11:00 am EDT, August 8, 2017

Fans and social media are driving the success of book-to-stage adaptations

By Irvin K
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our coverage will be reduced. We can't wait to get back to serving you all of the latest fandom news as soon as we can.

Lately, there’s been a flexing of fandom’s power with respect to the theatre, and we couldn’t be happier!

Readers of Hypable know better than most the power of fandom, as geeks slowly reshape the media landscape. It’s a great time to be a book fan, as adaptations of our beloved books become some of the biggest success stories in other mediums.

That has long been true in film. Of the biggest films in the last twenty years a quarter of them (19/75) are adaptations of fantasy or YA books. Over the last couple years, this has become the case on television as well, pioneered by Game of Thrones (the biggest series on TV currently, and a record-holder for Emmy Awards). Book fans are watching their favorite novels play out on every channel: Freeform (Shadowhunters), CW (The 100), Spike (Shannara), and Syfy (The Magicians).

So with film and television already full of our favorite books, what is the next frontier for YA books to conquer? It seems to me that we’re seeing the stage become the next place we’ll see the rise of book adaptations. With the advent of social media and the Internet, fandoms grow ever mightier, and are beginning to have a real impact on the theatre landscape.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane. The first major success story of this current fandom age was A Very Potter Musical. The silly student musical performed at the University of Michigan in 2009 was recorded on video, and went absolutely viral on YouTube. The first video has over 13 million views… which is about as many as The Lion King has sold tickets on Broadway in twenty years. It’s been watched all the way through about three million times – an audience equaling that of Book of Mormon’s entire Broadway run.

AVPM catapulted its stars and creatives to online stardom, as they became Team StarKid, and very carefully tiptoed around WB and their trigger-happy lawyers. Since they were a student production, they could leave their show immortalized on video, and focused their energy on crafting other shows… in the hope that their newfound fanbase would follow them.

Sure enough, the StarKids loyally consumed the other shows. The troupe’s sophomore effort, Me and My Dick, was the first ever student musical with a cast album that hit Billboard’s charts (it was #11 on Top Cast Albums). The articles from mainstream media sounded positively mind-boggled by such a success; which was then replicated by several of Team StarKid’s subsequent shows. The troupe never seemed to concern themselves with creating commercial productions of their shows, because they got to keep making new shows, with success coming from YouTube ad revenue, cast recordings, and even concert tours.

And it was clear that Potter fans hungered to see their favorite wizards on the stage. The demand was tapped into briefly in 2012 and 2013 by a show called Potted Potter… a 70-minute abridgement of the series that was mostly for little kids, and brought in audiences purely on the strength of the Potter name. But it didn’t really connect with audiences, and was soon overshadowed by an official announcement at the end of 2013: London’s West End would be getting an official Harry Potter play.

The Cursed Child announcement certainly linked the worlds of page and stage forever. But a more perfect harbinger of things to come was a little show that debuted at the New York Musical Festival in 2014 called Academia Nuts (by Becca Anderson, Dan Marshall, and Julian Blackmore). It was a hilarious “nerd-rock” musical that was about geeks, over-the-top versions of the very audiences that eagerly consumed the StarKid shows. To my knowledge, it was the first show for and about geeks, making jokes about Cho Chang and trusting the audience to understand. As the cast sang, “We speak geek!” in the closing number, it turns out they were speaking for the larger theatre community in that moment. That community (or at least a small jury of theatre people) awarded Academia Nuts as the “Best New Musical” of the festival, and heaped several awards on it besides for direction, writing, and individual performances.

In the meantime, writers began trying their hand at adapting other books into musicals. In 2014, the first of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books was adapted into the one-hour The Lightning Thief Musical by Theatreworks, an off-Broadway company specializing in shows for children. The musical was so well-received by both children and ardent PJO fans, they decided to try to expand it into a full-length musical for a commercial run.

In 2015, New Jersey’s Two River Theatre premiered a musical adaptation of Be More Chill, a sci-fi YA novel by Ned Vizzini. It received good reviews, ran for two weeks, and then faded into memory, as short-lived New Jersey shows tend to do. Luckily, they recorded a cast album to preserve Joe Iconis’s music, which we really implore more off-Broadway shows to do… you never know what it might lead to. (Avid readers should recognize that statement as foreshadowing!)

