Is Broadway crazy to take on Almodóvar?

A new stage version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown could be a musical too far, says Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Culture

These days every second show coming to a stage near you seems to be an adaptation of a film.

In recent years we've had Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Sister Act and Legally Blonde, while the much-hyped musical version of Spider-Man finally arrives on Broadway in December.

But before that, New York audiences have a very different treat on offer when a musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opens at New York's Lincoln Center on 4 November.

Fans of Almodóvar's breathless tale of obsessive love and the wrongs men do to women might initially be somewhat surprised at the decision to turn it into a musical. The Spanish director's films are not only suffused with Spanish culture and beliefs, but also imbued with a distinctive, immediately recognisable vision. When you watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown you are not just watching a film set in Madrid; you are watching a film set in Almodóvar's Madrid, a hyper-real, almost cartoonish place, yes, but one that it's hard to drag your eyes away from.

How then can you possibly translate this candy-coloured world from screen to stage without destroying the very atmosphere that makes it come alive? While there are certainly precedents for this sort of thing – the stage version of Nine, for example, adroitly melds the spirit and feel of Federico Fellini's 8 to the pizzazz of a Broadway extravaganza – there have been some notorious flops, from Nick and Nora, which ran on Broadway for a mere nine performances in 1991, to the recent disastrous attempt to bring a musical version of Gone With The Wind to the West End.

On paper Women... should be more Nine than Nick and Nora. The strong female cast includes the gloriously diva-esque Patti LuPone and her scene-stealing former Gypsy cast-mate Laura Benanti. The director, Bartlett Sher, was the man behind the critically lauded South Pacific revival, while the men in charge of the music and book, David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, made their names with a Tony-winning adaptation of another light-hearted movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Add to that the fact that of all Almodóvar's films Women is perhaps the most Broadway in feel – a manic homage to Doris Day musicals with a near-farcical plot and a very theatrical tone. As the director himself recently told The New York Times: "I wrote the script... thinking that it would seem like a film adaptation of a non-existent play."

Yet a strong cast and crew is not always a guarantee of success; Nick and Nora had a book by the great Arthur Laurents, the librettist for both West Side Story and Gypsy, while none other than Trevor Nunn directed Gone With The Wind.

And so it is that, despite Almodóvar's close involvement with the production (he attended workshops with the cast and has given the show vocal support), the vultures have already begun circling, with theatre websites buzzing with tales of set malfunctions, a convoluted book, and an over-stuffed big-name cast, some of whom reportedly struggle to make the required impact.

A thread on website has attracted over a thousand posts with reactions ranging from the mildly enthusiastic – "It's not perfect, or even a great musical, but it was a good deal of fun", "It's a sweet little musical about strong, adult women" – to the brutal – "an abomination", "a complete mess, I feel sorry for the actors".

That said, Sher is notorious for working through problems during the preview period, improving and tweaking as he goes along, making it entirely possible that the show that eventually opens will be very different from that seen in previews.

Certainly Yazbek remains convinced that the $5m musical will be a hit despite the naysayers: "I probably won't stop being scared until we've opened properly," he admits. "But Jeff [Lane] and I struggled for two years to get the rights for this show and it's been such a thrill to work with Pedro's material. I honestly think that this is the best work we've done in our careers."