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Bringing A Smash To San Fran

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FROM SCREEN TO STAGE
By Karen D’Souza
Mercury News

“Hairspray” bops into San Francisco this week with Tony awards (eight!) piled as high as its beehives.

And not only that: The musical version of John Waters’ coiffure-centric cult film from 1988 has held court as one of the 10 highest-grossing shows on Broadway since its debut there in 2002. A feel-good tune fest about a ’60s doo-wop diva whose dress size is as large as her heart, the play definitely qualifies as one screen-to-stage transfer that has made a splash — a big fat hit from coast to coast.

What makes some adaptations fly while others crash and burn? And why is recycling the trend in Broadway musicals anyway? No matter where you live, there’s a musical based on a movie headed to a theater near you. Not only is “Hairspray” waiting in the wings in San Francisco (it opens Wednesday) but also “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is kicking up its heels in San Jose, “Saturday Night Fever” will boogie into Cupertino soon and “The Producers” will shtick up San Jose this summer.

“Obviously what’s happened to Broadway is that it’s become about real estate,” says “Hairspray’s” Bruce Vilanch, who plays plus-size housewife Edna, the drag role made famous by Divine in the movie and by Harvey Fierstein on the Great White Way.

“It’s about finding franchises that are going to fill the theaters,” he says. “And that’s easier if you have a brand name that audiences already are familiar with.”

It’s a far cry from the glory days of Broadway, when each season saw a fresh crop of writers and composers trying out new material. These days, musicals that break new ground, such as “Urinetown” and “Avenue Q,” are the exceptions. Revivals and retreads are the rule. Disney alone has created a cottage industry by mining its pre-established movie labels, from “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Lion King.”

“It didn’t used to be like this,” agrees Vilanch, a comedy writer cum actor best known as a frequent resident of “Hollywood Squares.” “It’s unfortunate. It used to be that people were searching for good stories.”

Of course, adaptations have always been around. But they didn’t used to come this thick and fast. Nowadays there’s so much money at stake on every new musical ($10 million price tags are de rigueur) that most producers want to bet only on known quantities.

Marc Jacobs, director of new works at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, puts it this way: “A familiar title helps a lot when you’re trying to sell a show.”

But hit movies turned into musicals often make the biggest flops. “Carrie,” a book by Stephen King, was turned into a hit movie by Brian DePalma but bombed on stage. As theater, “Saturday Night Fever” left most critics cold, and “The Sweet Smell of Success” stank.

“Sometimes it just doesn’t translate,” Vilanch says. “A lot of it depends on who does the interpreting.”

In the case of “Hairspray,” that would be Marc Shaiman, the Oscar-nominated composer behind a string of hit movies from “Beaches” to “When Harry Met Sally.” Vilanch says Shaiman had both the pop chops and the theater savvy to make the “Hairspray” score sing.

“I knew he would do this brilliantly. I mean, he’s a genius anyway, but this kind of stuff is really his passion,” Vilanch says. “This score is original but it sounds like the music that was being made in that period of the ’60s. It’s got tremendous juice to it.”

A hit show like “Mamma Mia!”, the blockbuster built around Abba’s golden oldies, bears out the theory that what really counts is the music. People apparently like shows when they know the songs so well that they can hum along. In the trade, many of these people are called “repeaters,” the theatergoers who go to see “Les Miz” or “Phantom” whenever the shows come to town.

Keala Settle plays Tracy, the zaftig teen queen of “Hairspray,” and she says that for her, too, it’s all about the songs. She thinks this show soars on the wings of its score, from the anthem-like “I Know Where I’ve Been” to the catchy “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

“The music in the show is so infectious and has such a powerful and joyous message,” she says, “that you can’t resist it.”

Then again, not all shows built around hit songs are able to go the distance. (Remember “Taboo,” the Boy George bomb?) So maybe that’s not the secret.

Darcie Roberts, star of the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” tour currently in San Jose, says “the trick is being able to transfer the characters from film to in-person” and “to make people really care” about them (though, she adds quickly, “if there were a formula, there’d be a lot more successful transfers”).

John Fisher, the artistic director of San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, is no stranger to the risks and rewards of adaptation after his hit “Medea: The Musical.” He says some movies are just better suited to the stage than others.

“The ones that work are basically theatrical in nature,” he says. “They’re dialogue-based.” He cites “The Producers” as one example. By far the most successful of all the movie-to-musical adaptations, Mel Brooks’ self-referential masterpiece nabbed a record-breaking 12 Tony awards and continues to pack them in wherever it goes.

Jacobs agrees that the bottom line is storytelling. Crafting a narrative born of fresh ideas is a very tall order, he says. “The toughest thing to do is to write a new musical that’s not based on something. Based on the hundred or so scripts I read a year, let me tell you, when you don’t have a reliable structure and a good story to start with, it’s a lot harder.”

Whatever the reasons, the future seems likely to hold more of the same. Brooks wants to follow up “The Producers” by bringing his “Young Frankenstein” to the stage. A “Mary Poppins” musical is coming down the Disney pike. And movie giant MGM has really added fuel to the fire.

“They just opened up their whole library and they’re encouraging theaters to develop the old movie titles into musicals,” says Jacobs, “which I think is a great idea.”

But if all it takes to make a hit is slapping together a familiar title and some hummable tunes, doesn’t that sacrifice the originality of the art form? Is Broadway, once a source of pop culture, now destined to ride Hollywood’s coattails?

Only very rarely, as with “Chicago,” does the film industry feed off the theater these days. What will become of the creative spark?

“That’s a complicated question,” Jacobs says. “It really depends on the show. A lot of times all they do is just put the movie onstage. That’s the danger of adaptation. You can’t be too faithful to the source. But it’s got to work as its own animal.”

One classic example of that is “West Side Story,” which cribs openly from “Romeo and Juliet” without feeling the least bit derivative. Yet another tricky aspect to all of this is finding out how to give a remake its own voice without alienating devotees of the original.

Fisher, for one, says “Hairspray” succeeds precisely because it’s not just a big tease. He thinks the musical delivers just what fans loved about the movie in the first place, its celebration of the subversive, from drag queens to chubby bombshells.

“It’s very empowering for alternatively identified people,” Fisher says. “The musical really embraces that, as the movie did, and I think that’s why people like it.”

Hairspray

Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (at Market Street), San Francisco

Opens: Wednesday

Continues: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays, with some evening performances on Mondays, Tuesdays and Sundays and some matinees on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, through July 3

Tickets: $39-$81; (415) 512-7770, www.bestofbroadway-sf.com