?
Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.
Can you top it?
Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.
Could you just leave it out?
Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?
The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.