7 Musicals Adapted from Books: From Page to Stage

black and white "stage door" theater sign

We heard it through the grapevine that a Broadway musical based on the novel The Devil Wears Prada is in the works, with music written by Elton John. Whether or not you’re a fan of literary adaptions—readers tend to have very high standards where our favorite books are concerned—there’s no denying the wealth of material available for adapting. When we paused to think about it, we realized: Literature has been singing on the Great White Way for decades! Check out Bas Bleu‘s (not at all comprehensive) list of 7 musicals adapted from books.

Les Miserables book coverLes Misérables: Victor Hugo was already a popular novelist—thanks to Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)—when he published Les Misérables in 1862. A sprawling tale of social justice and redemption, the novel about former convict Jean Valjean was an instant bestseller. More than century later, in 1980, a musical version debuted on the French stage, followed by English-language versions in London’s West End (1985) and on Broadway (1987). Not surprisingly, the musical takes liberties with Hugo’s characters: For example, in the novel, Cosette is a more complex character, while the Thénardiers are straight-up monsters. Fun fact: French lyricist Alain Boublil was inspired to adapt Hugo’s novel after watching a production of…

Oliver Twist book coverOliver!: Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second novel, originally serialized between 1837 and 1839. An unflinching satirical tale of an orphan’s life in the workhouses and on the streets of nineteenth-century England, it’s an unusual choice to be adapted into a musical. But adapted it was, premiering in London in 1960 and on Broadway in 1963, though the stage production offers an abridged—and considerably lighter-hearted—version of Dickens’s story. Oliver! closed its initial Broadway run in 1964, after more than seven hundred performances, but lives on today in schools on both sides of the Pond as one of the most popular musicals for student productions.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire book coverWicked: This 2003 Broadway smash has the distinction of being a musical based on a novel that’s also based on a novel. Gregory Maguire’s 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, drew on characters created by L. Frank Baum in his 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Wicked tells the tale of the unusual friendship between Elphaba and Galinda, young schoolmates who would grow up to become arch enemies: the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch. Like Oliver!, the musical version of Wicked offers a more upbeat version of its source material, but Maguire’s complex (if at times creepy) novel is not to be missed.

Tevyes Daughters book coverFiddler on the Roof: The character of Tevye, a devout Jewish milkman living in a Russian shtetl with his wife and daughters, was the central figure in a series of stories written between 1894 and 1914 by Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem. Adaptations of the Tevye stories were staged and even filmed during the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the Fiddler on the Roof we know today was born. The creators originally set out to adapt one of Aleichem’s novels for the stage, before settling on Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem. Premiering on Broadway in 1964, the musical “presented America with one of the first popular post-Holocaust depictions of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry”…but was not without its detractors. Potential investors worried the project was “too Jewish,” and wouldn’t appeal to non-Jewish audiences. Some Jewish critics worried the adaptation wasn’t faithful to Aleichem’s stories (the musical ends more optimistically than the source material), glossing over the realities of shtetl life and lampooning Yiddish culture. Nonetheless, the musical was an immediate success with audiences from all walks of life, eventually setting a record (at the time) for its eight-year run.

Phantom of the Opera book coverThe Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux’s serialized story Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was published as a novel in 1911, its plot based in part on rumors that haunted the real-life Paris opera house. Framed as a mystery novel (Leroux’s preferred genre), the Gothic romance about a rising opera star and her mysterious masked benefactor was adapted for the screen twice (in 1925 and 1946) before making its way onto the stage. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular 1986 production wasn’t even the first musical adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera: Producer Ken Hill found Leroux’s novel in a used bookstore and used it as the basis for a 1976 stage production in England. Webber attended a performance of Hill’s musical in 1984 and was inspired to create his own version. The American production premiered in St. Louis in 1987, before hitting the Broadway stage in 1988. Today it is the longest-running show in Broadway history.

Fun Home book coverFun Home: In 2006, cartoonist Alison Bechdel published her graphic memoir about growing up gay in small-town America and her complicated relationship with her father. Highly praised by the literary community, Bechdel’s award-winning work began its path to adaptation just three years later, during a workshop at a California conference for playwrights. Less than a decade after Fun Home’s publication, the musical adaptation premiered on Broadway. Traditionally, Broadway musicals have been dominated by male-female love stories, but Fun Home’s focus on the father-daughter relationship between the young lesbian and her closeted father, who died by suicide not long after Bechdel came out to her parents, earned the Tony Award for Best Musical 2015.

Alexander Hamilton book coverHamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda certainly has his own idea of what constitutes a “beach read.” On vacation from his Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography Alexander Hamilton. After just a few chapters, Miranda began brainstorming a hip-hop musical based on Hamilton’s extraordinary life. Seven years (and one unexpected White House performance) later, Hamilton debuted off-Broadway in early 2015, to wide acclaim. In August 2015, the musical opened on Broadway…and proceeded to educate millions of Americans about the Founding Fathers.

Editor’s note: In 2017, Lin-Manuel Miranda said he actually considers Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, to be “the hero of the show.” Intrigued? Stay tuned for next week’s announcement of Bas Bleu’s Book a Month 2020 selections!

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