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Top 10 Books That Inspired West End Shows

By Wesley Nash

How do you write a play? Some are born with the skill of playwriting. Others have playwriting thrust upon them. Then there are those who take a piece of literature, beloved or undiscovered, and turn it into a West End hit. We’ve picked out ten works, old and new, which have successfully made the transition from page to stage. 

So, put down your books, Kindles and iPads and get yourself into the theatre to see these literary classics coming to life in front of your very eyes...

10.  Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper

by Gypsy Rose Lee

2015’s Laurence Olivier Award-winning musical Gypsy began life as an autobiography, the true story of a young woman growing up in Depression-era America, dreaming of stardom and achieving burlesque notoriety – all whilst dealing with an overbearing mother.

Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoirs were adapted into a musical just two years after being written, with lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim. Focusing on the lost hopes and dreams of Gypsy’s career-obsessed ‘stage mum’ Rose, Gypsy has been a sensation for over 50 years. Having been transformed into a TV film starring Bette Midler in the 90s, the 2015 West End revival at the Savoy earned recent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf alum Imelda Staunton her third Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

9.  The Berlin Stories

by Christopher Isherwood

Another autobiographical success, The Berlin Stories comprise a pair of novellas in which Christopher Isherwood reflects on his time spent in 1930s Berlin. In this period of his life, Isherwood revelled in the sexual freedom of the city and embraced his homosexuality, whilst writing some of his best known work and turning the people he met into now famous characters such as Mr Norris and Sally Bowles.

The second novella of the pair, Goodbye to Berlin, was adapted in the early ‘50s into a play called I Am a Camera, showcasing the friendship between a fictional Isherwood and nightclub singer Sally Bowles. When this play was further adapted into a stage and screen musical, by the name of Cabaret, Liza Minelli’s incredible performance transformed Sally Bowles into a major leading female character of musical theatre. 

8.  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

by Gregory Maguire

One of the West End’s staple sensations, Wicked celebrated its 10th birthday last year, debuting at the Apollo Victoria in 2006. However, this origin story’s origins can be traced way back to 1900, when L Frank Baum published the now classic children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose characters and story were immortalised in the Judy Garland film – a timeless classic, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Through the years, there have been many adaptations, spin-offs and sequels based on the magical land of Oz, each enjoying varying levels of success (let’s not talk about Oz the Great and Powerful). However, none have hit the heights moreso than Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked which in itself was directly adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 book. Maguire’s revisionist take on the Witches of Oz gave life to a musical hit that will no doubt be a key feature of West End and Broadway theatre for years to come.

Book Wicked tickets here.

7.  The Sopranos

by Alan Warner

How I wish that someone would have the ingenuity to adapt HBO’s seminal mobster TV series into a play and transport it to the Scottish highlands. Sadly, this is not the case and for now, I must wait for such a visionary to arise. Instead, we have Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos,a tour-de-force in its own unique way. Warner uses the term ‘soprano’ in a more traditional sense than our televisual friends across the pond, though the titular choirgirls are anything but traditional.

Writing about the reckless abandon of five convent schoolgirls from the Scottish countryside running riot in Edinburgh for the day, Warner earnt plaudits for his description of female angst and teenage rebellion, with the New York Times comparing him to literary icons such as Irvine Welsh and William S Burroughs. The adaptation of The Sopranos came about through the convergence of Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall and National Theatre of Scotland founding director Vicky Featherstone, who had both been harbouring desires to adapt the novel for some years. Together, they created Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, the winner of the 2017 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy which is currently enjoying a successful run at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Book Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour tickets here.

6.  Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot’s collection of poems about an adventurous group of alley cats may not be a novel like some of the other big-hitters on this list, but it does stands out as the only poetry on this list to have sparked a West End show. Written in letters to his godchildren, Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats formed the basis for one of the West End’s longest running musicals, Cats.

During its 21 year tenure on the West End stage, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s furry fantasia brought to life the mischievous, mystical and mesmerising tale of the Jellicle tribe of cats, introducing us to a feline frenzy of characters including the magical Mr Mistoffelees, the rambunctious Rum Tum Tugger and the geriatric and greying Grizabella. Eliot’s knack for elaborate and fanciful names is undeniably part of the show’s and poems’ charms (though we do suspect he rather phoned it in when he named a certain theatre cat ‘Gus’).

