Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sitcom to Stage Adaptations: Good Luck on That

The Honest-to-God Thought Process:

1. Upon reading that the television show Happy Days was being adapted into a musical:

What next—The Apprentice? . . . Oh, wait . . . But honestly, aren’t we digging to the bottom of the barrel on this one? Seriously, people, a TV show? Is there nothing else worth adapting, no story worth singing and dancing but a sitcom?

2. Upon seeing the Happy Days cast recording at the library and after having had some time to get used to the idea:

Well, okay, I guess it could work. That is, the idea isn’t the best one I’ve ever heard of, but sitcoms do have rich characters not unlike those of classic musical comedies. If a show like Happy Days has survived this many years, it does say something about the universal appeal and love of those characters. Would Hello, Dolly! be a bad musical if it had been based on a sitcom instead of a play? Are Li’l Abner and Annie horrible even though they were based on comic strips? Perhaps there is some potential to this idea . . .

3. Upon hearing the cast recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Happy Days: A New Musical:

Wow, that Felicia Finley sure is talented. To bad the thing as a whole just doesn’t work.

I have a theory concerning Broadway musical source material, which is that no one really cares where a great musical comes from as long as it’s great. That was a theory Alan Jay Lerner expressed in his lifetime, and we see it alive and well today. Amidst the grousing about the film adaptation trend that manifested itself in Urban Cowboy, The Wedding Singer, and High Fidelity, no one ever paused to complain about Hairspray. Why? Because Hairspray is a great show. Who wants to bother complaining about a great show?

So, could a sitcom adaptation work? Perhaps? Honestly, I wouldn’t invest any money in it, but I wouldn’t rule it out. The problem with a musical adaptation of a sitcom is the same problem incurred in the television reunion of a sitcom. The structure of the original show is centered on short situations that provide comedy in a 22-minute timeframe. A sitcom plot is only as good as the number of laughs it provides; no one watches a sitcom for remarkable plotting. To enlarge the storytelling into the length of a stage musical or television movie requires an entirely different set of criteria. You can no longer have the entire plot centered on Henry throwing away Punky’s favorite doll because that’s not going to sustain the audience’s attention for two hours.

When you see reunion specials of sitcoms, you always get a comedy that has been weakly turned into a drama, resulting in something with only glimpses of comedy. Take some famous reunion movie plots—Patty and Cathy Randall have to reunite to save their old high school from evil developers, the town of Green Acres needs to unite against evil developers, Mike and Carol Brady struggle to get everyone back home for Christmas . . . None of these are particularly funny scenarios, nor are they faithful to what made those sitcoms successful in the first place.

In listening to the CD of Happy Days, it appears as if this too has suffered from the same weakness (and a few others). First off, the plot centers on trying to save Arnold’s from being turned into a parking lot and mall (curse those evil developers!). A musical requires something not quite so perfunctory.

Secondly, the plot becomes a slave to the audience’s memory. There’s no mystery about Joanie and Chachi because we all know Joanies loves Chachi. We know Fonzie, so there’s no doubt about how he will react in certain situations. Because musicals are largely adapted, it’s not uncommon to know what is going to happen, but a perfunctory plot filled out with characters so well known pretty much removes all suspense. Instead of inviting us in for the joy of discovery, we are really just being reminded of that which we already know.

Thirdly, this adaptation suffers from its source material. We get the by-the-book feminization of Marion in a song where, naturally, she can’t be happy with her 1950s housewife existence (which she did experience in the sitcom a little, but far less bluntly). It’s too much tampering with something so well known. Similarly, Pinky Tuscadero has been morphed from a 1980s rocker chick to the more era-appropriate Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde with short shorts. That’s not Pinky.

It’s a tough situation to be in because my second and third complaints pretty much go against each other, but that’s the dilemma inherent in the adaptation of a sitcom. You’re either stuck repeating the show or reinventing it in a way that works against your audience’s 30-year history with the material.

To appeal to the fans of the show, we get dialogue that crams in references to Pinky and Laverne, but it doesn’t feel natural, as don’t many of the song placements. It isn’t fitting that Fonzie would sing:

I was convinced that I belonged here
Maybe not
When the legend starts to fall
You don’t really wonder why
You face up to the fact
It was prob’ly an act
He was average
At best just a guy
Just a guy, what a shame
Time to forget what’s-his-name

The score is by the talented Paul Williams, whose songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol are loaded with charm and heart; this just doesn’t seem like strong plot material with which he had to work. If Fonzie is required to open up and sing about his emotions, it seems to work against the character. My hunch is that Fonzie would more likely sing a Sondheim type of song, not one where he proclaims his “black belt in cool.”

I won’t be lining up to write Facts of Life: A New Musical (though I do love me some Facts of Life), but I guess I’m not ready to say it can’t be done well. It’s a huge risk because the nature of the sitcom genre is far different than the nature of a stage musical. Of all the material available to adapt, what could be more challenging than something which was so loved it ran for 4-10 seasons on television, surviving for generations in syndication, ensuring that millions of people know every nuance of character and piece of history? I think that’s a set up for failure.

the Broadway Mouth
June 4, 2008

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