Inside the Archives: It’s Lights, Curtains, Action When Sundance Films Become Stage Productions

By Jen Scott

It’s time to unwrap those noisy candies and put your phone on silent because it’s time for the show to begin! March 27 marks the annual observance of “World Theatre Day,” a day to celebrate the value and importance of theater around the world. So let’s celebrate this art form by taking a look at Sundance films that have been adapted to stage productions over the decades.

The Official Entry Form for Hairspray for the 1988 United States Film Festival

Hairspray (1988)

There are a handful of works that have traveled down the movie-to-stage-musical-to-movie-musical pipeline, the most recent of which is Mean Girls. John Waters’ Hairspray is one of those films and its stage adaptation has become a fan favorite of the modern musical scene. The original film version of Hairspray was part of the Dramatic Competition of the 1988 United States Film Festival. Starring Ricki Lake as the upbeat and optimistic Tracy Turnblad, this music-filled comedy is set in Baltimore in 1962 and centers around Tracy’s attempt to integrate the television dance program The Corny Collins Show.

The quirky characters, eye-catching costumes and set design, and musically centered story lended itself perfectly for the stage. Hairspray was adapted in 2002 with music by Marc Shaiman. It was met with great success, going on to win eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), completing a seven year Broadway run, multiple national tours, and a West End production. 

It was then adapted into a musical film in 2007 with a star-studded cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Zac Efron (all three of whom have acted in Sundance films!). 

Fun fact: Jerry Stiller played Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s goofy and lovable father, in the original film and made a cameo in the musical film as Mr. Pinky, the dress shop owner.

Julian Jarrold, Joel Edgerton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor onstage at the Kinky Boots Premiere. Photo by Clayton Chase.

Kinky Boots (2006)

Julian Jarrold’s Kinky Boots played Salt Lake City Opening Night at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. This film was based on a true story of Charlie, a struggling shoe factory owner who becomes unlikely allies with Lola, a drag queen. They begin making custom footwear for drag queens to save his business. The film stars Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the latter who received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Because of this film’s popularity, it was screened during the 2016 Sundance Institute Summer Film Series, 10 years after its premiere at the Festival.

This movie was adapted into a stage musical which debuted on Broadway in April 2013. Cyndi Lauper composed the songs with Billy Porter starring as Lola. Kinky Boots was a hit with audiences and the musical went on to win six Tony Awards.

The cast and crew of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the 2001 Awards Ceremony. Photo by Trisha Empey

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

To add a little twist to this list, the next musical we’re going to highlight is a film adapted from a stage musical. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical about a genderqueer singer of a fictional rock and roll band written by and starring John Cameron Mitchell. The musical opened off-Broadway in 1998 and didn’t see Broadway until a revival in 2014. The lead role of Hedwig has been played by iconic Broadway actors, including Michael Cerveris, Neil Patrick Harris, and Darren Criss.

John Cameron Mitchell’s work with Hedwig and the Angry Inch wasn’t completed after the off-Broadway run, when he was approached with the offer to adapt Hedwig into a film. He developed parts of the script at the 1999 January and June Screenwriters Labs, as well as the 1999 Directors Lab. Hedwig eventually premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. It won over Festivalgoers, winning the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature and the Directing Award for Dramatic Feature.

Three women in blue waitress uniforms with white collars sitting side-by-side at a table or counter and in front of a window, showing daytime light through blinds. From left, a slightly smiling woman with dark-framed eyeglasses, with blond hair swept up in what appears to be a high ponytail and the nametag "Dawn"; another blond woman apparently speaking to the third woman, smiling and animated, nametag "Becky"; a woman with long, light brown hair, chin up as she listens to Becky, nametag is blocked by a metal water pitcher.
Adrienne Shelly in the role of Dawn, Cheryl Hines as Becky, and Keri Russell as Jenna in the movie "Waitress" (Alan Markfield-Night & Day Pictures)

Waitress (2007)

The beloved Broadway musical with songs by Sara Bareilles was based off a film that premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Waitress stars Keri Russell as a waitress at a pie diner trapped in an abusive marriage who faces an unwanted pregnancy. The film premiered under tragic circumstances, just a few months after writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s murder. Typically at a Sundance premiere, the director gives an introduction before the film begins, so in Shelly’s absence, her husband and the film producer introduced the film by sharing that it was Adrienne’s dream to have a film at Sundance. The film earned a standing ovation, and Waitress was a highlight of that year’s Festival.

The musical adaptation premiered on Broadway in April 2016 starring Jessie Mueller as the lead. It has seen huge success with its first Broadway run, multiple national and international tours, as well as a return to Broadway in 2021. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and was recorded live on stage with Sara Bareilles in the lead role which was released in theaters and on digital platforms.

Once (2007)

Writer-director John Carney began making his mark at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 with the romantic drama Once. The story focuses on a Dublin busker who meets a young Czech immigrant and the pair start playing music together and decide to record an album. The film stars the members of The Swell Season, a folk rock duo comprised of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. They wrote the song “Falling Slowly” for the film, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Once was well received at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category.

The musical adaptation of Once premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2011 before transferring to Broadway in 2012. The Tony Award–winning musical is unique in the fact that the cast also serves as the orchestra, playing the instruments on stage. The set also had a bar on center stage which was used before the show and at intermission as a working bar for theater patrons. 

Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard outside the Egyptian Theatre in Park City. Photo by Fred Hayes

Fun Fact: Carney returned to the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 with Sing Street, another film that was eventually adapted for the stage!

So if you can’t make it to the theater to celebrate World Theatre Day, swap out your fancy clothes for your pajamas and enjoy the spirit of the theater by watching one of these films from the comfort of your own home.

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