'Aladdin,' 'Rocky' and more: How to please fans when films move to Broadway?

Andy Karl in a scene from the "Rocky" Andy Karl in a scene from the "Rocky" Broadway musical, co-written by Sylvester Stallone. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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What? Aladdin without Abu the Monkey?

Huh? Rocky breaks only three raw eggs, not five, to be his breakfast energy drink?

Excuse me? Someone other than Dianne Wiest dares to say Helen Sinclair's immortal utterance of divadom, "Don't speak! Don't! Don't speak!"?

And while we're asking, do we need to know so much about the prize steer that Francesca's daughter takes to the state fair in "The Bridges of Madison County"?

You see where I'm going here. Fabulously popular movies are being turned into Broadway musicals again this season, and, inevitably, some people who love the originals (perhaps just a bit too much) are checking off the changes as if members of the family have been betrayed.

Arguments about fidelity to source material may be as old as the Greeks. But I've been sitting here with DVDs of "Aladdin," "Rocky," "Bullets Over Broadway" and both the book and "The Bridges of Madison County" movie. And I'm wondering about -- even sympathizing with -- the artists who tend to be taken for granted when a show works and blamed for everything when it does not.

We are speaking, of course, of the book writer in a musical. "It's a silly job," jokes Chad Beguelin, sounding not even a little silly about the chance to adapt the beloved 1992 Disney film of "Aladdin" for the stage. "It's completely hard and thankless and, of course, I'm so thrilled and honored to be part of the process."

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So he confirms, yes, Abu is out and so is Rajah the Tiger, but, honestly, it's not all his fault. Disney, director Casey Nicholaw ("The Book of Mormon," "The Drowsy Chaperone") and composer Alan Menken decided to go back to the musical-comedy concept Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman first had for what ultimately became more of an action movie. Ashman died in 1991, but the team had written a number of songs that never got onto the screen.

"It's my job to figure out how to incorporate those songs, how to make them part of the story," says Beguelin, who also wrote lyrics for four new songs. There were no animal sidekicks in the early draft, just what the author describes as "three hilarious human forms. Aladdin could only have so many friends."

So I'm sitting here with my copy of "Aladdin," wondering whether it's better to refresh my memory after all these years or to go to the theater without comparisons in my head? And I'm also wondering about the children -- most of them now adults -- who were hard-wired by the way they first fell for the film. "We don't want to ever disappoint Disney fans, we hope to strike the right balance," he continues thoughtfully. He says that Nicholaw sees this as an old 1940s-type musical comedy and that Ashman envisioned the genie as a "Cab Calloway type." He didn't imagine Robin Williams playing the genie with a zillion voices.

Does he wish his audience had never seen the movie? "Sure, it's harder to adapt something beloved. There are fewer expectations if it isn't an iconic piece to which people come with preconceived notions. We had to build something from the ground up, as if nobody had ever seen the movie."

Sylvester Stallone co-wrote his own adaptation with veteran Thomas Meehan ("Annie," "Hairspray"), so we assume the original Rocky had a reason to adjust the fighter's raw egg diet for Broadway. I suspect he would be surprised to know that fans in a theater chat room have been debating the three-versus-five egg question since the previews began.

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Woody Allen is writing his own adaptation of "Bullets over Broadway," but without the movie's co-writer, Douglas McGrath. Since Allen isn't much of a chatterer, we have to assume he believes that someone besides Wiest -- actually, Marin Mazzie -- will be able to deliver that indelible character's delicious lines.

Of course, the adapter's dilemma works both ways. If you have seen the trailers for the new movie version of "Annie," you may be surprised to see our little Depression-era redhead is now a modern-day foster kid from Harlem (Quvenzhane Wallis, so amazing in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Daddy Warbucks is now a New York tycoon with ambitions to be mayor, played by Jamie Foxx, and dowdy old Miss Hannigan is gorgeous Cameron Diaz.

Like many baby boomers born far from Broadway, I was imprinted with Bob Fosse's 1972 movie version of "Cabaret." Liza Minnelli was the only possible Sally Bowles on a lark in pre-Nazi Berlin, and a gay love interest was hardly a subtext.

When the 1966 Kander/Ebb masterwork reopens next month in a version of Sam Mendes' dazzling, sexually unblinking 1998 revival, few may remember that the original Broadway hit broke taboos by dealing with abortion and Nazis.

Joe Masteroff, who wrote the adaptation from stories by Christopher Isherwood, remembers "we took every dangerous turn, but it was not possible to have a gay character onstage, much less a leading man who is more and more gay. All the things we were writing about were dangerous or impossible to write about," he told me in a recent phone interview. "Well, you know what this stage is like today. . . . We could not possibly have done that in 1966."

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Masteroff was not asked to write the screenplay, and he has meaningful reservations about it. He understands that, even today, "a lot of people never saw the real show." I asked if it would be possible to make a new movie that keeps all of the Broadway songs this time and is honest about all aspects of the story. "There is some fairly important man out in Hollywood who wants to make another version," he says philosophically. "But I'm 94 years old. I don't expect to see it."

There are many ways to adapt a movie into a musical and a musical into a movie. The musical adaptations I resent are the ones that appear to have used tracing paper instead of imagination -- what someone, feeling more polite than I, recently compared to a "tribute band honoring the movie."

Dozens of movie adaptations are in the Broadway pipeline, and virtually every Hollywood studio now has a development partnership with Broadway producers. I'm going to be studying DVDs before I go to the theater for a long time. But I get a kick, in a melancholy way, out of Stephen Schwartz's title for his newest show. He calls it "Houdini: An Original Musical." Imagine that.

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