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Stephen Schwartz on Adaptation of an Existing Story for a Musical

Wicked adaptation graphic

About adapting the novel Wicked to a musical: "It has so much plot; it's all over the place. It wasn't simply a matter of cutting. It was a matter of taking the basic idea and re-examining it—of letting go of some of the pieces and yet staying true to the essence."
—Stephen Schwartz

Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz has worked on numberous musical adaptations, such as from the film la Femme du Boulanger into the musical The Baker's Wife, from Stud's Terkel's book of interviews into the musical Working, and from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame novel into the Disney animated feature.

The following is a collection of comments about adaptation. (For more ideas about adaptation from Schwartz see the biography Defying Gravity.)

Question. There's conventional wisdom that you have a better chance when adapting something than writing an original musical. What's your opinion?

Stephen Schwartz: The history of musical theatre supports that contention. That doesn't mean there has not been successful original musicals and that you can't do one. The reason it's harder is because first you have to make up a story and to make up a story that has really good characters and dramatic action, all the things that would make for a good play or a movie or a good book, and then you have to make it into a musical. So it's an extra step. It's a lot easier when, you know, George Bernard Shaw has done some of that work for you. Musicals are so tough anyway in terms of figuring out how to tell the story, what to put in, what to leave out, how to bring your characters to life, what's extraneous, what you absolutely must have. The economy of the form and the compression necessary to tell the story is so difficult that it's just easier to start something where the story itself already works. Then you can find any number of ways to destroy it and screw it up!

That being said, sure there are original musicals and some of them have been quite successful. So it's not a hard and fast rule, it's just more difficult for obvious reasons.


Question. Should you get copyright first, for adapting someone else's work?

Stephen Schwartz: You're letting yourself in for an enormous amount of grief if you do not get those rights. Horror tales abound, one of which we had a piece here by two extremely talented writers which was based on a movie. They either thought they were going to get the rights or they didn't think about getting the rights and they did this entire piece and there was enormous interest in it from various producing organizations, and the writer of the piece and creator of the movie just didn't want a musical made of it. No matter who called him and wrote to him or pleaded with him he just said no. And that was the end of that piece and those guys wasted a lot of time and energy.

That being said if you're an unknown writer and the piece you wish to adapt is by someone who is a little more established than you or your team is you may have to write something on spec. You may have to do a couple of songs or a couple of scenes or whatever in order to say look I think I'm good at this and I know what to do and this is what I would do, and then present it to the writer or writers agent. But you don't need to write the whole thing and you're crazy to do so frankly. Because getting rights is very tricky and very difficult.

The hardest thing of all is getting rights to something which is not in the public domain but the author is dead and it's in an estate. In my experience and the experience of people I've seen that's a nightmare. It's easier to deal with a live author than with an estate by far. Why? Because live authors want their things done and the nature of who they are makes them more adventurous whereas families are more protective and they don't necessarily want things done or they don't want memories sullied or whatever.

Question. What about public domain works e.g. Taming of the Shrew?

Taming of the Shrew is public domain. There can be 12 Taming of the Shrews. I did an adaptation with Alan Menken of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Disney and I think there are 12 Hunchback of Notre Dame musicals out there floating around including others. It's public domain; anybody can do it. Look what happened with Phantom of the Opera where Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopin did one at the exact same time as Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Wild Party. It's just bad luck and seems to happen more often than not. Once something is in public domain, it doesn't mean that if you do it you've taken it off the market. It's on the market.

Examples of Adaptations

"The Flower Drum Song" by C. S. Lee
"My Sister Eileen" by Ruth McKenney (WONDERFUL TOWN)
"Greenwillow" by B. J. Chute
"Tevye the Dairyman" and other stories by Sholem Aleichem (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF)
"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" by Shepherd Mead
"Tales of the South Pacific" by James Michener (SOUTH PACIFIC)
"Show Boat" by Edna Ferber
"7 ½ Cents" by Richard Bissell (THE PAJAMA GAME).
"The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood (CABARET)
"The Romance of the Harem" by Anna Leonowens and "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon (THE KING AND I)
"Little Me" and "Auntie Mame" by Patrick Dennis
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" by Anita Loos
"Oliver Twist," "Don Quixote," "Candide," fairy tales, the Bible, etc.

From another comment by Stephen Schwartz:

It would be better if the show were something to which you eventually could have the rights, so I would advise avoiding adaptations of works which may prove problematic from a rights point of view in the future. But frankly, even if this particular show is something you can't get rights to, it still can lead to future opportunities. I know of a specific case where a very talented writing team did an adaptation of the film "Lost in America"; they were unable to get the rights to go forward with this project, but it led to several other writing jobs for them and effectively launched their careers.

READ about musical writing:


To send suggestions, comments, or questions write to carol@musicalschwartz.com

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