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Beloved Books on the Broadway Stage

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


Which stage adaptations – like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – make the grade?

Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has recently broken the record as the highest-grossing American play on Broadway. It’s not hard to see why. This story is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1960. The perennial classic delves into themes of racial inequality and rape, while painting a compelling picture of America. For this reason, the novel has become one of the most-taught pieces of literature in high schools. Other great works that are regularly taught as part of the American high school curriculum have also made their way to the Broadway stage, and today we celebrate a handful of them. 

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ on Broadway (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ on Broadway (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Big River
In 1985, country musician Roger Miller surprised Broadway theatregoers with his adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Big River followed the incorrigible Huck Finn as he made his way toward his independence in the company of the escaped slave Jim, who was in search of his freedom. The musical, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, is a poignant retelling of Twain’s novel which probes America’s peculiar institution of slavery and celebrates every human being who yearns to breathe free.

Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë created one of literature’s most iconic female characters in Jane Eyre, a strong-willed, independent-thinking woman who navigates a life of abuse and misery, only to find love with the brooding Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall where she is employed as the governess. Written in 1847, the story broke barriers in giving a female character vocal perspectives on topics such as religion, sexuality, class and feminism. Jane Eyre was adapted for the Broadway musical stage in 2000 by Paul Gordon and John Caird, and was nominated for Best Musical.

Of Mice and Men
Of Mice and Men (1937) is one of the few novels to actually be adapted for the stage by the author who wrote the book. In this case, John Steinbeck puts on the hat of playwright in order to tell the tale of the unlikely friendship between migrant farmworkers likeable George and the simple-minded Lenny. George takes of Lenny, which proves to be a difficult task when Lenny’s exuberant emotions lead to the accidental deaths of animals and a young woman. The play premiered on Broadway in 1938, and has received several revivals over the years.

1984
George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel has long been a cautionary tale about the dangers of an un-checked government, constant surveillance of our every move and the propaganda that turns us into unwitting accomplices to relinquishing our inherent freedoms. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan adapted the piece for the stage in 2013. 1984 made its way to Broadway in 2017 for a limited run.

The Crucible
Arthur Miller’s riveting play The Crucible works in reverse here. The play debuted on Broadway in 1953, and soon found its way into English classes for discussion and debate over its central allegory. Set amidst the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials, the play was a thinly veiled condemnation of McCarthyism and the communist witch hunts that were at their height during the early 1950s.

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck’s sprawling tale of the Joad family, a farming family who are driven from their Oklahoma home during the Great Depression and who go in search of a new life in California, is a gripping story of the struggle to achieve the American Dream in the face of poverty. Premiering at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, the epic tale was turned into a Tony-winning Best Play by Frank Galati that arrived on the Great White Way in 1990.

The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of 24 stories written in Middle English tells the tales of a group of pilgrims making a voyage from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. Written in both prose and poetry, the religiously motivated pieces unfold to reveal the hypocrisy and foibles of mankind. A musical version of The Canterbury Tales came to Broadway in 1969 via its premiere in the West End in 1968.

Les Misérables
Arguably, the most successful of all plays and musicals adapted from the titles on high school reading lists is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The story of convict Jean Valjean, who reinvents himself in the name of God, only to spend his life hounded by the fanatic police inspector Javert, is a timeless tale of redemption and rebirth. The musical version opened at London’s Barbican Theatre, a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, then moved to the West End before crossing the Atlantic to Broadway in 1987 where it now holds the record as Broadway’s fifth longest-running musical.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

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