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The Comics on Broadway: Adapting Cartoons to the Stage

The Comics on Broadway: Adapting Cartoons to the Stage

The Addams Family isn’t the first cartoon illustration to find its way to Broadway. Musical theatre writers have been turning to cartoons for inspiration for over fifty years. What makes The Addams Family unique and challenging to adapt to the stage, is the fact that many of Charles Addams’ original single-panel cartoons have no written story attached. Each cartoon is its own, self-contained story. Above and beyond the challenges of creating a new, fresh story from a cartoon, what other challenges are there in adapting comics to the stage? How do writers approach bringing two-dimensional characters to three-dimensional life on stage?

In order to adapt The Addams Family cartoon into a Broadway musical, the writers had to study and capture the dark, macabre style of cartoon creator Charles Addams. They had to draw from that style and discover a living, breathing, talking, walking world. This process extends to all stage writers who adapt work from two-dimensional source material—they transport the audience to a world where characters they’ve only read about, or seen as a frozen image on a page, come to life right before their eyes.

Let’s take a look at some of the other cartoons that have been adapted for the stage and explore the choices that were made in bringing these beloved comic characters to singing and dancing life.

You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown

Charles M. Schulz

Charles M. Schulz

The journey of adapting the beloved Peanuts characters by Charles M. Schulz to the stage began when, in the mid-1960s, songwriter Clark Gesner wrote an album of songs featuring the perennially unlucky and awkward Charlie Brown and his group of misfit friends. Gesner was then approached to develop the songs into a full-length stage musical.

In the case of adapting the Peanuts characters, Gesner‘s first responsibility was to capture the unique voice of Charles Schulz’s characters in his lyrics. Gesner expanded on one of the most well-known lines in the comic strip — “Happiness is a warm puppy” — to create the lyrics for the show’s finale, “Happiness”. Everyone sings,

ALL

HAPPINESS IS SINGING TOGETHER WHEN DAY IS THROUGH.

AND HAPPINESS IS THOSE WHO SING WITH YOU.

HAPPINESS IS MORNING AND EVENING,

DAYTIME AND NIGHTTIME, TOO,

CHARLIE BROWN

FOR HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL

THAT’S LOVED BY YOU.

LUCY

YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.

In his lyrics, Gesner is able to capture how Charlie and his friends feel about each other, but more effectively, how the audience feels about them. This attention to character allows the audience to make the leap from page to stage, and makes You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown a delightful musical adaptation.

But that is not the end of the story of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The show began a new chapter in its extraordinary life when an expanded Broadway revival opened at the Ambassador Theatre on February 4, 1999. For this production Andrew Lippa, composer/lyricist for The Addams Family, revised seven of the original 14 numbers with new vocal and dance arrangements, wrote two new songs, and reconceived the opening number, making this production significantly different than the original.

Li’l Abner

Li’l Abner

Li’l Abner

A big obstacle in creating a musical from a comic strip often lies in constructing a plot that will synthesize years of episodic stories (in the comics) into a concise, two-hour live-action show. Composer Gene De Paul, lyricist Johnny Mercer, and bookwriters Norman Panama and Melvin Frank attempted just that when they adapted Li’l Abner for the stage in 1956.

The comic, created by Al Capp, which had run daily for 43 years, centers around the impoverished town of Dogpatch, Kentucky and its inhabitants including innocent, simple Li’l Abner and his band of hillbilly friends. The comic contains biting political satire, which appealed to the writers of the musical. For the musical adaptation, they built the plot around the US Government declaring Dogpatch to be the “most unnecessary town in America” and calling for it to be turned into a nuclear test site. The residents of Dogpatch must fight back in what becomes a madcap musical comedy channeling the satire of the original comics and the charm of a Golden Age musical.

One exceptional addition to the musical adaptation of the comic was the choreography by Michael Kidd. Brooks Atkinson, theatre critic for the New York Times said in his review of the show, “Mr. Kidd has caught the spirit of Dogpatch civilization brilliantly enough to suggest that ballet is a …medium…for animating Al Capp’s cartoon drawings.”

Annie

Annie

When I’m stuck with a day

That’s gray,

And lonely,

I just stick out my chin

And Grin,

And Say,

Oh

The sun’ll come out

Tomorrow

So ya gotta hang on

‘Til tomorrow

Come what may

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

I love ya Tomorrow!

You’re only

A day

Away!

The most successful comic-strip-to-musical adaptation is the musical Annie, adapted from the comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray. The musical, (created by composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin, and bookwriter Thomas Meehan) opened on Broadway in 1977. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won seven, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book and will be returning to Broadway once again in 2012.

The comic strip first appeared in 1924 and by the 1930’s took on a decidedly adult feel—often pitting the lovable orphan against murderers and gangsters. For the musical, the writers lightened the tone of the story while maintaining the desperate environment of depression era New York City. The title character, Annie, lives in an orphanage run by a mean-spirited matron named Miss Hannigan. She escapes the orphanage when she is adopted by billionaire Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks. Annie’s plucky spirit inspires everyone around her, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to persevere until better days arrive.

In adapting Annie to the Broadway stage, the writers took major liberties with the loose story of the comics, but preserved Annie as a beacon of hope in an otherwise weary world. Her optimistic anthem, “Tomorrow”, perfectly captures her positive outlook.

The musical, which centered around Annie’s optimism and courage in the midst of the Great Depression, was enormously appealing to 1970s audiences who were struggling with economic difficulties themselves; it ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway, and continues to be one of the most-performed musicals around the world.

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