Some of them may surprise you…
In a world of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical and The Exorcist, it may seem clear where a musicals inspirations lay, so it comes as no overwhelming surprise that most West End musicals found their inspiration in the media that came before them.
There have been musicals based on classic plays, based on books, and some have simply been stage adaptations of truly great films, but there are those whose true origins aren’t as obvious as the rest.
Here are nine of our favourite musicals that have taken classic literature as their source material:
Based on Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But the Lion King is based on the film,” I hear you cry. Technically you’re right, the musical was inspired by the film, but the film certainly has the English playwright William Shakespeare to thank.
Think about it, a young prince’s father dies and he’s thrown into despair. Whilst in the throes of grief, his evil uncle convinces the prince to leave and usurps the throne in his absence, throwing the kingdom out of balance. Then, young prince is visited by the ghost of his father, who believes that his brother murdered him.
Of course Hamlet doesn’t have friendly sidekicks in a warthog and meerkat, but he does have a very close relationship with Horatio, who helps him significantly in his quest for truth, much like Timone and Pumba (and to a degree, Rafiki). Both the princes also fall for a girl who has been caught up in the mess, although the characters of Nala and Ophelia are quite different.
Other parallels can be seen in Polonius and Zazu, the right hand man committed to the King no matter who that may be, as well as between Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and the hyenas, who are used to spy on the young prince.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become one of the most widely studied and performed plays in the world, so it’s unsurprising that the Disney movie based on it has also become one of the single most popular feats of animation.
Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot
Cats has gone on to become one of the most famous musicals in the world, their furry costumes, feline prowess and catchy earworms wriggling themselves into the hearts of everyone who watches, but what you might not know is that it’s based on a book from T.S. Eliot.
In 1939, the acclaimed literary genius released a collection of whimsical poems about feline psychology and sociology under the pseudonym ‘Old Possum’ as letters to his god children. Andrew Lloyd Webber had grown up with the book and began setting some of the classic tales to music during the late 1970’s, their musical pattern providing a solid basis to work with. Many of the songs still retain their original rhythm from the poems, including Rum Tum Tugger and Old Deutoronomy.
Based on The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J.M. Barrie/ Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Bat out of Hell has been one of the newest shows to debut in theatres this past year, telling the story of Strat and Raven – star crossed lovers trying their best to make it work. If you can’t already tell, the music has largely been taken from Meat Loaf’s critically acclaimed series of albums Bat Out of Hell, written by the record producer and composer Jim Steinman, who then adapted the music into a stage show.
Steinman was actually trying to develop a Peter Pan inspired rock musical (in other news, toothpaste and orange juice now apparently go together), and when it fell through he instead channelled that inspiration and energy into creating a new musical to the sound of Meat Loaf’s legendary album.
Fragments of the musical that never was still remain in the new show, with the leads band of friends known as The Lost (like the Lost Boys, one of whom is named Tink) eternally frozen at 18 years old. He then falls for Raven, a rich girl shielded from the world in an ivory tower (like Wendy and her siblings in London), so he whisks her away on a journey of adventure and intrigue.
Whilst Steinman might assert his inspiration came from Peter Pan, there are a lot of elements that harken back to Romeo & Juliet again. One could argue that The Lost and Falco represent the opposing sides of Verona, or Obsidian as in the musical, and that Strat and Raven are the same young lovers. Falco in turn can be seen as influenced by both Hook and Juliet’s protective cousin Tybalt.
Based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Ishwerwood
There is something so catchy and raw about the music of Cabaret, from Willkommen to Money and Two Ladies, it tells the story of a post World War 1 Berlin grappling with the growing presence of the Nazi Party through a young American show-girl and a reserved British academic.
It explores themes of sexuality, relationships and the greyness in a world supposedly black and white, and these themes were first written to paper before Liza Minnelli sung them on stage. In fact, the acclaimed 1972 movie is the latest rendition of the classic tale, first offered up by a series of novellas from Christopher Ishwerwood entitled The Berlin Stories.
The character of Clifford Bradshaw (Brian Roberts in the film) is actually somewhat of a self-insert from Ishwerwood, who had grown tired of his academic life in Cambridge and moved himself to Berlin at one of the most infamous turning points in history. His experiences of the great German city are what shaped the characters and stories behind his book, with real life inspiration for Sally Bowles coming from his friend Jean Ross.
Published in 1945, it took over twenty years for the stage adaptation to first hit Broadway and a further eight for the story to reach the silver screen, where it won Best Picture at the National Board of Review and seven Academy Awards. The stage show isn’t without it’s fair share of laurels however, with several Tony Awards since the get-go and two Laurence Olivier Awards.
Based on The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Whilst you may not be familiar with the new stage show The Grinning Man, you might be familiar with what could call its cousin – The Joker. Both the musical and the famous DC Supervillain were inspired by The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, published in 1969.
The novel follows a young homeless boy Gwynplaine, who’s mouth has been mutilated into a perpetual grin. Gwynplaine, along with an orphaned infant get taken in by the itinerant carnival vendor Ursus. The two grow up together as part of the carnival, the young Orphan Dea turning out to be blind whilst Gwynplaine shields his face with a rag, only to display it in each town as part of their performance.
One fateful performance leads Gwynplaine’s true heritage to be revealed as that of a royal, whisked away and mutilated as a child to avoid sway the balance of power in favourite of the despotic King James II, but like any tragicomedy, things do not go as smoothly as one might hope.
