It’s Not Over till Spiderman Sings

Published on 2 October 2014


A growing number of hit movies are being resurrected as stage musicals. We get professionals to weigh in on why.

Legally Blonde, The Lion King, Ghost, Spiderman…. An increasing number of films are being reincarnated after their cinema runs to become stage musicals. One fine example is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which swans into Singapore this month. Before this musical about drag artists  crossing the country in a camped-up bus was an intercontinental hit, it began existence as a cult Australian film which starred Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, no less.

With characters already pre-disposed to sequins and singing, Priscilla  might seem an obvious choice to turn into a musical. Other transformations are more surprising: Neither the plot of Ghost, the 1990 blockbuster (starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore) about a dead man’s spirit trying to contact his wife, nor Spiderman had a singer in sight, yet they’ve all been repurposed with songs and soft-shoe. Many of the current musicals on Broadway and Broadway are based on movies, including Billy Elliot, Once, Aladdin, and Kinky Boots.

Why this movie-to-musical mania? One popular theory is branding: when a story like Spiderman has great brand recognition, why struggle to create a new work for new audiences when you can just create a new Spiderman spin-off – a musical – for ready-made fans? Another is that when there are just no new ideas, it’s easier to adapt than create.

Local go-to composer/musical director Elaine Chan, who has worked on movie-to-musical productions like Army Daze: The Musical and Little Shop of Horrors, says, “Yes, with adaptations you can appeal to people who have watched the movie and get them into the theatre. But the experience will be very different.  Theatre has a much smaller budget, no closeups, no camera effects… How do you keep them just as captivated? Sometimes you need more ideas to adapt than to create.”

Local actor/playwright/director guest stars as Miss Understanding in the foreign production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert hitting our shores this month.
Goh Boon Teck’s adaptations of 881 and Papa Can You Hear Me Sing look distinctly different from the original movies.

Affable Singapore director/playwright Goh Boon Teck is the island’s top authority on turning films into song-and-dance spectaculars, having written the script for Ah Boys to Men The Musical, 881 The Musical, and Glass Anatomy (adapted from 1983 Taiwanese blockbuster film Papa Can You Hear Me Sing), and also directed the latter two.

“Stage and screen are totally different languages, and movie scripts are usually too long for stage productions. You have to remove things, tweak things, yet take care of what the original script wants to express. Sometimes people like it, sometimes not.”

Case in point: Ah Boys to Men The Musical  saw Goh condensing the Jack Neo two-parter movie into a 150-minute show, shaving off subsidiary character arcs in place of rap battles and comic cross-dressing mums, winning general critical success. Glass Anatomy, however, received distinctly mixed reviews: despite sticking closely to the plot and soundtrack, Goh’s audacious, abstract direction of the melodrama using a Greek chorus and all-purpose metal scaffolds in place of a realistic set, was difficult for some fans to accept.

There are ways to minimise adaptation woes: Saw Teong Hin, director of Malaysian hit film Puteri Gunung Ledang as well as co-writer of the book for its musical incarnation, says, “The stage production was always part of the plan… so the film helped focus the story for that. But with true love, a woman ahead of her time… Puteri was always ripe to be a musical anyway.”

Goh has a slightly different opinion. “I don’t think there’s a fixed formula. In the first place, my aim in adapting movies is not sold-out shows. I just like to try new ways of telling a story.”

“The point of theatre is after all to celebrate creativity, to feel alive.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is now playing at Resorts World Theatre.


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