How can you adapt and structure a stage production for the film?
One and a half hours in In the heights, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, protagonist Usnavi asks his young audience of adorable children if they would like to take a break from the story he is telling.
This is not Hamilton Reference, it’s a meta-joke that if we saw the piece you’d take a break – and it highlights something I think about a lot.
When stage plays and musicals are adapted to the big screen, there have to be structural changes, because the media are literally different structures.
In short, movies have three acts and plays have two acts.
It is not always the case. There are several one-act musicals (Shout out Once on this island), and Peter Pan has three. But the structure has to be considered. Pinching or stretching into a sheet of film is often awkward if not done well.
For the record, I think In the heights did a very good job; while some of the changes in tempo may be staggering to those familiar with the plot of the musical from the stage version, they work. The break joke shows that they were aware of this when they made the film. Customization is about more than just copying and pasting scenes and dialogues in Final Draft.
So let’s get to how these actions work on stage compared to the screen.
Musicals on stage have an opening picture, a stimulating incident, just like your typical Blake Snyder-approved script. The plot points are mostly the same. There is an All Is Lost Moment and a Dark Night of the Soul.
But the act pause means something different, and that affects the pace of the story. The act-one break in a musical should theoretically come to what we would call the center point in the script.
In successful film adaptations it does. Seems simple enough. It’s in the middle. This is logically the difference between breaking something in two and breaking something in three. So what’s the problem?
The finale of the first act of a musical must ensure that the audience comes back after the break. That is its primary function.
That’s not a problem in a cinema. Your butt will definitely get stuck in the seat. The lights don’t come on halfway, giving you a chance to jump off. Because of this, the centers of musicals are more – well, more dramatic than the centers of scripts. In terms of plot, the act break in a musical represents a major turning point for any or all of the characters.
The best known example of this is perhaps “One Day More” by Les Miserables. The stakes are increased and the focus suddenly has tremendous dramatic importance.
Why the center point is important
In a musical everything is structured around the break. The first half leads to this moment. The second half is the fallout from that moment. It’s not just a false victory or a little revelation, it is the betray. It’s the point of no going back.
It’s the rumble in West Side Story. It is Elphaba’s “metamorphosis” into the wicked witch in Angry. There are … a lot of little character things in Rental fee, similar to In the heights on stage. It’s a wedding that ends in a fight Violinist on the roof. It is Christine who declares her intention to leave the opera and the phantom who swears vengeance Phantom of the opera. It is Mrs. Lovett who comes up with the idea of turning people into cake into Sweeney Todd.
The action in a movie just doesn’t always depend on the center point, as it does in theater.
Usnavi’s suggested “break” in In the heights A few songs and scenes follow where the pause falls in the play, but it’s the pause in act two in the script. This is the natural pause in a movie as opposed to a play. “Blackout,” the song that ends the first act of the play, is right in the middle of the film where it should be.
This was done unsuccessfully in the film adaptation of The prom, for example. Act one’s finale, “Tonight Belongs To You,” comes too early in the film. It’s almost, but not quite, where the film’s second act begins. It lets the second half of the action sway back and forth between Break in Three and Dark Night of the Soul.
It works well on stage when everything falls out of the break in the first act and the second half has more room to wiggle, but a film has to keep moving forward.
Another, at least structurally, less successful film adaptation is Rob Marshalls In the forest.
The first act of this musical on stage ends with a perfect false victory, “Ever After,” which turns to darker themes as new conflicts emerge in the second act. In fact, it’s so perfect that middle and high schools with underage actors only do the first act of In the forest. That should make it a perfect focal point.
However, that moment comes two-thirds of the way through the film. They made the second act of the musical into the third act of the film.
At this point, it’s too late to introduce a new conflict or darker topic, and it feels rushed, or worse, like a satisfactory epilogue. Most of the cuts made too In the forest also came from the second act, which is already shorter than the first. That just underscores the strange structure of the story.
Would you like to adapt a stage production for the screen?
It’s something to keep in mind if you ever want to turn a play into a movie, or vice versa. Or a short story. Or a book. Or a poem.
First, break down the structure of each one, then see how best to make it work.
If that means shortening or postponing moments – that’s fine! It is not the goal of any other art form to become a film, and the original still exists. Focus on what works best for the medium in which you are working.