NEW YORK -- Prostitution. The Titanic. Marathon dancing.
The 1997 Tony-nominated musicals based on these subjects might appear to have little in common.
But "The Life," "Titanic" and "Steel Pier," which will compete for top honors at tonight's awards ceremony, share one important and fairly unusual characteristic: they all have original "books" -- the musical-theater term for the libretto minus the lyrics.
This may not sound like a big deal. But almost every famous musical you can think of is an adaptation. "Show Boat," "Oklahoma!", "My Fair Lady," "The Phantom of the Opera" -- the list goes on and on.
Adaptations have a lot to recommend them. For starters, there's familiarity. If the source is a classic, such as "Romeo and Juliet" (the source for "West Side Story") or Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," the audience knows the characters and the story. Furthermore, an adaptation comes equipped with a ready-made structure.
Creating an original book musical is much tougher. "I think you need a little more imagination to do a totally original new musical. Your skills are more important," says Gerald Bordman, a nationally recognized authority on musicals and the author of "American Musical Theatre."
One measure of the rarity of originals is that in the past decade only two Tony Award winners -- "The Will Rogers Follies" and "City of Angels" -- have had original books. The most famous example of the genre is "A Chorus Line," whose idiosyncratic origins -- it began as a series of rap sessions with Broadway dancers -- are indicative of its originality. "That show was sui generis. It really self-evolved," Bordman says. "That's almost a freak."
Ironically, the revival of a show that "A Chorus Line" defeated in 1976 -- "Chicago" -- is tonight's only surefire winner. New plays and musicals were relatively abundant this season, but there were no unqualified hits and no clear Tony front-runner. In the case of the new musicals, the difficulty of creating an original book may be one reason.
Starting from scratch
So why did Peter Stone, author of "Titanic"; David Thompson, author of "Steel Pier"; and David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman, co-authors of "The Life," venture into this tricky territory?
Stone, whose credits include both adaptations ("Woman of the Year") and originals ("1776"), admits writing an original is harder. "You've got to write a play first and then write a musical around it," he says. "The good thing about an adaptation is it comes with construction. A musical book is 75 percent construction, the other 24 percent is concept, the one percent left over is for dialogue, which is the least important thing. Constructing 'Titanic' took far longer than any other part because the story is so intricate and there are so many characters."
Yet Stone prefers starting from scratch: "You don't have any responsibility to anyone. I don't have to worry about offending the original writer in some way."
Thompson, for whom "Steel Pier" is his first original book, says, "I found it quite liberating because you could write anything you wanted, any character you wanted, any situation you wanted to develop. It was very freeing."
For "Steel Pier," which takes place in Atlantic City in 1933, there were several possible sources -- most notably Sidney Pollack's 1969 movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" But Thompson says he felt the movie's tone didn't lend itself to musicalization.
The movie, which ends with a shooting, "is a much darker piece, not a musical in a sense, not a romance. For that reason it was not appealing. The dance marathon is not the story. It's the setting for the story for us," Thompson explains. "A dance marathon, by its very nature, asks you to be exhausted. That's something that's not going to make a great musical if you want to tell another story. It was always about telling that romantic story."
The romance in "Steel Pier" is between two contestants -- a mysterious stunt pilot (Daniel McDonald) and a dancer (Karen Ziemba) who is secretly married to the man who runs the marathon (Gregory Harrison).
The marathon provided the musical with a logical format for singing and dancing. Show-biz-friendly formats are a favorite with the musical's songwriters, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also used them in "Cabaret," in "Chicago," which is constructed like a 1920s vaudeville show, and even in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," in which the production numbers are fantasies of movie musicals.
Yet in eschewing the darkness of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" the creators of "Steel Pier" lost one of the chief elements that gave those other three Kander and Ebb shows their edge. Even set against the hardship of the Depression, "Steel Pier" feels bland.