It may be worth noting here that both Lightning Thief and Be More Chill were written by Joe Tracz, who also adapted A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix. It seems like Tracz is slowly becoming geekdom’s patron saint of YA adaptations… and theatre creators would do well to snatch him up. Cough cough, Meg Cabot (who keeps reiterating she wants a Princess Diaries musical).

At the end of 2015, I received an email from a friend about a Harry Potter parody at the People’s Improv Theatre. And because, as previously established, Potter fans want a stage version of the story, we decided to round up our fellow wizards and go see Puffs. At worst, it would be mildly amusing like Potted Potter was.

Puffs, a parody (not an adaptation) written by the genius Matt Cox, transcended even our most optimistic hopes for a play about Hufflepuffs. We wrote about it at Hypable, and then watched in awe as HP fans began sharing it online with gusto. Suddenly, other theatre outlets were paying attention to this little Potter parody at the PIT… even the New York Times came to see what the fuss was about.

All the reviews were glowing, which was key – social media won’t help a show if the fans aren’t buying what you’re selling. These successful shows we’re writing about wouldn’t have seen any success if they resembled the botching that books so often get from Hollywood (here’s looking at you, Percy Jackson, Eragon, and Inkheart.) The composer of Lightning Thief, Rob Rokicki said when we interviewed him, “But you know, if we honor the source material, then hopefully the fans will be happy.”

Anyway, Puffs extended its run again… and again… and then moved off-Broadway to the Elektra Theatre in summer 2016. Much like Team StarKid years before them, the Puffs cast and crew seemed dumbfounded by their success. When we interviewed playwright Matt Cox, he said, “But I am constantly amazed that we’re still doing this show. Because the original run was for five performances, and I hoped that maybe we would go on for one more month after that maybe, so I am amazed that there is still enough of a support happening, and that the word of mouth keeps travelling.”

Also in spring/summer 2016, we saw book adaptations on each side of the Atlantic that decided to play with the big boys. Unlike the works we’ve been discussing, these were big multi-million dollar productions. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened on the West End. But that really has very little to do with this article, because an “eighth Harry Potter story” was going to make ALL of the money regardless of fans or its quality.

But we did get an instructive example of adapting books for Broadway with an adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s iconic YA novel, Tuck Everlasting. It had all the ingredients seemingly necessary for a hit: director Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, Something Rotten), stars like Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Terrence Mann, and a budget of $11 million. It was an unmitigated disaster: it had the shortest run of any musical that season, closing in less than two months, and selling only 77% of tickets despite having a very low average price.

The moral of the story is that Broadway should not be considered the ultimate goal for all literary adaptations on stage. Broadway shows require ten thousand people in New York City forking over a hundred dollars every week, and that is a very tall order. Moreover, more money and bigger scale does not result in better adaptations. The Percy Jackson films had $90 million budgets, for all the good it did them. The intimacy of off-Broadway theatres, and the creativity necessitated by shoe-string budgets, seems better suited for adapting books. Broadway is the pinnacle of prestige, yes, but it’s better for a show to succeed off-Broadway than bomb on it.

This all brings us to 2017. Popular books were being adapted the way Hazel fell in love: slowly, and then all at once. 2017 was the year that we reached a tipping point, where the power of fandom and social media turned these stage adaptations into an unstoppable force.

We saw the return of Percy Jackson to off-Broadway, in a full-length two-act musical. Most of the fandom had not seen the one-hour version, and were rather skeptical of The Lightning Thief Musical. But once the fans saw it, the musical won them over. Faster than you could say “Camp Half-Blood,” a subfandom of demigods emerged and created a community on Twitter, hosted by a supremely sassy official Twitter account: @LTMusical.

That Twitter account was remarkable in the context of theatre marketing. It was not used just for big announcements and politely thanking fans for coming. (Seriously, Broadway Twitter handles are an enormous snooze for the most part.) Instead, @LTMusical was for the fans. It sassed people mercilessly, appealing to the readers who loved Percy for his snark.

It also went all-in on bashing the two PJO movies, which are universally reviled in the fandom. This was very unusual – official social media is never supposed to say anything negative. But @LTMusical realized that in order to engage with the fans, you have to speak their language, and disdain the things they disdain.

