Musicals are truly amazing. They are like movies, but with music and longer. And a surprising amount of them are based on books. When we hear the names of some of these Broadway plays, we immediately recognize the books they were inspired by, like West Side Story being based on Romeo and Juliet or The Phantom of the Opera’s novel by the same name.
However, not all Broadway plays based on books are known for their source material. So here are some of my favorite Broadway Musicals that I was surprised to find out were actually based on books.
First performed in 1996, Ragtime tells the story of several groups of people at the turn of the 20th century, from a black Harlem musician, a wealthy white matriarch, and a poor Jewish immigrant. Not only is the music great, but there are so many real famous people cameos, from Houdini to Emma Goldman.
But what most do not know that this musical was based on a book of the same title of E. L. Doctorow, written 1975. While the musical does not follow the details of the book horribly well, both are exceptionally done and if you are a fan of the Broadway version, you will love the original book.
8. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Honestly, I didn’t hear of this musical until quite recently. It is a satirical story about J. Pierrepont Finch and his rise from window-washer to chairman of the board. It first opened on Broadway in 1961, and found immediate success. Though you can’t really take any of it seriously, it is filled with incredible music and quirky lines.
Now, while the play isn’t entirely based on a book, it follows the same idea of Shepherd Mead’s novel How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune. Like the title suggests, this book is more of a how-to guide with no story or characters. Saying that, it still contains the satirical humor found throughout the play, so I recommend it.
7. South Pacific
This musical is probably most famous for its 1958 movie starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor, but it premiered on Broadway in 1949, and has many revivals since. It depicts two romances set on a South Pacific island during World War two, one between an American nurse and a middle-aged French plantation owner and the other a U.S. soldier and his Vietnamese sweetheart. The music is amazing and there are interesting undertones of racism and inter-racial romance.
However, most do not know that it is based on the book Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener, published in 1947. However, this was not a novel. Instead, it is a collection of short stories, from which creators of the musical took several stories as well as background characters. Certain short stories are followed closely, but most of the book is not included.
6. Sound of Music
This is probably one of the most famous musicals of all time, telling the real life story of Maria von Trapp and her family, who are famous for singing together as well as escaping Nazi-invaded Austria. The musical is a cute story, telling of Maria, who leaves the convent where she is contemplating becoming a nun to care for a naval officer’s children. She brings music to their lives and eventually marries the father. In the end, they must “Climb Every Mountain” and escape from the Nazis.
While it is based on a real story, the musical is also based on the book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, a memoir by Maria Augusta von Trapp, published in 1949. The musical is very much more romanticized than the book. In reality, Maria and Georg von Trapp were not in love and only married each other for the children. Also, the book covers much more of the family’s life than the play, which cuts short with them escaping Austria. Saying that, there are reasons to love both the book and the musical.
5. Show Boat
First performed in 1927, it tells the story of those working on a Mississippi show boat over a forty year time period—1887-1927. It is also popular due to the 1951 movie of the same name, starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel. While I have never been fond of the characters, the music is absolutely amazing!
However, it is also based on a book of the same name by Edna Ferber, published in 1926. Unlike many on my list, the adaptation follows the book closer, though some of the details are left out merely because of lack of space. However, the book is exceptional because it documents the lives of people in show boats which were quite common a hundred years ago but now are non-existent.
4. Sweeney Todd
You may be astonished to find out that this creepy revenge musical is actually based on a written story. The musical was first performed in 1979, and tells the story of Sweeney Todd, a barber who murders many of his victims in his shop and has his landlady bake their remains in her meat pie shop (gross!). His motivation is to gain revenge for his unjust arrest and his wife’s death years earlier.
Now, this musical is actually based on two different stories. The first is the play Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by playwright Christopher Bond in 1970. While there are many different adaptations, the first was actually the short story “The String of Pearls”, a penny dreadful written in 1847 by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. A penny dreadful (no, not the TV show) was a short story published during the 19th century concerning horrible content (murder, blood, etc.), usually costing only a penny (imagine getting a story for a penny now-a-days).
3. Fiddler on the Roof
I grew up loving the film version of this musical, made in 1971. The music is infectious and the story deals with very serious topics in a pleasantly light-hearted away. First performed on Broadway in 1964, it tells the story of a Jewish man at the turn of the century in Ukraine, living under the rule of Imperial Russia. It tells the story of his family as his daughters marry and he must come to terms with changing times.
The musical is based on Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s short story collection Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem published in 1949. However, the character of Tevye starting appearing in short stories in 1894. Since then, Aleichem’s character has been adapted to plays, a musical, and a movie. There are many different compilations of this author’s short stories.
Most probably know that this 2003 Broadway musical is based on the world of The Wizard of Oz, telling the tale of a story set from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West and her sister Glinda the Good Witch. The music is brilliant and the plot is wickedly wonderful.
However, most probably have not heard that Wicked is based on the 1995 Gregory Maquire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It is actually only the first in a series of four books. While I love the musical, the book covers a lot of deeper meanings of good vs. evil that the musical doesn’t really have time to cover.
1. The King and I
Shall We Dance! This is probably my favorite musical of all time (followed closely by Phantom of the Opera). Set in the 1860s, this 1951 Broadway musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, who becomes the governess to the children of the King of Siam (modern Thailand). Thus follows a heartwarming story of a clash of ideals and the modernization of Siam, as well as the interesting relationship between the king and Anna. Like The Sound of Music, this musical is based on a real story.
It is also actually based on two books. The first is Anna and the King of Siam by Margarat Landon, published 1944. The second is The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens herself, published in 1870. While the two books are similar, Landon’s adds more vivid detail from other sources, fictionalizing the account slightly. Either way, both are brilliant books.
One of the things I love about watching movies, plays, and musicals is understanding where the inspiration for them comes from. Sometimes it’s a book and sometimes it’s an incident in history. Whatever it is, there is some wide contrast between a musical (based on music, of course) and a book (which has no auditory music).
These are some of my favorite Broadway musicals which are surprisingly based on books. Let me know what your favorites are. And, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,