Whilst The Joker doesn’t retain many of Gwynplaine’s features beyond the physical, The Grinning Man stage provides a dedicated play by play of events that remains true to the original.
Based on Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
It’s a classic tale of warring families that has proliferated nearly every piece of media and pop culture since Shakespeare first cast those words to paper. From phrases like “a rose by any other name” to “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” weaving themselves into our daily patterns of speech, it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare’s timeless classic has made its way to the West End.
One of the most popular reworkings of Romeo & Juliet is undoubtedly West Side Story, and the similarities are obvious. Lovers from opposing sides come together despite the bitter conflict… Except we swap out the Montague and Capulet names for the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, exchanging the picturesque landscape of Verona for the Upper West Side of New York City.
West Side Story contains all the familiar earmarks of Romeo & Juliet, from an authority figure who provides a refuge to the couple, their fateful meeting at a dance, the obsession and the fights in the streets, all the way up to the iconic balcony scene. Ultimately, Maria and Tony befall the same fate as Romeo and Juliet – Tony mistakenly believes Maria is dead which leads to his own death, only for Maria to arrive a minute too late and cradle his lifeless body.
The biggest difference between the two tales is that Maria doesn’t then kill herself to join Tony in the afterlife, instead taking the opportunity to force the Jets and the Sharks into some kind of reconciliation after the staggering loss of life.
Based on One Thousand and One Nights by Various Authors
Often referred to as Arabian Nights, the collection of folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age have become the inspiration for a huge amount of modern media, from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and of course Aladdin.
Several volumes make up the collection, with tales varying widely from love and tragedy, to comedies, poems and fantastical stories of the supernatural, as told to us by Scheherazade, a vizier’s daughter who’s head is on the chopping block after the Sasanian King decides to marry virgins and execute them the next day as punishment for the widespread infidelity of women (trust me, my eyes are rolling too).
Scheherazade begins to tell the king a captivating story, but cleverly does not finish it, leading the King to postpone her execution until she can finish it. But as soon as she finishes one story, Scheherazade quickly begins another, postponing execution even further. As the inventor of the cliffhanger, Scheherazade manages to keep this up for 1001 nights, and the collection began.
The take of Aladdin specifically is actually very different to how we know it today. First off, he’s not from the middle east at all, he’s a Chinese native who was recruited by a sorcerer posing as Aladdin’s uncle after the passing of his father.
The sorcerers tricks Aladdin into retrieving a magical lamp from booby-trapped cave, double crossing him and leaving Aladdin trapped. Unfortunately, the sorcerer forgets that he gave Aladdin an enchanted ring, and when he rubs his hands together a jinni (genie) reveals itself and helps Aladdin escape.
Aladdin returns home with lamp in tow, and accidentally releases another, more powerful jinni in attempting to clean it, who helps Aladdin become rich and powerful and marry the princess Badroulbadour, the daughter of the sultan. Of course, when the sorcerer hears of Aladdin’s newfound success he returns to get his hands on the magical lamp, undoing Aladdin’s wishes but forgetting once again, about the magical ring. Ultimately, balance is restored and Aladdin succeeds to his Father-in-Law’s throne.
Of course, there are a fair few differences between the original story and the world-famous 1992 movie from which the musical is based, most notably the region. Some characters have been combined into one, with some new names given to characters like Jasmine. The lesser genie of the ring was swapped for the magic carpet, with more personality being given to the genie of the lamp.
Based on Matilda by Roahl Dahl
The popularity of the 1996 film starring Danny DeVito and and Mara Wilson has so absolutely rocketed that many have forgotten where the story originally began. Although adapted into a stage performance by comedic performer Tim Minchin, the story is one of Roald Dahl’s classic novels and it largely stays true to the original.
Young Matilda Wormwood is a precocious child, despite the neglect she suffers from her family. She’s an avid reader and often finds an escape in the local library, soon fostering a close relationship with her school teacher, Miss Honey. Impressed by Matilda’s fierce intelligence, Miss Honey campaigns to have her move a class, but is met with disregard from both her parents, and the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.
Throughout, it becomes apparent that Matilda has the mystical power of telekinesis, which uses to help her fellow students and Miss Honey fight back against the tyranny of Miss Trunchbull, who turns out to also be Miss Honey’s abusive aunt that’s withholding her inheritance. Ultimately, Matilda and Miss Honey save each other from their terrible situations and vow to live together from now on.
The main differences between the book and the stage show are an underarching subplot following the Wormwood Father’s devious dealings with the Russian mafia, who eventually chase the Wormwoods out of town (or in Matilda’s case, into a new home).
Based on Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
The story of the strong-willed, widowed teacher Anna Leonowens was made famous with the 1956 film, The King and I starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, but it found its beginning long before as the semi-fictionalised biographical novel by Margaret Landon.
Landon had spent a significant amount of time in Thailand as a missionary, teaching in a school and studying the country, and it was in her studies that she discovered Anna Leonowens, a late-19th Century governess to the Siamese royal family of Rama IV.
The discovery had inspired Landon, and she set about researching Anna and compiling stories of her and – with some artistic license – wrote Anna and the King of Siam. Her work was largely based on two memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court and Romance of the Harem, but her re-telling of the young teacher’s story quickly caught fire.
It was adapted for the stage before it reached the silver screen, debuting on Broadway in 1951 with the budding actor and director Brynner. Brynner soon come to dominate the role, reprising it several times across Broadway, the West End and of course, in the film.