SpongeBob SquarePants. Frozen. Mean Girls. Harry Potter.
Brand names all — projects with colorful, memorable characters that have made millions for their creators on television and movie screens.
And come a week from Sunday, competitors for American theater’s highest honors. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is considered the leading contender for Best Play honors at the Tonys. The other three are up for Best Musical — along with “The Band’s Visit,” itself a stage adaptation of an acclaimed 2007 film.
As a general rule, this isn’t surprising. Films and stage works have cross-pollinated for as long as there have been movie screens. There’s a film version of “King John” that dates to 1899; while what is widely considered the greatest screenplay in movie history, “Casablanca,” had its genesis in a less-than-successful stage play called “Everybody Comes To Rick’s.”
This year’s Tonys include not only the recent screen titles, but nods for others that began on stage and have had memorable film adaptations as well: “Angels in America,” “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel,” “Children of a Lesser God,” and “The Iceman Cometh.”
But what SpongeBob & Co. represent is something more calculated: An explosion of the trend that brings established franchises to Broadway to generate business.
It has some in the theater world worried that original works will be shuffled to the wings or eventually squeezed out by theaters booking familiar titles. Locally, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Shakespeare in Love,” quality shows both, found their way into the 2017 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
On the other hand, could the younger theatergoers attracted to names such as Harry Potter or Mean Girls catch the theater bug? Or will it prove out that this is just a passing fever brought on by exposure to pop culture?
If the latter is the case, what franchises might be mined next in search of gold? There isn’t a larger money-making machine at the moment than the world of superheroes, but a revival of “Man and Superman” would be bound to disappoint those showing up expecting a protagonist in blue tights and a cape flying over the stage.
Besides, that sort of athletic stagecraft is bound to be haunted by the memory of the notoriously troubled “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” — which, after a record-setting 182 preview performances, stunt malfunctions that led to injuries among performers and constant rewriting of both book and songs (written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, no less) — opened to mixed reviews and closed with reports of losses reaching $60 million.
If some producer wanted to swing for those fences once again, perhaps a better property would be the wildly comic “Guardians of the Galaxy,” with it’s tongue-in-cheek approach, a guild-nominated screenplay to build from, and a soundtrack steeped in familiar, fan-friendly songs.
It also has multiple characters for various audience members to grow attached to — specifically Groot, who (in both film incarnations) has proven to be one of the most charming presences in the super-universe.
At the other end of the spectrum, a would be superhero musical could go small — and it would be harder to find a better fit than 2017’s “Logan,” the minimalistic story that tells the theoretical end of “X-Men” alpha-dog Wolverine.
Focusing on three central characters on a dangerous journey, “Logan” has the cred of an Oscar-nominated screenplay and, in Hugh Jackman, a Tony-winning star who could serve as a natural bridge between film and stage audiences.
Personally (because I have a soft spot for cultural train wrecks), nothing for me could surpass a staged version of the infamous 1978 television musical “Star Wars Holiday Special” — which not only brought Luke, Leia and Han to the small screen, but found time to include parts for Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman and the reconfigured Jefferson Starship.
Leia even sings the lyrics (who knew?) to the classic “Star Wars” theme by composer John Williams — and (trust me) it sounds nothing like the version made famous by Bill Murray’s lounge-lizard act.
The theme to “Star Trek” also has lyrics — William Shatner once “sang” them at the Emmy Awards — but if someone were to boldly go where no theater producer has gone before, the obvious choice would be a straight play based on 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.”
Minimal staging, cheesy special effects, a heroic self-sacrifice are all in place, topped by the mano-a-mano duel between Kirk and KHAAANNNN! that ends with the villain emoting venom straight from Melville: “From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
If nothing else, a “Khan” production would assure a Tony in Costume Design for recreating the protruding pectorals of Ricardo Montalban.
Holiday shows are always draws and — in the slim and/or fat chance that the rights to “Star Wars Holiday Special” can’t be pried from the clutches of George Lucas — perhaps another film franchise that has spawned countless sequels could make its way to the stage.
I speak, of course, of “Die Hard” … which would bring all the elements we’ve discussed under one colossal R-rated tent (with a PG matinee available for the parents). You’d have to get the rights, however, from MCL Chicago.
The improv troupe that brings music and comedy live to its audiences and staged “Yippee Ki-Yay, Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical” back in 2014 — complete with a title song and another featuring villain Hans Gruber’s imploring instruction to “Shoot the Glass.”
So, you see? Sure it might feel like a step down from Broadway history to have SpongeBob SquarePants win a Tony … but it could always be worse.
In the meantime, I’ll sit here on this park bench, waiting for Groot.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, who spends every other holiday season on Kashyyk, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org