How can you adapt a stage production for film and make its structure work?
An hour and a half into In the Heights, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, the protagonist Usnavi asks his young audience of adorable children if they want to take a break from the story he’s telling.
That's not a Hamilton reference, it's a meta-joke about how, if we were watching the play, you would take an intermission—and it highlights something that I think about a lot.
Structural changes need to happen when stage plays and musicals are adapted to the big screen, because the mediums are literally different structures.
Put bluntly: movies have three acts, and plays have two acts.
That isn’t always the case. There are several one-act musicals (shout out Once On This Island), and Peter Pan has three. But structure needs to be taken into consideration. Jamming or stretching that into a film arc is often clumsy if not done well.
For the record, I think In The Heights did a very good job; while some of the changes in pacing are perhaps jarring for those familiar with the musical’s storyline from the stage version, they work. The intermission joke shows that they were aware of this when making the film. Adaptation is about more than copying and pasting scenes and dialogue into Final Draft.
So let’s get into how those acts function on stage versus on-screen.
The structure of musicals
Musicals on stage have an opening image, an inciting incident just like your typical Blake Snyder-approved screenplay. For the most part, the plot points are the same. There's an All Is Lost moment and a Dark Night of the Soul.
But the act break means something different, and that affects how the story is paced. The act one break in a musical should, in theory, come at what we’d call the midpoint in the screenplay.
In successful film adaptations, it does. Seems simple enough. It’s in the middle. That is logically the difference between breaking something into two and breaking something into three. So what’s the problem?
A musical’s act-one finale has to make sure the audience comes back after intermission. That is its primary function.
That’s not a concern in a movie theater. Your butt is stuck in the seat no matter what. The lights aren’t coming up halfway through and giving you the option to bail. Because of that, the midpoints of musicals tend to be more—well, dramatic than the midpoints of screenplays. Story-wise, the act break in a musical represents a major turning point for one or all of the characters.
The most famous example of this being, perhaps, “One Day More” from Les Miserables. The stakes are raised, and the midpoint suddenly has a huge dramatic significance.
Why the midpoint matters
Everything is structured around the intermission in a musical. The first half leads up to this moment. The second half is the fallout from this moment. It’s not just a false victory or a small reveal, it’s the reveal. It’s the point of no return.
It’s the rumble in West Side Story. It’s Elphaba’s “transformation” into the Wicked Witch in Wicked. It’s… a lot of small character things in Rent, similar to In the Heights on stage. It’s a wedding that ends in a fight in Fiddler on the Roof. It’s Christine declaring her intentions to leave the opera and the Phantom swearing revenge in Phantom of the Opera. It’s Mrs. Lovett getting the idea to turn people into pies in Sweeney Todd.
The action in a film simply doesn’t always hinge on the midpoint the way it does in theatre.
The “intermission” that Usnavi suggests in In the Heights occurs a couple of songs and scenes after where the intermission falls in the stage play, but it’s the act-two break in the screenplay. That’s the natural pause in a movie as opposed to a play. "Blackout," the song that ends act one in the stage play, is squarely in the middle of the film where it should be.
This was not pulled off successfully in the film adaptation of The Prom, for example. The act one finale, “Tonight Belongs To You,” comes too early in the film. It is almost, but not quite, where the film’s second act begins. It makes the second half of the action drag and waver back and forth between the Break into Three and Dark Night of the Soul in screenplay terms.
That works fine on stage, when everything is fallout from the act-one break and there’s more room for the second half to wiggle, but a film needs to keep moving forward.
Another less successful film adaptation, structurally at least, is Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods.
The first act of this musical on stage ends with a perfect false victory, “Ever After,” that turns to darker themes when new conflicts arise in the second act. It’s so perfect, in fact, that middle and high schools with underage actors are only allowed to perform the first act of Into the Woods. That should make it a perfect midpoint.
However, this moment comes two-thirds of the way into the film. They made the second act of the musical the third act of the film.
At this point, it’s too late to introduce a new conflict or darker themes, and feels rushed, or worse, like an epilogue tacked-on to a satisfying end. Most of the cuts made to Into the Woods were from the second act, which is already shorter than the first, as well. That just emphasizes the story’s odd structure.
Want to adapt a stage production for the screen?
It’s something to keep in mind if you’re ever looking to adapt a play into a film or vice-versa. Or a short story. Or a book. Or a poem.
Break down the structure of each first, and then see how best to make it work.
If that means moments are cut or moved around—that’s fine! It is not the goal of any other art form to become a movie, and the original still exists. Focus on what works best for the medium you are working in.