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Some of the most famous musicals ever made were based on books. Who hasn’t heard of Cats, Les Miserables or Hamilton? Given these amazing successes, it’s no surprise that book-based musicals pop up on and off Broadway year after year. Most recently it was announced that The Queen’s Gambit would receive musical treatment.
But not every book-based musical has the longevity of The Wizard of Oz, for example. For every mega smash, there are many musicals that have disappeared until only the theater nerds remember them. Maybe it’s because they’re not that good, or maybe they didn’t have a known celebrity or big budget movie adaptation to keep them in the public eye. Or maybe it’s just the capricious finger of fate that unfolds its fleeting magic. In any case, they unfortunately fell through the cracks.
Let’s take a moment to honor the musicals that are based on books you may not have heard of. Whether or not they deserve to be honored is up to you.
The three musketeers
Based on: The three musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Somehow, the 1948 film with Gene Kelly isn’t a musical. However, there have been a number of versions of music over the past century: 1928, 1984, 2001, and 2003 to name a few.
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Songs to listen to: From the 2001 version (the only English language version I could find on YouTube), basically every song in which the Musketeers are dopes: “The Challenges” and “It’s a Funny Thing Being a Hero”. “Good Old-Fashioned War” is wild and “Exposition” is at least honest.
The golden apple
Based on: The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
This musical, which premiered in 1954, shifts the plot from ancient Greece to America around 1898. But it is still recognizable: the unfortunate Paris, the judge of a bribery baking competition, flees with the beautiful Helen (and her cutlery). Cue Ulysses’ decades-long journey to get her back.
Songs to listen to: “Lazy Afternoon” is the big hit of this one, but there’s a lot of good stuff here. I especially like the vampy villain song “Circe, Circe” and the damn energy of “My Picture in the Papers”.
The colour purple
Based on: The color purple by Alice Walker
The story of Celie, a poor black woman who finds fulfillment and contentment after a life of horrific abuse, is full of the emotional intensity that makes a great musical. Sure enough, it won multiple awards when it first performed in 2005 and revived ten years later.
Songs to listen to: With the resuscitation, it starts with high energy and stays that way. I have a hard time picking favorites, but when pushed I would probably go with “Shug Avery Comin ‘to Town”, “The Color Purple” and “What About Love?”
First impressions & pride and prejudice
Based on: Pride and Prejudice of Jane Austen
There have been at least two musicals based on this book: First Impressions from 1959 and Pride & Prejudice from 2019. The 1959 version has a great cast, although Farley Granger can’t really sing and Polly Bergen sounds like it’s going to be vintage – Tell Disney cartoon. Meanwhile, the 2019 version has a disturbingly modern score. (Those guitars! Why not break into “Ironic” while you’re at it?)
Songs to listen to: The first impression is very energetic. “Fragrant flower” is too real. Hermione Gingold’s numbers are all a delight, but especially “Did you hear the news?”
As for Pride & Prejudice, unfortunately I didn’t like the leads’ voices. “Last Woman on Earth” is basically a Taylor Swift song if that’s what you’re into. “The praise of her ladyship” and “Not the man I know” are a bit of fun.
Based on: the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
On Baker Street, which was first performed in 1965, Sherlock Holmes competes with the American opera singer Irene Adler against Moriarty. The piece assumes romantic feelings between Holmes and Adler, which, as I have explained elsewhere, may not be the best way to read the source material.
Songs to listen to: It’s hard to judge the score by its own merits when half of the songs remind me of better songs from other shows. I got some glee from “I’m in London Again,” where Irene predicts that she will be showered with bad reviews.
It’s a bird … It’s an airplane … It’s Superman
Based on: Superman Comics, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster
Superman is the first official superhero, so it’s only fair he was also the first superhero to flop on Broadway. In this 1966 musical, he fights a bitter scientist and an incel reporter. The characterization of Lois Lane is questionable, and the portrayal of the Asian characters (who don’t appear much in the soundtrack) is VERY questionable.
Songs to listen to: Depends on your tolerance for retro cheese. “You’ve Got Possibilities” is maybe the only really good song. All of Superman’s songs are worth listening to because of the awful, awful lyrics. (One is called “Pow! Bam! Zonk!”)
Based on: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
There have been several music-based productions about Jane Eyre, the timeless story of a woman and her strange boyfriend who slept the woman. The 2000 musical ran for six months on Broadway. I doubt his failure was due to the skillfulness and racism of act two, but maybe it was one of those signs from God that Jane loves to sing about.
Songs to listen to: Do you all sound the same? “Perfectly Nice” almost manages to do something. I liked “Secret Soul” and “Sirens” but maybe that’s just because I like counterpoint.
Parable of the sower: the concert version
Based on: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
This adaptation of Butler’s dystopian (and tragically incomplete) trilogy on how climate change has devastated the planet takes place for the first time in 2015 and takes place in the distant year 2024. It’s up to teenage Lauren to seek a better life for herself and those who choose to follow her.
Songs to listen to: The soundtrack could not be found on YouTube!