Plenty of the Great White Way’s most notable productions have been reincarnated for the silver screen—think Rent, The Producers, and Chicago. But Off-Broadway and Broadway’s best have also spawned plenty of big screen versions that some people don’t realize started as live theatrical experiences.
One of cinema’s most beloved and enduring classics is known for a few things (incorrectly reiterated quotes are one of them), but few people remember that the Michael Curtiz film was first crafted as a stage play. Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s Everybody Comes To Rick’s was never actually put on the stage, but the duo did option the work to Warner Bros. in 1942 for the then-record price of $20,000. The pair wrote the play in 1940, inspired by a trip Burnett and his wife took to Vienna, where they helped some Jewish relatives smuggle money out, and a later jaunt to a small town in France which was home to an intimate nightclub with a mixed clientele (and a jazz pianist).
2. Dial M For Murder
Alfred Hitchcock’s thrilling 1954 classic is tense and taut enough that it’s easy to forget that the feature could quite easily take place in just a single setting. What often has a single setting? Stage plays! Dial M for Murder first came to life as a Frederick Knott play that actually made its debut on BBC Television in 1952. It hit the stage later that year, first in London’s West End, then on Broadway.
3. A Few Good Men
Rob Reiner’s 1992 military courtroom drama is memorable on its own, simply for all the outsized personalities that populate it (“You can’t handle the truth!”), so it’s hard to imagine soaking all that drama in live. Well, audiences did—and still do!
First performed on Broadway in 1989, playwright Aaron Sorkin then adapted the work into the screenplay that became Reiner’s Tom Cruise- and Jack Nicholson-starring film. The play is still performed today, and has torn up stages from Texas to Budapest.
Considering that the eponymous “wild child” role of Nell is one of Jodie Foster’s most well-known and regarded roles, it doesn’t seem possible that she’s not the one who originated it. But, you guessed it, she isn’t.
What became the film Nell was first the play Idioglossia, penned by Mark Handley in 1992. The film hit screens just two years later, hewing close to the work that Handley first brought to the stage. Though its title changed, the aims remained the same—for fans of Nell, the definition of “idioglossia” is a canny one, as it describes “an idiosyncratic language that few speak.”
5. Prelude to a Kiss
Back in 1992, Meg Ryan reigned supreme as romantic comedy queen, and the amusing and sweet body switching comedy Prelude to a Kiss was a pretty perfect match for both her and costar Alec Baldwin. Although the Norman Rene feature was a light-hearted outing, Craig Lucas’ 1988 play on which it was based was far more serious, and was believed to provide intense commentary on the then-new AIDS epidemic. The play is still performed today; there was a full-scale Broadway revival starring Alan Tudyk and John Mahoney in 2007.
Look, another Hitchcockian thriller! The master of suspense didn’t limit his stage play pillaging to Dial M for Murder—he also did it with 1948’s Rope, six years before picking up the phone and ringing up homicide. Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play of the same name, Hitchcock’s film earned accolades for its famous long take style, which made it appear to play out continuously in real time. Even Hamilton’s play didn’t go that far—the stage version plays out over three acts, with a curtain fall in between each.
7. Steel Magnolias
Before Shelby drank her juice to the dulcet tones of Sally Field just screaming her brains out, the same thing played out on stage. Herbert Ross’ enduring 1989 classic of American womanhood and experience is based on Robert Harling’s 1987 play of the same name, which was in turn based on Harling’s own wrenching experience of losing his sister to diabetes after the birth of his nephew.
Harling’s play was recently turned into yet another cinematic adaptation—Kenny Leon’s 2012 Lifetime feature that used an entirely African-American cast to tell the story of a tight-knit group of Southern women. Steel Magnolias the stage play most recently embarked on a country-wide tour in Ireland back in 2012.
Playwright Patrick Marber quite skillfully adapted his own 1997 play for the 2004 Mike Nichols film, a dramatic outing that features the talents of Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Jude Law. A twisted tale of two couples (sort of?) that mix and mingle in London in quite possibly the worst ways imaginable, the award-winning play placed a premium on its four central characters, layered individuals that translated well to the big screen. Marber’s play first showed around London and Broadway, and it continues to play around the world. It was recently translated into German, showing under the title Hautnah.