'Elf' sparkles in transition to stage
By William Loeffler
Published: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Wearing striped tights in public can be a daunting prospect for almost any red-blooded male.
But consider the challenge facing Matt Kopec, who stars in “Elf the Musical.” The Christmas comedy opens Nov. 26 at the Benedum.
For Kopec, it's been both a blessing and burden to play a role made famous by Will Ferrell in the 2003 film.
Ferrell charmed audiences with his pitch-perfect portrayal of Buddy, a naive man-child who is raised by elves at the North Pole and journeys back to New York to find his real parents. Kopec, who has played Buddy since “Elf” began its first national tour last year, knows that comparisons are inevitable.
“I would say that is the No. 1 question I get,” says Kopec, a native of Dayton. “It was a more daunting question last year. This year, I feel much more at ease. Our production, while inspired by the film, has its own life, in its way.”
“Elf” features songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, the team who collaborated on the live version of “The Wedding Singer.” Kopec says his favorite song is “Just Like Him,” which Buddy sings after he is reunited with his father, Walter. His stepmother, Emily, and little brother, Michael, sing “There Is a Santa Claus.” Buddy's fellow elves sing “Christmastown,” one of the big ensemble numbers.
“I think our show, while it retains the spirit of the movie, focuses a little more on Buddy's innocence and never-ending, wide-eyed positivity and the sheer way he looks at the world,” Kopec says.
“Elf” follows movies like “Legally Blonde,” “Ghost,” “A Christmas Story” and “Mary Poppins” that have been adapted for the stage. Studios like Universal, 20th Century Fox and Sony have discovered a potential gold mine in turning their movies into musicals.
This fall, New York audiences can see live musical versions of “Rocky,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Big Fish.” Disney's “Aladdin” is set to open this winter.
“The movie industry has just been a boon to the musical business because they have such big pockets,” says Broadway scholar and author Geoffrey Block. A professor at the University of Puget Sound, in Tavoma, Wash., Block wrote “Enchanted Evenings, The Broadway Musical From ‘Show Boat' to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber.” (Oxford University Press). “It's more than just a trend. It's the dominant force.”
Kopec is no stranger to musicals based on movies, having played in regional productions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Monty Python's Spamalot.” But as the star of “Elf,” he's doing the heavy lifting equivalent of eight reindeer.
“It was definitely a big shift from playing a dancing knight to carrying a show,” he says. “The show is a lot of Buddy all the time.”
Translating a movie to the stage is more than just singing the script and dancing the action. Audiences don't want to pay as much as four or five times the cost of a movie ticket to see a three-dimensional DVD rental onstage. They want to see something different, but they also expect a certain amount of fidelity, particularly when it comes to famous lines or scenes from the movie.
Kopec says fans often ask him if the musical features Buddy's famous phone greeting: “Hi, this is Buddy. What's your favorite color?” (Yes). Or the scene in which Buddy gets drunk in the mailroom (No).
“People have become so attached to the film,” he says. “It's 10 years old this year. People all have their favorite moments. ... For the creative team who wrote the show, the biggest challenge for them, I would assume, is to appease the audience that has come to know the film so well.”
The associate director on the touring production of “Elf” is Benjamin Shaw, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown. He moved to New York, where he worked for Disney Theatrical Group, the in-house production company that translated “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” to the stage.
“Creating a piece of theater is not an algorithm,” Shaw says. “It's always a crap shoot, and it's always an exciting one.”
Live theater can't resort to close-ups, cutaways, and back and forth shots between different locations, Shaw says.
“We don't want to re-create the movie onstage. We want to use the movie as our inspiration and, then, do something special and different. … You look at the story fundamentally as a narrative, then use it as a jumping- off point to do things that the old genre cannot.”
Megan Monaghan Rivas is associate professor of dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University, Uptown. She's never attempted to adapt a movie into a musical, but the differences between the two present obvious difficulties, she says.
“Most movies, structurally, have many more scenes than any stage play,” she says. “Adapting any movie for the stage tends to involve compacting extended sequences of multiple scenes and multiple locations into single, stronger threads.
“If the filmmaker has promoted intimacy by using a lot of close-ups, the musical theater team has to create the same sense of intimacy for those characters using the tools of musical theater. You're always looking at the whole person. They have to start their work knowing the audience is looking at one perspective and one scale the whole time.”
