Books and musicals might seem like they're on the opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Books are typically enjoyed alone, in silence, and can be perused at your leisure. Live musicals typically happen in a room full of people, they're very loud, and they are happening live, in front of you, with no possible escape. But nevertheless, some of the greatest musicals ever written started out as novels, biographies, and even poetry collections. So break out your best wig and tap shoes, and check out these books that inspired hit Broadway musicals.
Now, this is a very incomplete list of just the wildly successful musicals that were adapted from books (sorry, Little Women The Musical). That's because there are a shocking number of book-based musicals out there. I mean, did you know that Legally Blonde was a novel first? I didn't even have time to include the (surprisingly many) musicals based on Sunday funnies or superhero comics... but then again, I'm not sure how many people want to relive Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.
So whether you're a musical theater nerd from way back when, or just a civilian who wants to understand why everyone is suddenly crushing on Alexander Hamilton, here are a few books that became beloved musicals:
1. 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow
Nothing says "hip hop musical" like a hefty biography of one of America's founding fathers, right? Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton while on vacation, and found himself inspired to write his own take on Hamilton's scrappy life story. The result is Hamilton, one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history.
2. 'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo
If you like musicals about the American Revolution, then how about a musical about the French Revolution (but not the main French Revolution, the really minor one that no one knows about)? Victor Hugo's lengthy epic, Les Miserables, is a novel about redemption and revolution, and it's the basis for an equally epic musical of the same name.
3. 'The Phantom of the Opera' by Gaston Leroux
When Gaston Leroux wrote this strange ghost story in 1909, he was probably not imagining a sick electric guitar solo in the background. But somehow, The Phantom of the Opera went from a weird little Gothic novel about unrequited love to a bombastic rock musical that is still running on Broadway after 28 years.
4. 'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire
Wicked is actually a musical based on a book, based on a movie, based on a book. Gregory Maguire was inspired by both the original Wizard of Oz novel and the classic Hollywood film, since the Wicked Witch of the West isn't actually green in the original book. Maguire's novel tells the story of young Elphaba before she became so "wicked," and it has a lot more orgies with tigers than the musical adaption.
5. 'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel
Not every musical has to be a sweeping epic. Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home is a quiet, poignant piece about Bechdel discovering her sexuality and coming to terms with her father's suicide. And yet somehow the musical adaption of Fun Home manages to capture her story beautifully, even on a big Broadway stage.
6. 'The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales' by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales has been the basis for so many books, movies, comics, musicals, and everything in between. But one of the most memorable re-tellings of these fairy tales has to be Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which weaves together Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and many more stories, but with a slightly adult twist (i.e. lots of death in act two).
7. 'Ragtime' by E.L. Doctorow
8. 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' by Charles Dickens
OK, so maybe Oliver Twist is the more recognizable Charles Dickens novel that was turned into a musical. But shout out to Edwin Drood, because Charles Dickens actually laid down his pen and died while writing this murder mystery, leaving it unfinished. In the musical adaptation, the audience votes on the murderer to "finish" the story with a different ending every night.
9. 'Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper' by Gypsy Rose Lee
There's some question as to how much of Gypsy is actually true... but it's an entertaining showbiz memoir nonetheless. Gypsy Rose Lee grew up performing on the vaudeville circuit, and became one of the most famous burlesque performers of all time. Her memoir was soon adapted into the (surprisingly PG-rated) award-winning musical, Gypsy.
10. 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
11. 'Don Quixote' by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Sure, you might love Cervantes' Don Quixote. But you haven't really read it until you've heard the thesis of the book sung in Brian Stokes Mitchell's booming baritone. Man of La Mancha really only adapts pieces of Don Quixote (it's an awfully long book), but both book and musical have the same snarky-yet-idealistic themes.
12. 'Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats' by T. S. Eliot
If you've ever wondered, "So... why is there a famous play where adult people dress as cats and sing?" then you can blame the poet T. S. Eliot. Most of the lyrics are adapted from Eliot's poetry about, well... cats. Just a bunch of poems about weird cats. Good luck getting this song out of your head.
13. 'The Berlin Stories' by Christopher Isherwood
14. 'Tales of the South Pacific' by James A. Michener
15. 'Matilda' by Roald Dahl
Matilda may not seem like the ideal candidate for a big splashy musical. Dahl's story is your classic children's tale about a smart little girl developing telekinetic powers. But the musical adaptation of Matilda expands Dahl's weirdness into surreal musical numbers (starring lots of adorable children, of course).
16. 'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, even War and Peace has gotten a sexy, musical face-lift. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a new Broadway musical based on Volume 2, Part 5 of War and Peace (apparently that's plenty for a full length musical), but with a much more indie rock, EDM vibe than Tolstoy probably intended.