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More and More Broadway Musicals Start Out On the Silver Screen

Another classic from the silver screen is coming to the Great White Way. “Sister Act,” the musical, opens on Broadway on Wednesday.

The show is produced by Whoopi Goldberg and features singing nuns and soaring gospel sounds. It's based on the 1992 film comedy of the same name about a Reno lounge singer who witnesses a murder and hides out from mobsters in a convent. The original soundtrack featured music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater.

“Sister Act” is just one of several film adaptations on Broadway right now. “Catch Me If You Can” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” are based on movies as well. Other Broadway shows like “The Adams Family” and “Mary Poppins” come from books, but the play storylines are heavily informed by the cinematic versions.

In a sense, adapting works is nothing new.

“Most of the shows that have been classic shows in Broadway history have been adaptations,” said Time Out New York theater critic Adam Feldman. “Just in the old days, they were adapted from plays and stories, which were the dominant media of their day. And now they are adapted from films, which are the dominant media of ours.”

Some of Broadway’s best-loved classics have been adapted from art and foreign films—think “Sweet Charity” (an adaptation of  Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria”) and “Little Shop of Horrors,” an adaptation of a 1960s B-flick. But recently, Broadway shows have drawn on more popular hit films such as “The Lion King” and “The Producers.”

“Some of the movies we're seeing today as inspirations for Broadway musicals are more recent movies, and movies that were big hits, rather than art films or foreign films that often were the inspiration for musicals in yesteryear,” said Feldman. “Nowadays, you depend more on the title itself to get a tourist audience in to something they already know.”

Patrick Healy, who writes on theater for The New York Times, says film adaptations are appealing to producers because they tend to do well when the show tours outside New York.

“It’s really tours where producers make their real money,” said Healy. “You can take a show like ‘The Producers’ for example. It recouped its investment on Broadway, but it made far more money on the road. Part of ‘The Lion King’’s commercial success worldwide is that there was already a familiarity with the title around the world.”

Healy pointed out that five out of the last ten Tony “Best Musical” awards have gone to film adaptations. But, he said that basing your musical on a film is not a sure ticket to success: “Shrek: The Musical” flopped tremendously, for example.

Prior to coming to Broadway, the musical adaptation of “Sister Act” ran in London from June 2009 to October 2011.