Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Last year, I wrote a post selecting some of my favorite musicals that depict historical people and events. (If you missed it, you can find it here!) Recently, I was thinking about how, in addition to historical musicals being ideal to embellish learning about the past, musicals based on literature do the same thing. There have been many times in my life when I was exposed to the musical adaptation of a novel before I read the novel itself. Comparing the two, regardless of the order of encounter, opens the door for infinite conversations about each piece, the times in which they were both written, and the themes that they have in common or which have been changed when adapted for the newer form. One of the challenges of adapting a novel to the stage is that you have to squeeze an entire piece of literature, often over 300 pages long, into a production preferably under three hours, during which large portions of time need to be dedicated to an engaging score. The choices made will please some and upset others, as the very act of crafting melodies and selecting voices for literary favorites could be controversial. Characters and plots will get cut in some places and expanded in others. New twists might occur and events might be changed, but the essence of the novel is often (though not always) preserved. Regardless, many people like to compare films and television adaptations to the novels that provided the source material in their classes. I aim to help people incorporate musicals as well, as they have had a long-lasting influence on my life and I love them for it.
Since the historical musicals list is one of my more popular posts, I decided to do another list, this time about literature. The sheer volume of musical adaptations created from novels could fill a thousand blogs, so I decided to be thematic. This entry is dedicated to musicals based on British literature. Yes, it contains more than one Dickensian interpretation, but it also spans 150 years of novel publishing. I hope you enjoy it, and take some time to listen to the cast recordings of these musicals, because they are all fascinating in their own way. The list is arranged in order of publication of the original novel, from oldest to newest, not in order of creation of the stage musicals.
Oliver!, based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837, serialization begins)
Lionel Bart's adaptation of Dickens' novel has enjoyed myriad stage productions and a popular film that came out in the late 1960s. Although far from a joyous romp, the film and stage productions both have been seen as softening Dickens' often even darker novel, and turned songs like "I'd Do Anything" and "As Long as He Needs Me" into classics.
Jane Eyre, based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Marla Schaffel and James Barbour took on the iconic roles of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in the original Broadway production of this musical adaptation of the Bronte novel. On a personal level I think this is one of the best female leading roles of recent memory, but regardless of that, this piece sweeps you off to England and uses music and powerful lyrics to follow Jane and Rochester's inner journeys as much as to merely unfurl a well-known plot. "Sirens", the song below, serves as one of the powerful duets that tap into the complex relationship between the governess and master of the house.
A Tale of Two Cities, based on the novel by Charles Dickens (1859)
Putting a novel as sprawling as A Tale of Two Cities on stage is a daunting task, but one taken up by Jill Santoriello who wrote the book, lyrics, and music for this production which had its Broadway bow in 2008. This production was ambitious and had a short New York run, but the score is widely available (and, in fact, also stars James Barbour, this time as Sydney Carton) for those looking to compliment their reading with some music.
The Woman in White, based on the novel by Wilkie Collins (1859)
Wilkie Collins' novel of sensational events got the musical treatment in the early 00s by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Though it did not run for very long in either London or New York, it did seek to capture the eerie world of the novel and uses one of Webber's more classical/operatic sounding songs to do so. While there is comic relief in the form of Count Fosco, lightness doesn't play much of a part in this piece.
Wonderland, based on the novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (1865 and 1871/2, respectively)
This is the first of three Frank Wildhorn interpretations on this list, because he clearly loves adapting British literature as much as I love listening to his music. Wonderland, though, is perhaps the loosest adaptation on the list. It takes the classic tales of Alice and her journey into Wonderland and turns Alice into an adult in modern New York. Wildhorn used a variety of pop musical styles (look out for the White Knight's boy band number!) to bring Wonderland to life, and gives not just one but two show-stopping numbers to the Mad Hatter who, by the way, is a woman.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on the incomplete novel by Charles Dickens (unfinished at the time of his death in 1870)
How does one take an unfinished novel and turn it into a musical? By giving it multiple endings, of course. This musical breaks the fourth wall and openly engages its audience, allowing them to decide "who done it" and giving the opportunity to see a different ending every night. The cast recordings capture all the possible endings, making this an ideal compliment to the unfinished novel by raising the obvious question of, who DID do it and are any of the musical's ideas possible?
Jekyll & Hyde, based on the novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Another entry from Frank Wildhorn. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jekyll & Hyde on stage is seeing one man (in the original Broadway production, Robert Cuccioli) play both characters at once and switch between them before your eyes. This can be appreciated even by merely listening to the vocal gymnastics in the cast recording. Dark, brooding, and always full of menace, this musical takes you on Dr. Jekyll's twisted journey in a way that could easily serve as a soundtrack to reading the novel.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the (play and) novel by Baroness Emma Orczy (1905)
I've never denied that this musical was one of the bigger influences on my love of French history, so naturally I am excited to include it here. Wildhorn's The Scarlet Pimpernel opened on Broadway in 1997, closed for a bit, and reopened with a bit of tweaking and changing of plot order and song attribution/replacements. When looking for a recording to listen to though, I have to suggest going with the Original Broadway Cast Recording. The combination of Douglas Sills, Terrence Mann, and Christine Andreas is not to be missed. This is a dark, romantic piece, that blends the late 18th century of France and England, all the while keeping the guillotine hovering right above them all.
The Secret Garden, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson (1911)
There are more cast recordings of The Secret Garden than one can easily list, so here it truly becomes a matter of accessibility and preference. The story of Mary, the spoiled young girl who discovers a secret garden on the estate of her withdrawn uncle in Yorkshire, is told with sensitivity and a strong sense of place. Songs like "Lily's Eyes", "Hold On", and "Race You to the Top of the Morning" (below) provide insight into the adult characters who fill the world Mary reawakens.
Peter Pan, based on the (play and) novel by J.M. Barrie (1911)
This musical adaptation had long been embraced by the wider world. It debuted in 1954 on Broadway, later became a staple role for Cathy Rigby, and was - as recently as 2014 - revived for a live television production starring Allison Williams in the title role. Songs like "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up" have long ago entered much of the popular imagination and this rendition of the story serves as a good compliment to both the novels and popular Disney animated film.
Matilda, based on the novel by Roald Dahl (1988)
Tim Minchin's score captures the magic and wonder of young Matilda, a British schoolgirl with a love of books and extensive imagination. This interpretation of the novel features all the characters you expect, including Miss Trunchbull - always portrayed by a man in woman's dress. Look for songs like "Naughty", "School Song", and "When I Grow Up" to mix adults and children and build a world that honors Dahl's original.
High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby (1995)
This musical adaptation arrived on stages in the mid-00s and lifted the location of the novel from England and placed it back down squarely in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, the heart of the plot remained intact as it followed Rob, a record store owner, on his quest to revisit and better understand why his romantic relationships all fail in the aftermath of his girlfriend Laura leaving him. Although the show itself only had a minuscule run on Broadway (less than three weeks) its score - by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green - has lived on and been appreciated by many.