PAGE TO STAGE: Books that Found A Home on Broadway

Many Broadway productions are original, mainlined to the stage direct from the mind and writing implement of choice of the playwright.

Many more are based on novels that landed on best seller lists having caught the attention of multiple readers including playwrights who condense the tome to its vital plot points weaving a tale that mesmerizes theater patrons.

Many of the most successful Broadway and touring musicals were born from best sellers, such as Les Miserables, The Color Purple and Hamilton. In a nod to April 23’s World Book Day, we’re giving you a blog-worthy rundown of a half-a dozen page-turners that have taken a dramatic turn as Broadway plays:

Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts and Robert Burton as Doc in the Broadway production of Mister Roberts.

Mister Roberts
Many of you likely are more familiar with the movie Mister Roberts that starred Henry Fonda as the naval officer title character who defends his crew to the tyrannical ship’s captain played by James Cagney. Author Thomas Heggen wrote the book in 1946 based on his experiences in the Pacific during World War II. Two years later, he adapted his book for the stage where it starred – Henry Fonda. The play about life on a cargo ship on the sidelines of war was a great success and won five 1948 Tony Awards®, including Best Actor for Fonda, Best Playwright for Heggen and Best Play.

Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Grapes of Wrath presented at the Cort Theatre in New York City in 1990. (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

The Grapes of Wrath
The American classic by John Steinbeck depicted the blistering harsh conditions of The Great Depression, showcasing the desperation of immigrants driven from Oklahoma by drought to head West for jobs and dignity. The novel, a cornerstone of high school and college literature classes because of its historical context, is estimated to have sold 14 million copies since its publication in 1939. It didn’t hit Broadway until 1990 after being adapted by director, writer and actor Frank Galati. It starred Gary Sinise and Kathryn Erbe and won the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Director.

To Kill a Mockingbird
The instant classic from author Harper Lee is one of the most beloved novels of American literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Despite the serious topics tackled in the novel – rape, race and inequality in 1930’s Jim Crow South – it’s also known for its warmth and integrity, notably resonant in attorney Atticus Finch, the narrator’s father and moral center of the book. In 2018, director and Oscar® and Emmy®-winning writer Aaron Sorkin adapted the book for the stage, but not without controversies regarding Sorkin taking writing “liberties” with the book and licensing issues. Author Lee’s estate filed a lawsuit charging Sorkin violated terms of use, citing the script strayed too far from the book, framing Atticus as the main character instead of his daughter, Scout. The suit threatened the play’s Broadway opening and Sorkin countersued, with both parties eventually coming to terms, including Sorkin making some changes to the play. Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels, opened in March 2018 to generally good reviews and it garnered nine Tony nominations – but not for Best Play. The licensing issue concerned lawyers for producer Scott Rudin sending cease-and-desist orders to several regional companies staging an earlier adaptation of the book by writer Christopher Sergel. Rudin cited contract control of Sergel’s version and said theater company-staging was a breach. Rudin made amends by offering stock companies use of Sorkin’s version, an unprecedented move with the show still on Broadway. Of course, all productions ceased due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the play is expected to return to Broadway in the fall and launch a national tour down the road.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author Mark Haddon’ 2003 British mystery novel adapted for the stage, opening on Broadway in 2014, is notable for its coming-of-age story of a teen that seemingly is on the autism spectrum. We say seemingly, because though it is never explicitly stated in the play or book, amateur detective Christopher John Francis Boone exhibits personality characteristics that fall within autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Boone, who describes himself as a mathematician with behavioral issues,” focuses on the mystery of a dog murdered in his neighborhood which leads to the revelation of what really happened to his mother and an estrangement and reconciliation with his father. Garnering multiple book-of-the-year awards and five Tony Awards including Best Play, Curious Incident was heralded for being about “being an outsider … seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”

Many works by renowned horror author Stephen King have been adapted for the stage, but only two made it to Broadway – the musical Carrie and the play Misery. Carrie was a bomb, ‘nough said. Misery, about a famed author held captive by his “No. 1 fan” whose bedside adoration becomes a nightmare of abuse, fared better. King’s novel was adapted twice into plays, with its second written by screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Princess Bride), who also wrote the memorable 1990 film starring James Caan and Oscar winner Kathy Bates. In 2015, Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf starred in a limited engagement of Misery on Broadway, with Metcalf earning a Tony nomination for her unhinged performance of the unbridled fan.

War Horse
Three British war veterans and an oil painting of horses tangled in barbed wire fences inspired author Michael Morpurgo to write his 1982 novel War Horse, which recounts the experiences of Joey, a horse in service on the frontline of World War II in France and his previous owner, a young man named Albert, trying to bring him safely home. The book was a moderate success in the United Kingdom, but sales took off after it was adapted into a play by Nick Stafford and later into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Morpurgo thought “they must be mad” when producers proposed his book as a play, but the Handspring Puppet Company fashioned a horse puppet with five visible puppeteer actors, who breathed life into Joey, moving the audience. Coming to Broadway from London in 2011, the show won six Tony Awards, including Best Play and a special award for Handspring’s ingenuity and imagination. War Horse’s global tour is on hiatus due to the pandemic.

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