'It's a Wonderful Life' to be given the 'Jerry Springer' treatment

It is regularly voted one of the world's favourite films and was number four in Channel 4's poll of tear-jerkers last weekend, with its heart-warming story of a good-hearted man who is saved at a moment of crisis by the community he has selflessly served.

It is regularly voted one of the world's favourite films and was number four in Channel 4's poll of tear-jerkers last weekend, with its heart-warming story of a good-hearted man who is saved at a moment of crisis by the community he has selflessly served.

Now It's a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra movie starring James Stewart, is being turned into a £7m West End musical by Jon Thoday, the producer behind Jerry Springer - The Opera, and Steve Brown, the writer of the award-winning musical, Spend Spend Spend.

There is as yet no cast, no theatre and no opening date for the venture. But since the two men dreamt up the idea 19 years ago and spent years battling for the rights to put the story on the stage, they are intent on getting it right.

The first major step forward to a premiere came yesterday when, after just a week of rehearsals, a cast of two dozen singers staged a workshop of the music in London for a select audience of theatre owners, potential investors and friends such as the comedian Harry Hill.

Asked afterwards whether he thought he had a West End hit on his hands, Mr Brown said: "I just wish there was another word for 'West End hit'. But I do think we have a show that a lot of people will want to go and see for a long period of time. [Even now] I don't think there are any glaring mistakes."

The idea came to them in 1986, before Mr Thoday had founded Avalon, the comedy management company that made his name. He was encouraged to see a musical based on the 1960 film, Elmer Gantry, written by Mr Brown for the Chichester Festival. "I really loved it and it got really good reviews and I thought maybe we could do this in the West End. This was when I was trying to be a theatre producer," Mr Thoday said.

The plans foundered because of problems with the rights, so they began casting for a similar subject and struck upon the 1946 Capra movie, which was itself based on a short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip van Doren Stern. "At that time I was 25 and no one would sell me the rights, but I carried on over the years," Mr Thoday said. "Then Steve wrote Spend Spend Spend which won awards, and once that happened, things started to free up."

Spend Spend Spend, the true story of Viv Nicholson, a pools winner, opened in 1999. It won two Olivier awards and the Evening Standard award for best musical. Stephen Sondheim expressed his admiration for the work.

With greater clout than before, Mr Thoday bought the rights to The Greatest Gift from Van Doren Stern's family, to make it impossible for anyone else to write the musical, and mounted another bid for the film rights so they could use the title. The film rights, which were owned at one stage by the television mogul Aaron Spelling, were now in the hands of Paramount which agreed to hand them over five years ago.

Over the past couple of years, the musical has come to life in the hands of Mr Brown working with the librettist, Matthew Francis. Earlier drafts were performed by students in workshops last summer before its unveiling to the small, select audience yesterday.

The reaction seemed largely favourable, although as one member of the audience pointed out privately, it was a story that could scarcely fail. "[The film] is such a brand," he said.

The aim is to stage the work as a full-scale blockbuster show, even including the swimming pool into which the hero, George Bailey, and his future wife, Mary, fall during a dance.

"It will be a huge show," Mr Thoday said. "This is just the beginning of raising the money, though people seem very excited about it. But we need to make sure the show is right first. If a show is good, it ought to work just sung through. If you go and see Oklahoma! sung by amateurs, it's still a good show."

Although It's a Wonderful Life is much-loved, Mr Thoday feels sure it will provoke nothing like the ire and controversy that surrounded Jerry Springer. "There's not a single swear word and it won't upset anybody. It's got a fan base but people will be wondering how it might be as a musical," he said.

It will be hard to shake off the shadow of the original. Paul Thornley, the actor who took the lead role of George Bailey in yesterday's workshop, admitted that when he told his friends what he was doing this week, they all asked "Are you Jimmy Stewart?". But he said: "It's something new that serves the original story well."

FROM (BIG AND SMALL) SCREEN TO STAGE

Saturday Night Fever

The movie (1977) made John Travolta a star but soon seemed horribly out of fashion. The soundtrackfound a new home two years ago in a stage musical. It is now back in the West End after a popular UK tour.

Fame

It was a film (1980) that became a television series before being a stage musical which has run in the West End for a decade.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Originally a musical film (1968) based on the Ian Fleming story. Adrian Noble, who took a sabbatical from the Royal Shakespeare Company to direct the London stage version, garnered glowing reviews.

The Producers

The Mel Brooks film (1968) was a huge success when adapted as a Broadway musical. The show has had a similar reception in London.

The Lion King

Many thought Disney mad when itput its animated story (1994) of African animals onthe stage. But it was a success on Broadway in 1997, and later in London.

The Full Monty

The film (1997) of unemployed strippers was a surprise world hitand was turned into a highly acclaimed musical in the US. The London transfer was less successful.

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