Winning the hearts of a fandom pays dividends. When @LTMusical asked who wanted a cast album, the fans responded in droves, and kept insisting on it until it happened. The cast album was announced, and showed how mighty the PJO fandom is:

The moral here is that if you create something with the fans in mind, you’ll be rewarded. And if the pre-orders for the cast album were astonishing, it was nothing to what happened when the album was finally released last month: the album skyrocketed to #1 on Billboard’s Cast Albums, displacing Hamilton, and ended up at #3 for the week overall. But the day it was released, it actually cracked the iTunes Top 10 Albums overall. An off-Broadway cast recording as one of the top ten albums in the country… that is extraordinary. That is the power of fandom going after something they love.

One of the breakout stars of The Lightning Thief was George Salazar, who played Mr. D and Grover, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his performance. Because it’s a small theatrical world, George Salazar had actually been one of the leads in Be More Chill back in 2015 – that little show that ran for two weeks in New Jersey. (The cast of BMC was actually a veritable who’s who of young actors from cult musicals.) And just as The Lightning Thief was winding down its brief-but-glorious off-Broadway run, Be More Chill was rediscovered.

A tumblr user, Richard Goranski, found the cast recording on Spotify. (Exhibit A on why shows should ALWAYS record a cast album.) He started drawing a lot of fanart, and George Salazar commented on one of the art pieces on social media. The rest, as they say, is history. Through social media, fans began sharing fanart of the show, along with the official music and an audio bootleg of the show. At the center of it all was an epic solo number sung by George Salazar in the show, titled “Michael in the Bathroom.”

The folks behind the show fanned the fandom’s flames by releasing a music video of George Salazar singing “Michael in the Bathroom.” The fans’ desires to see Be More Chill brought to life again reached a fever pitch. The powers that be heard the fans’ demands, and announced in July that Be More Chill would be licensed for production by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (one of the premier licensing companies in theatre). Now, schools and other theatrical companies can stage Be More Chill. The R&H Organization is even running a “Michael in the Bathroom” contest, where fans upload videos of them singing the song, and R&H will award one free license to BMC (among other perks).

Forgotten musicals being resurrected like this… it doesn’t really happen. I’ve been seeing off-Broadway shows for a couple years now, and there is a list of shows a mile long that have no further life… like Jack Dawson, they’ll exist only in the memory of those who saw them. It’s a crying shame, because some of my favorite shows have met this ignoble fate. But when a fandom flexes its muscles on social media, apparently it can bring shows back to life – no flesh, blood, or bone required!

If shows being resurrected is unusual, that’s nothing compared to the rarity of shows actually running off-Broadway for extended periods of time. The average off-Broadway show runs about six weeks. Puffs ran at the Elektra Theatre for nine months, and in July 2017, booked an open-ended run at New World Stages. It’s a thrilling success story, and one that would not be possible without fans sharing it on social media.

I recently went to see Puffs a tenth time. (Me? Obsessed? Nah…) I was impressed all over again by the new production. So many of the little things that make Puffs better and better can only happen with a show that has run long enough to improve and adapt to audiences. The cast, which was always outstanding, has now lived with these characters for over a year and a half – and it shows. There are deft little touches they add here and there: background characters have whole story arcs happening in the corners of the stage, the characters’ relationships are fully explored, and every acting choice has rationale behind it. It really illustrates the benefits of actors inhabiting and developing their characters over an extended period of time.

It’s not just the actors who benefit from lots of time to explore the show. Matt Cox is still refining the script in minute ways, and Kristin McCarthy Parker is still improving the direction – the pacing has become a little less frantic, allowing audiences to catch more of the clever lines and gags. The design team also keeps upping their game: the latest standouts are some truly terrifying dementors in Year 3, and four doors on the stage that inevitably get involved in some hilarious door-ography. Thanks to a Harry Potter fandom that’s thrilled to have a play worthy of the wizarding world, the Puffs have gotten to grow from humble beginnings at the PIT into this great off-Broadway show.

So yes, we have come a very long way in the last couple years. The journey that began with A Very Potter Musical resulted in July 2017 being an unmitigated triumph for literary stage adaptations. Lightning Thief’s cast recording climbed the charts, Be More Chill returned from the dead to become available for licensing, and Puffs started a new open-ended off-Broadway production. And in some way, without detracting from the efforts of everyone involved in the shows, their success can be traced back to the fans. It’s a brave new world we live in, and with social media we fans are more powerful than ever before. Here’s hoping there’s lots more good news to come.

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