One very happy elf is Amy Van Norstrand. She graduated from Point Park University last year and is returning to Pittsburgh as one of the ensemble in “Elf.” She plays multiple roles, including a “real elf” at the North Pole and a department-store elf in one scene that takes place at Macy's in New York.
“The set is really interesting,” says Norstrand, 23. “It's designed after a pop-up book. It's very children-friendly, very exciting, big colors, big lights.”
But “Elf the Musical” isn't just for kids, she says. She credits the “smart writing” of the creative team, who have included plenty of jokes for adults.
“I'm so excited to be able to play the Benedum at a place where I went to school for four years,” she says, sounding as excited as Buddy himself. “I've been out of school for only a year, and I'm coming back.”
William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Screen to stage
Movies have long provided a rich source of material for Broadway. Stephen Sondheim created “A Little Night Music” in 1973 from the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night.“ “Kinky Boots,” this year's Tony winner for best musical, was based on a British cult film.
But for every one that dazzles, dozens flame out. Some, like “9 to 5” are solid efforts whose music, story line and characters simply don't combust. Others, like the misbegotten “Carrie,” were so awful they live on in Broadway infamy.
Some movies may be too closely identified with their stars to convince audiences to accept someone else in the onstage role. But then, even John Travolta might not have been able to save the leaden musical version of “Saturday Night Fever.”
“42nd Street” (1980): If you're going to make a Broadway musical out of a movie, it helps that the movie is about the making of a Broadway musical. The musical based on the 1933 Busby Berkeley film won the 1981 Tony Award for best musical and stayed on Broadway for most of that decade with a total of 3,486 performances.
“The Producers” (2001): Mel Brooks' 1967 comedy about a scheme to profit from a deliberate Broadway flop won a record 12 Tony Awards as a musical. It helped that the leads were Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who knocked audiences dead as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, which were played memorably in the movie by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.
“Phantom of the Opera” (1988): The longest-running musical of all time was inspired by the 1925 silent movie starring Lon Chaney Sr. as a deformed and homicidal composer living in the Paris sewers. It opened Jan. 9, 1988, and it's been running ever since. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber got a knighthood out of the deal.
“Little Shop of Horrors” (1982): It can be an advantage if a musical uses an obscure film as its source: fewer audience expectations. Roger Corman's 1960 B horror movie was remembered chiefly for a cameo by a young Jack Nicholson. Broadway audiences ate up the live musical version, a sardonic story about a flower-shop owner named Seymour who is torn between two Audreys — one human, the other a carnivorous plant.
“Spamalot” (2005): The “lovingly ripped off” stage version of the 1975 “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was a surprise hit. Of course, it helped to have one of the original members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Eric Idle, at the helm.
“Breakfast at Tiffany's” (1966): Yes, there was a stage version of the 1961 movie that starred Audrey Hepburn as charmingly opportunistic party girl Holly Golightly. But the show never officially opened on Broadway. Was it because Mary Tyler Moore was miscast as Golightly and forced to utter lines with curse words in them? Or, because the movie's classic song “Moon River” was left out? Producer David Merrick famously pulled the plug “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”
“Carrie” (1988): The 1976 movie launched the career of Sissy Spacek, who was both touching and terrifying as a mousy high-school misfit with telekinetic powers that wreak havoc at her high-school prom. One scene in the musical featured the students slaughtering a pig in preparation for their despicable prank. The lyrics included “It's a simple little gig/you help me kill a pig.” It had five performances before shutting down.
“Saturday Night Fever” (1999): You'd think that a musical version of a movie about the redemptive power of music and dancing would be a sure thing. Wrong. This by-the-numbers version of the 1977 film dutifully regurgitated the Bee Gees million-selling soundtrack and featured the iconic white suit made famous by John Travolta. But it was more taxidermy than transcendent.
“Ghost The Musical” (2012): True, it was a hit in London. But the musical version of the 1990 hit film ran for only 136 performances on Broadway before giving up the — well, you know. Many critics were put off by its overreliance on computer technology and busy special effects.
“The Wedding Singer” (2006): Set in the ”80s, this musical had talented leads Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti in the roles played by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in the film. But the show's endless '80s references to Madonna and moonwalking grated on more than one critic. It opened April 27, 2006, and managed to last the year, closing Dec. 31, for a total of 285 performances.
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