The challenges of staging a musical based on an album

The first major rock album to go theatrical was Tommy, The Who’s histrionic 1969 LP about a traumatised boy who becomes a cult leader.

Alanis Morissette. Photo by Gabriel Olsen / FilmMagic
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Stage musicals can take a ­painfully long time to put together, even when the songs are already written and have already sold multimillions.

Last week, it emerged that the hugely successful Canadian singer Alanis Morissette has been working on a musical since 2013, based on her 1995 debut album Jagged Little Pill, which shifted 33 million copies. The end result will be ready next summer.

And that lengthy ­preparation for You Oughta Know – the show is named after her breakthrough single – is entirely ­understandable. Even with a canon of hits behind them, "jukebox musicals" can be embarrassing disasters. Ask the Spice Girls: their show, Viva Forever, ran for seven months, lost millions and tarnished the legacy.

In the process, Morissette’s production may have an intriguing advantage, though. Musicals usually utilise an artist’s whole back catalogue, which can be messy, whereas shows that focus on particular albums tend to be well received, certainly from the critics. They ­usually spin off from rock concept ­albums, with a strong theme ­already in place.

The first major rock album to go theatrical was Tommy, The Who's histrionic 1969 LP about a traumatised boy who becomes a cult leader. Guitarist Pete Townshend's "rock opera" actively expanded the group's horizons, and its first stage incarnation followed just two years later –­Seattle Opera's faithful rendition helped launch a young Bette Midler. A movie emerged in 1975, then in 1993, Townshend and acclaimed director Des McAnuff created a Broadway musical, which won several Tony awards.

Even now, a version is touring the United Kingdom. Ramps on the Moon is a British theatre company formed to highlight disability issues, with disabled actors involved, and Tommy's "deaf, dumb and blind" hero proved a fitting subject. Indeed, these edgier album-based musicals often provide a useful canvas to tackle big issues – Morissette's show will reportedly deal with "gender, identity and race", while ­Tommy directly inspired a show that starkly satirised modern ­America.

American Idiot is a "punk ­opera" based on the 2004 album by Green Day, a record made with theatre in mind, as the ambitious band ­followed Townshend's route to radically changed ­direction. A spiky but colourful story of ­disaffected American youth, the show ­began a ­successful ­Broadway run in 2010 and continues to tour ­internationally. It even realised dreams for its cast: starring in last year's UK ­version was the popular singer Newton Faulkner, whose first group was a Green Day cover band.

These reinterpretations of ­classic albums do encourage notable fans to explore new creative territories. You Oughta Know is being scripted by Diablo Cody, best known for screenwriting the hit movie Juno (2007).

A surprisingly mighty writer helped adapt The Flaming Lips' 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots: Aaron Sorkin, ­creator of The West Wing.

Sorkin and the aforementioned Des McAnuff were the original partnership behind the Yoshimi … musical, which ingenuously created a young girl's fantasy world, using LED costumes and a huge robot puppet. Sorkin eventually quit – due to musical differences – but the finished show looked spectacular. A proposed Broadway transfer was shelved, though, sadly.

Then again, these quirkier musicals do not necessarily strive for massive success; sometimes they remain a low-key labour of love. In 2015, another Canadian singer/songwriter, Dan ­Mangan, was surprised to learn that a small company in his native Vancouver planned a musical largely based on his breakthrough album, 2009's Nice Nice Very Nice.

One lyric from that record became the title: Are We Cool Now?

“It’s a bit surreal to hear your own words reimagined into an entirely different context,” Mangan admits, “[but] when I actually sat and saw the performance, I was pretty moved. Musicals aren’t my medium, but it was very flattering. And it worked.”

That story – about a couple reflecting during a road trip – reaped excellent reviews during the show’s run in 2015, and such thoughtful productions can help to change perceptions. Mangan was no fan of musicals beforehand. What does he make of the Morissette news? “My nostalgic ‘90s inner child probably wants to see it,” he admits.

Sometimes the creators need more persuading. Pink Floyd's The Wall, an ambitious concept album about alienation, spawned a movie in 1982 and a musical has long been mooted, but songwriter Rogers Waters initially rejected a recent proposal from another Canadian company. They wanted to build The Wall into a grand classical opera.

Waters replied that rock/classical collaborations are “generally disastrous”, but the persuasive producer then sent him the music. “I sat there not expecting to be moved,” he said, “and I was moved”. He became the show’s librettist, and Opéra de ­Montreal’s majestic production helped launch the city’s 375th ­anniversary celebrations in March, receiving standing ­ovations from Floyd fans and opera buffs alike. A show about alienation, bringing musical tribes together. An American run begins in Cincinnati, in July 2018.

Morissette’s musical will ­debut in May next year in ­Massachusetts. Is it also destined for Broadway, and beyond? She oughta know.