Studios hope movies will play on Broadway

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in a scene Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti in a scene from Broadway's musical "Once " directed by John Tiffany at the New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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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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The theater world has spent recent years pondering the pros and cons of Hollywood stars on Broadway. We may have missed the bigger story.

Stars are grand fun to watch and to argue about. But the real sea change from the other coast -- the one likely to affect what we see onstage for years -- has been happening in offices occupied by powerful people never seen at the stage door giving autographs.

Earlier this month, news broke that 20th Century Fox made a deal with Broadway producer Kevin McCollum to develop stage musicals based on the studio's vast film catalog. The deal comes a little less than a year after Sony Picture Entertainment signed a five-year arrangement with Broadway producer Scott Sanders to do the same with titles in the Sony and Columbia libraries.

This means that virtually every Hollywood studio now has a development partnership on Broadway. "It's pretty obvious why studios are looking to move into this area," Sanders told me in a recent phone interview. "They see Disney."

Disney, the pioneer, has its own internal operation for theatrical development. According to Sanders, Warner Theatricals is setting itself up on the model of Disney Theatrical Group, which has had mostly massive success (from "The Lion King" to "Newsies") under its creative president, Thomas Schumacher. The others, including MGM and Universal, are each finding their own way get a real piece of Broadway. Before now, they were just licensers.

For McCollum, responsible for such totally original, award-winning hits as "Rent," "In the Heights" and "Avenue Q," agreeing to develop movie adaptations might seem like a pact with the dark side.

"Source material comes from many places," McCollum said in a recent phone interview, sounding not a bit defensive. "Fox has over 4,500 titles, from the '70s, the '60s, the '40s, all the way back to around 1910. There's a lot to look at." (Fox will finance 50 percent of the partnership, with McCollum and company putting up the other half. Sony bought a 20 percent equity stake in Sanders' company.)

I admit to festering a bias against movie adaptations, many of which -- including Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" -- are tracing paper imitations of a pretested brand. Such cloning has always struck me as a creatively bankrupt way of producing, a safe way of massaging theatergoers with familiar things we already know make us feel comfortable.

On the other hand, how safe can that be when the list of artistic and/or commercial floppolas gets longer every season? (To just begin the count-off, consider "Ghost," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Saturday Night Fever," "9 to 5," "Shrek," "Footloose," "Big," "Dirty Dancing," "Urban Cowboy," "Sunset Boulevard," "Flash Dance," "Carrie" and even McCollum's single adaptation, "High Fidelity.")

McCollum, who says it's too early in the process to mention his contenders, hastens to remind me that "A Little Night Music," "9" and "42nd Street" were movies first. So was "Once," the gentle, unlikely Tony-winning smash that both McCollum and Sanders cite as examples -- along with "The Lion King" -- of adaptations gone very right.

And, really, so are "The Producers," "Billy Elliott," "Monty Python's Spamalot" and even "Phantom of the Opera." What distinguishes these from the imitators, obviously, starts with more than a marketing notion and slavish fidelity to the original.

McCollum talks a lot about finding writers, directors and composers. "We need to concentrate purely on development," he says. "I'm not thinking of the results. Here are some writers who really love the subject matter? Let's spend a few months together fleshing it out."

He also knows what doesn't work in the theater.

"We aren't doing 'X-Men on Broadway,'" he insists, encouragingly. "We aren't in the business of blowing things up. Chase scenes don't work. Studios have a tent-pole mentality. Sequels just don't work in the theater. A lot of blockbusters are driven by a special performance. We don't want to do an impression. We're not just going to put a movie onstage. There has to be a theatrical vocabulary and a reason to sing that's in the DNA" of the material.

Sanders' first project with Sony is "Tootsie," expected to open in 2015. Choices are enticing but hard. "We've spent hundreds of hours going through lists of titles. Do we go after 'Ghostbusters' or go for something less known? If a movie is really great, or an actor is iconic in it, people can get it for $1.99 on Netflix. Why do they want to spend $150 to see it on Broadway? We have to ask ourselves, 'Why does this want to be onstage?'"

He remembers when he told people he was going to produce a musical version of "The Color Purple"(which, incidentally, is currently a hit in London in a minimalist staging). "Everyone asked, 'Are you really, really going to do this as a musical?' When I told Whoopi Goldberg, she asked me, 'What's next? "Schindler's List: the Musical"?'"

What's next in the coming New York season includes "Rocky: the Musical," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Big Fish," Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" and, Off-Broadway, "Little Miss Sunshine." None is a Sanders or McCollum project.

Meanwhile, producers not affiliated with big-money Hollywood studios cannot fail to appreciate the clout of the newly chosen. As independent producer Ken Davenport asked in a recent blog, "Will Broadway become more like the movie model where producers are hired and paid by studios to run their shows? Will more movie stars come to Broadway because a movie company ties a film contract to a Broadway contract?"

Opinions are more plentiful than answers right now. But the ground is shifting under old-time Broadway again. Perhaps this would make a good movie.

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