Just like the book world, stage musicals have their own trends. Over the last few years, musicals based on favorite films from the ’90s and ’00s have been lighting up the stage. Another popular source is, of course, books. Some of the world’s most popular musicals have been based on books, such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Wicked. In 2015, Hamilton took the world by a storm. While many of these books have film adaptations, the stage versions stand apart from their film counterparts, drawing further inspiration from their respective sources.
Theatre is a collaborative art, with performers and technicians of every age, race, and gender working on shows. However, diversity in source material is sorely lacking. This list features mostly cis white male authors. Their stories are known, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only way to tell a story. In compiling this list, I also sought out lyricists and composers of color who helped bring these stories to new life.
I hope in the future, when the bookish trend comes back around, we will see more musicals and plays adapted from more Own Voices work.
Matilda The Musical
Based on Matilda by Roald Dahl
The whimsical children’s book about precocious and telekinetic Matilda hit the stage in 2011. The show explores Matilda’s love of stories and the power of friendship through cheerful numbers. Matilda The Musical, retains its original British setting.
Based on Carrie by Stephen King
Another musical about a girl with telekinetic powers, King’s first novel got the musical treatment in 1988. A revival in 2012 saw Sue Snell as the haunted narrator of the story of the bloody prom queen. The original production closed after five performances.
The Lord of the Rings
Based on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings premiered in Toronto in 2006 before moving to London. The show features music by Finnish folk band Värttinä, A.R. Rahman, and Christopher Nightingale, and lyrics taken directly from Tolkien’s work. While fans of the novels and films might have loved the epic production, it failed to enchant audiences, closing in 2008.
The Color Purple
Based on The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple opened in 2005, with Oprah Winfrey as one of the producers. The role of Celie requires powerhouse vocals, to give emotional voice to her struggles. Both the original production and the 2015 revival received critical acclaim.
Jekyll & Hyde the Musical
Based on Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson
As one of the few horror musicals, Jekyll & Hyde soars. The stage version of Stephenson’s classic tale of good and evil includes ballads, rock vocals, and romance. The music follows Jekyll’s descent, eventually leaving the audience in the dark. Jekyll & Hyde has enjoyed international success since 1990.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Based the Spider-Man Comics from Marvel
With music by Bono, a Greek chorus, and aerial stunts, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark quickly became talk of town in 2010. Comic panels in the original set design to bring the audience into the story. Spider-Man had two different versions, featuring the Green Goblin and Mary Jane storyline.
Once on This Island
Based on My Love, My Love; Or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy
This one act musical is set in the Antilles archipelago, where a village gathers to comfort a young girl frightened by a storm. They tell the story of love and gods and grief. Elements of traditional storytelling fill Once on This Island with stirring music and universal themes.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Based on War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
How to take War and Peace and turn it into a musical? Natasha is based on Volume 2, Part 5 of the book, just before Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow. The music features inspirations from Russian folk music, classical music, and EDM, creating an “electropop opera.”
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman
This outrageous comedy musical opened in 2013. Lowborn Monty must wrestle a secret inheritance away from eight distant relatives—all of whom are played by the same actor. Similar in tone to comedic operettas of the 19th century, A Gentleman’s Guide is an updated take on the family misfortune.
Based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
If there was ever a book to turn into a big Broadway musical with bluegrass and country influences, it would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Big River premiered in 1985, right in the middle of a rock opera trend. Much of the show is spent on a raft, as Huck and Jim travel north, both seeking their freedom. The musical features themes of forgiveness, adventure, and liberty.
You might be able to catch a local or touring production of some of my picks for bookish musicals. In the meantime, check out 50 Must Read Books for Musical Theatre Fans. Our musicals archive has even more bookish musicals to explore.
What book would you turn into a musical?