NEW YORK -- "Originality," quipped Voltaire, "is nothing but judicious imitation."
Though the degree of judiciousness varies, all four of the shows competing for best musical in tonight's Tony Awards ceremony (9 p.m., Channel 11) could be described as imitations. Each is adapted from a previous source; in some cases, even the sources are adaptations.
Fortunately, originality is not a Tony category. If it were, few musicals would qualify since almost any one you can name -- from "Show Boat" to "My Fair Lady" to "Les Miserables" -- is an adaptation.
Instead of being awarded for something that has never been done before, the Tony is awarded for quality. In a season with only seven new musicals -- three of which have closed -- this year's nominees display a surprisingly high level of stagecraft, performance and variety.
However, when one looks at these shows, a fundamental question arises: Why do some adaptations work better than others?
First, a glimpse of the nominees and their sources:
*"Miss Saigon," which has been aptly described as the most publicized show in history, is a Vietnamized version of Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," which derives from a 1900 play by David Belasco, whose source was a novella by John Luther Long.
*"The Secret Garden" is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 1911 children's novel of the same name.
*"Once on This Island" is taken from Trinidad-born author Rosa Guy's 1985 novel, "My Love, My Love," a Caribbean-inspired retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Little Mermaid."
*"The Will Rogers Follies" -- admittedly a bit of a stretch in terms of an adaptation -- is an amalgam of two real-life sources: Will Rogers' biography and a Ziegfeld Follies show.
It isn't difficult to figure out the advantage of an adaptation. The use of a previous source provides a foundation that is a recognized and often proven commodity. But this can have a downside as well. A recognizable source comes burdened with audience preconceptions. And, using a masterpiece as a foundation does not guarantee a hit.
To succeed, a musical adaptation must meet two important tests. Its source must be a suitable subject for a musical; specifically, the characters must have a reason to sing. And second, the musical must enhance the original in some way.
Of this year's nominees, "Miss Saigon" would appear to spring from the strongest, most sure-fire source. Yet considering that "Madame Butterfly" is arguably one of the most manipulative operas in the repertoire, its Broadway counterpart is surprisingly vapid emotionally. Where "Butterfly" tugs at the heartstrings, "Saigon" merely tweaks.
Updating isn't the problem. There's no reason that Pinkerton -- an American naval officer who seduces and abandons an innocent geisha -- couldn't be a GI assigned to the embassy in Saigon, and that Butterfly couldn't be Vietnamese.
"Miss Saigon" does drain some of the pathos by making the Pinkerton character sympathetic and his Butterfly a bar girl; the showiest character on stage is her pimp, played with sleazy razzmatazz by Jonathan Pryce. But the chief reason the musical isn't as moving as it should be is a socially conscious subplot tacked on at the beginning of the second act. This is where actor Hinton Battle sings the song "Bui-Doi," which translates as "dust of life" and refers to the Amerasian orphans left behind by GIs. When he sings, documentary footage of the children is presented on a large screen.
"Miss Saigon's" creators -- Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, assisted by the American lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. -- may have seen this gesture as public education. But the effect comes closer to private exploitation.
If it is possible to put aside the ethics of incorporating real-life tragedies into a Broadway entertainment, consider the impact this footage has on the show dramatically. Nothing that happens subsequently -- not even the heroine's suicide -- can touch the drama in the faces of these children. If children and dogs on stage are considered scene stealers, imagine the effect of footage of starving Third World orphans.
The team behind "The Secret Garden" -- librettist Marsha Norman, composer Lucy Simon and director Susan H. Schulman -- also chose to add something to a fairly simple story. A tale of regeneration and renewal, the children's novel is about a little girl named Mary Lennox who is orphaned when a cholera epidemic kills her parents in India. Sent to live on an isolated Yorkshire estate with her brooding, widowed, hunchbacked uncle, Mary surreptitiously cultivates a locked garden; as it blooms, so do her spirits, as well as those of her invalid cousin and his melancholy father.