Thursday, April 14, 2011

Adapting to Adaptation

By Clayton Smith, Audience Development Coordinator

By now, the dutiful Goodman blog reader is undoubtedly aware that El Nogalar, the play currently running in our Owen Theatre, is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The art of adaptation is certainly nothing new. Everywhere we look there are movies based on books, plays based on movies and movies based on musicals.

Broadway, of course, is no stranger to the art of adaptation. One of the most famous Broadway adaptations is West Side Story, the Leonard Bernstein musical famously based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But did you know that these smash hits are also adaptations?

Cats: Here’s one you don’t hear every day—a Broadway musical based on classic American poetry. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is adapted from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a book of poems by T. S. Eliot, one of the most important English-language poets of the twentieth century. One of the musical’s characters, Jellylorum, is even named after T. S. Eliot’s own cat.

Miss Saigon: This war-time tale of woe is based on the great Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, which was itself based on the short story “Madame Butterfly,” written by John Luther Long in 1898. That means Miss Saigon is an adaptation of an adaptation. Did that just blow your mind? Fun Fact: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was also the inspiration for the play M. Butterfly, written by David Henry Hwang, whose world premiere production of Chinglish opens at the Goodman this summer!

: This Kander and Ebb success, which takes place in Nazi Germany, is another mind-bending adaptation of an adaptation. The musical is based on the 1951 play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, who based his script on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Fun Fact #2: Isherwood also wrote the novel A Single Man, which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Colin Firth in 2009.

La Cage aux Folles: This long-running Broadway hit by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman is based on a 1973 French play (in case the name didn’t give away its origins) by Jean Poiret. For the less Broadway-savvy out there who may not recognize the title La Cage aux Folles, you might be more familiar with the movie The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, which is based on the same original Poiret play.

Romeo and Juliet: If you haven’t taken the time to “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” you may not be aware of the fact that “Shakespeare basically stole everything he ever wrote” (potential Fun Fact #3: name that play). The great, tragic Romeo and Juliet is no exception. The Bard based this play off of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, a tale of ill-fated lovers that stems from Roman mythology.

Top: T.S. Eliot, the original inspiration behind Cats? Illustration by Simon Fieldhouse. Above: Romeo and Juliet; engraving by James Heath, painting by James Northcote.


  1. Fun fact #4 - Shakespeare also uses the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe during a _Midsummer Nights Dream_, as the players within the play put on a play!

  2. David Henry HwangApril 15, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Nice post! Just for the record, regarding MADAMA BUTTERFLY: the Long story became a play by David Belasco. Puccini based his opera on both the Long story and the Belasco play. So MISS SAIGON is actually an adaptation of an adaptation of two original sources, one of which was itself an adaptation!