Adding Music to Movies by Way of the Stage: Sleepless in Seattle to Kinky Boots

Glancing at the shows nominated for Best Musical for this year's Tony Awards, it is easy to mistake the list as being a Hollywood box office report. All four shows -- Bring It On: The Musical; A Christmas Story, The Musical; Kinky Boots; and Matilda The Musical -- are derivatives of feature films, albeit the latter is based on the book rather than the '90s film adaptation. Is it that producers prefer the comfort of well-known stories, are creative types running low on original ideas, or are movies the new "out of town" tryout for a plot before heading to Times Square?

Having recently made my way back to Los Angeles after spending the past five years in New York City, it's apparent that this Hollywood diet isn't exclusive to Broadway. Just this month, two major Los Angeles theaters mounted theatrical offerings rooted in film. The Pantages Theatre is presenting the national tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert -- a musical adaptation of the 1994 Australian indie flick -- while the Pasadena Playhouse has the world premiere of Sleepless in Seattle - The Musical.

Unlike Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a show celebrating excess and over-saturated glitz, Sleepless in Seattle is rooted in an old-fashioned love story, translated to the stage with a classic musical sound. There is something sentimental captured on stage in the musical adaptation of this Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch screenplay.

While the feel good film will likely predispose audiences to feeling warm and fuzzy as they recall stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, a film-to-stage translation cannot rely on that nostalgia if it hopes to prove creative originality. The tall order of casting aside audience expectations in a high-profile musical adaptation fell to composer Ben Toth and lyricist Sam Forman, with help from original co-writer Arch, joining this production with a new book.

"We were all interested in telling 'the' story of Sleepless in Seattle, but within the story, there is so much room to have expansion and take detours," composer Toth told me shortly after opening night. "We knew that, whatever scenario we put on stage, thanks to the fact that we were working with [Arch], any situation we put those characters in, it would make sense."

Sleepless in Seattle the movie, that TBS staple any warm-blooded American likely recalls when thinking of Hanks and Ryan, brings both a well-known story and a hit-filled soundtrack. Composer John Barry was reportedly offered the job of composing music for the original film, but turned it down after being told the soundtrack needed to include so many popular songs.

Toth and Forman were hired less than a year ago, giving the creative duo approximately eight months to compose a musical that had already been stuck in creative limbo following years of delays and a previous music writing team -- a gestation period described by producer David Shor as "challenging and complicated."

"In the beginning, I re-watched the movie a lot. After four or five days of writing, I'd watch the movie again, making sure I was staying true to the original intention of the film," Toth said. "After a while, we trust that all of the research and discussions with Jeff [Arch] and Sam [Forman] led to a place that keeps both the original intention and our own, musical theater."

Staying true to the original intention of a film while providing something original is a challenge all Broadway creative types are faced with when adapting works initially penned for the screen. "Movies are all about plot. Theater, even if it's story heavy, it's about ideas. Theater has to resonate in your heart in a way that movies don't," said Kinky Boots writer Harvey Fierstein.

It's a sentiment shared by another Tony-nominated musical's co-creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind Bring It On: The Musical. "What excited me most about working on this show was that our bookwriter Jeff Whitty didn't want to adapt the original movie. He really wanted to take the world of competitive cheerleading and find what was stage-worthy in it."

Beyond Sleepless in Seattle, what's next for Hollywood-sourced stage musicals? Composer Jason Robert Brown is bringing The Bridges of Madison County to Broadway as a new musical early next year while Little Miss Sunshine is moving one step closer to Times Square at Off-Broadway's Second Stage in October.

Just one note to theatrical hopefuls taking on movie musicals: Michael Riedel is not a fan of adding "The Musical" to the title. "They think we're all so stupid that they have to tell us it's a musical."

Riedel's snark aside, the format of a show's source material shouldn't play a part in winning over its creators, as is evident when talking with Toth. "Within an hour of reading about this possibility, I was on a ride. When you fall for someone, you just fall and go for it."

Photo of Sleepless in Seattle -- The Musical: Courtesy of the Pasadena Playhouse by Jim Cox.