Mrs. Doubtfire and how to make the screen-to-stage approach work

“Mrs. Doubtfire” holds a place in my heart. It was the first PG-13 movie I saw and I remember having to call my mom to ask permission to watch it at a sleepover. And to be honest, it is challenging to go to a Broadway show based on an iconic, beloved film without that shadow of skepticism in the back of my mind. Despite my best efforts, something inside of me just whispers, It won’t be as good, before the curtain even rises. 

The screen-to-stage trajectory is almost more common nowadays than premieres of new works (on the main Broadway stage, at least). And in this day and age, it makes sense to attract audiences with recognizable stories they already know and love. So many shows have taken up this method…Sister Act, Young Frankenstein, Rocky, Mean Girls, Shrek, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, Beetlejuice, School of Rock, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge, Billy Elliot, Bullets over Broadway, Spamalot, pretty much every Disney production that’s out there…this list could go on forever. While it seems like a straightforward transition—from hit movie to sold-out Broadway spectacular—I argue that reimagining a classic film in musical form is significantly harder. Sometimes I’ve even felt like a musical adaptation actually makes me love the original movie a little less. When a story already works so well without song and dance, these additions often feel like exactly that—additions, inserted somewhat awkwardly into the story, wowing the crowd with triple pirouettes, jazz hands, and catchy refrains that don’t do much to further the plot or the depth of the main characters. 

This notion has been phrased hundreds of times, but I appreciate Rob Marshall’s take; “When movement isn’t enough, you dance, or when speaking isn’t enough, you sing. When it’s organic, and it’s earned like that in a musical, that’s when it works, and then there’s nothing like it because it’s this thing that takes you to a whole ‘nother level, you know?” To me, this is the key formula for successful screen-to-stage shows. And it’s a very tricky one to get right…Honoring the integrity of the original film while breathing new and meaningful life into a musical re-telling. Some shows get it right: Waitress, The Producers, Legally Blonde, The Lion King, and Matilda come immediately to mind. And Mrs. Doubtfire gets much closer than I had anticipated.

While the new musical doesn’t reach the pedestal of the original 1993 film, it does a strong job at honoring the movie, captivating new and younger audiences, and still entertaining familiar fans. The memorable lines (The WHOLE time?!) and iconic scenes (dancing with the vacuum cleaner) were all there but felt organic and unforced. The costuming and on-stage dressing and undressing were remarkable (and oddly not nomination-worthy…?), the contemporary updates and jokes were engaging, and Rob McClure’s charm, energy, and arsenal of voices did great justice to both the role of Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire and its genius originator, the late Robin Williams. And while the show was bigger and bolder than the movie in many ways (as stage productions naturally have to be in order to translate the tiniest, most intimate moments to the back of the top balcony), it still illustrated the vulnerability and sincerity of a father’s enduring love for his children. 

When it comes to Broadway shows, I have come to really appreciate choreographers who can adapt so seamlessly to whatever project they’re working on. Lorin Latarro is one of those artists, along with Christopher Gattelli and Kelly Devine to name a few others on the scene right now. The choreography is not so stylized that it is immediately associable to a particular creator. Nor does the subject matter or casting of the show necessarily call for a particular aesthetic. Those qualities are certainly not bad by any means. But I do think it says a lot about a choreographer’s versatility when they can cater exactly to what works for a show without having the dancing upstage or counterbalance the story. Don’t get me wrong…The dancing needs to be good! But when the elements of a show—however remarkable—are so disparate (book, music, costumes, choreography, casting, lighting design, etc.), they aren’t able to come together to produce something greater than each individual part. 

In Mrs. Doubtfire, everything works together to elevate the story. You leave the theater touched by the story…And then your mind jumps to recall specific production numbers, jokes, or lyrics—the Riverdance of a hundred Mrs. Doubtfires, the magical musical cooking scene, the Flamenco dance of doom. When a movie is so beloved, a screen-to-stage ‘revival’—though arguably never as good as the original—succeeds if every artistic element comes together to elevate the story. Latarro’s work does just that. Mrs. Doubtfire truly has almost everything one could want in a family-friendly Broadway show: humor, sentimentality, quick change magic, many styles of dance, big production numbers, intimate ballads, a familiar story, and a much-needed short escape from reality.

Though the house wasn’t quite full even in its final week of performances, there were people of all ages scattered throughout the audience. Mrs. Doubtfire is truly fun—and topical—for the whole family. It’s a shame that this production (and so many others) had to fight against such a challenging two years. But I have no doubt that Mrs. Doubtfire will live on—on tour and beyond—bringing just a little more laughter, joy, and hope to all our lives.

**I must also add that the Saturday matinee I attended would have been canceled (along with the entire final week of performances) had Jake Ryan Flynn (who originated the role of Chris but hadn’t performed it for nearly 6 months) not stepped in to save the show at the last minute. We all know the phrase, The show must go on. But that only happens when people step up to the challenge and ‘do the damn thing’ as if nothing happened. The swings and covers are truly why Broadway is still alive today. So, remember the next time when you get a little leaflet in your program, that somebody saved the show so that you could experience it.


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