5.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

Woe is us, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be closing its run at the Gielgud Theatre this week having been a wonder of the West End for the past 5 years. Since 2012, audiences have been enthralled by the tale of Christopher, a young boy with autism who goes on an adventurous journey to solve the mystery of his neighbour’s murdered dog, and his own missing mother. The play was an instant success upon opening and went on to win seven Olivier Awards including Best New Play.

Mark Haddon’s original novel was a similar success story. The 2003 publication quickly became a cult classic amongst young readers, with audiences finding Christopher and his journey to overcome his social challenges an extremely heartfelt and empathetic story. Critics were highly favourable of Haddon’s work with medical professionals praising the handling and representation of such a delicate subject matter. If you didn’t manage to catch Curious Incident during its time in the West End, don’t fret, a national tour is scheduled to begin this month.

Book tickets for the UK tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time here.

4.  The Bible

In only their third theatrical venture, dynamic duo Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice decided to take on the ‘the greatest story ever told’ in their 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical began life as a concept album before becoming a fully-fledged stage show, premiering on Broadway in 1971 and opening at the Palace Theatre in London in 1972.

The Broadway show attracted controversy for its revisionist sympathetic view of Judas and some found claims by Rice that Jesus was ‘simply the right man at the right time at the right place’ to be blasphemous. This didn’t stop it from going on to claim the title of longest running musical in West End history by 1980. Of course when the source material is the greatest selling book ever, it’s not hard to imagine the musical adaptation becoming a success as well.

Book tickets for Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre here.

3.  Les Misérables 

by Victor Hugo

I’m sure I’m not on my own when I say that Les Miserables seems to have been a perpetual feature of the West End landscape in my lifetime. The hit show had its London premiere in 1985 at the Barbican Centre and hasn’t stopped running since. In the past 32 years it has completely transformed the theatre scene, establishing its dominance as master of the house with very few empty chairs and creating the subculture of the ‘megamusical’. Les Mis has played over 53,000 professional performances and is the world’s longest running musical, with over 70 million people across the globe having bought tickets to hear the people sing.

However, the stage sensation began life as a novel by Victor Hugo, published over 100 years before its theatrical birth. Documenting life of the little people in revolutionary France, Hugo’s behemoth of a book is one of the longest ever written, with the original French version spanning nearly two thousand pages. Despite poor reviews on its initial publication (a lot of people seemed to look down on it), the themes Hugo tackles in this epic – which include ‘the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night’ – remain pervasive in modern life. Expect to see Les Mis enduring on our stages for a long time to come, always going on one day more.

Book tickets for Les Misérables here.

2.  Matilda

by Roald Dahl

Perhaps Britain’s favourite RAF-fighter-pilot-turned-children’s-author, Roald Dahl left a legacy that has proven to endure some twenty years past his death. With classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and The Witches all becoming major motion pictures, the transition of the great writer’s work from book to screen to stage was not unexpected.

So roll on November 2010 when the RSC premiered a new musical based on everyone’s favourite pre-teen witch, Matilda (obviously Sabrina is the best teen witch). Already a cult icon of children’s cinema, the incredible pairing of playwright Dennis Kelly with comedian/musician Tim Minchin brought Dahl’s work to life in a new medium, stunning audiences, transferring to London’s Cambridge Theatre and picking up seven Olivier Awards, a record for a single show. Matilda The Musical's record has since been eclipsed by a certain boy wizard and his magical mates. 

Book tickets for Matilda The Musical in the West End here.

Book tickets for the UK tour here.

1.  The Kite Runner

by Khaled Hosseini 

When Khaled Hosseini released his first novel in 2003, it took the world by storm. Two years after the US began their invasion of Afghanistan, The Kite Runner appeared on shelves, telling the story of a young Afghan boy named Amir and his friend Hassan and their journey growing up in a tumultuous period of history, experiencing the fall of the Afghan monarchy, Soviet military intervention, right up to the contemporary rise of the Taliban. However, rather than focusing on its contemporary backdrop, the novel’s themes of friendship, guilt and redemption transcended cultural boundaries and helped to propel the book to international fame.

The Kite Runner spent two years atop the New York Times bestsellers list and has become a stalwart of contemporary literature. Having already enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at Wyndham’s Theatre, The Kite Runner returns to the London stage at the Playhouse Theatre on June 8th for a limited run.

Book tickets for The Kite Runner here.

And there we have it! 10 literary greats found new life on the stage, but how many on our list have you read? Perhaps you have a favourite book that you'd like to see adapted for theatre? Let us know online by Tweeting us, and make sure you nip down to your local bookshop or library in the meantime to discover the next classic West End adaptation for yourself.

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