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Bestselling Books That Became Broadway Bashes

The Great White Way is chock full of productions with origins in literature. In some cases, the stage telling has eclipsed the written version as the cultural mainstay, while others struggled to capture the magic of their paper counterparts. In rare instances, both novel and musical are considered equally brilliant, even if there have been significant changes made between book and Broadway. Here are five musically-minded manuscripts, each beloved in their own right, that acted as the basis for smash hits on Broadway and beyond.
 
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The story of orphan Oliver, who runs away from the workhouse only to be taken in by a den of thieves, shocked readers when it was first published. Dickens's tale of childhood innocence beset by evil depicts the dark criminal underworld of a London peopled by vivid and memorable characters - the arch-schemer Fagin, the artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the loving Nancy. In Oliver Twist, Dickens created an entirely new kind of fiction, scathing in its indictment of a cruel society and pervaded by an unforgettable sense of threat and mystery. The musical, Oliver!, premiered on Broadway in 1962 with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart and was later adapted into an Oscar winning film six years later. I first saw Oliver! as a high school drama performance when I was in fifth grade, and it sparked in me both a desire to perform one day and to read the classic novel on which it was based. I accomplished both of these when I joined that same high school drama club four years later and it’s been a fine, fine life ever since.
 
Les Misérables by  Victor Hugo
Jean Valjean - noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread - has become one of the most famous characters in literature since the original publication of Les Misérables in 1862. Now considered one of the greatest novels of all time, the story takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immersing them in a battle between good and evil. Within Jean Valjean’s dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. A phenomenally successful musical premiered in Paris in 1980 and on Broadway seven years later, going on to become one of the most successful musicals in the business, with tours and productions around the world and two revivals on Broadway since the original run. The novel is thick as a brick, to be sure, but once you’re invested, the pages will fly by and all you’ll want is one day more with these flawed, beautiful characters.
 
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Christine Daaé, a dancer at the Paris Opera House, has been raised there since the death of her father, a famous musician. Christine begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine's childhood friend, Raoul, comes to see Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. The voice, who is the deformed, murderous "ghost" of the opera house, grows violent in his terrible jealousy and strange incidents at the opera escalate until Christine suddenly disappears. Whether love or obsession, the Phantom’s plans for Christine can only end in disaster. Leroux's work, with characters ranging from the spoiled prima donna Carlotta to the mysterious Madame Giry, has been immortalized by the musical adaptation, which has been performing uninterrupted on Broadway for 29 years, the longest running musical in history. Despite this, it remains a remarkable piece of Gothic horror literature in and of itself, deeper and darker than any version that follows. The musical is a fantastic production and listen for those of us that love the music of the night, but nothing can beat the novel for sheer terror and monstrosity, in all its myriad forms.
 
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil? Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that you can’t look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil. The smash musical that exploded into pop culture after its Broadway premiere in 2003 is incredible - it’s one of my favorites ever - but the novel is just as good in its own, unique and quirky ways. The first in a series dubbed the Wicked Years, this reimagining is political and shrewd, and Oz is treated quite seriously, though it doesn’t lose its luster. Maguire somehow manages to keep all the charm of the original Baum books and the classic 1939 movie in tact while still presenting Oz as an adult world with adult problems going on, and Elphaba smack dab in the middle of those issues. The novel doesn’t wrap things up as neatly as the musical, and there are a few extra faces on the page that didn’t make it under those heavy stage lights, but the heart of the story remains. And the brains. And the courage…
 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, The Color Purple focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number 17 because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence. As such, it is all the more reason to read this powerful, devastating, monumentally important book on which the Tony Award winning musical and the Oscar-nominated film (directed by Steven Spielberg) are based. The violence is graphic but never gratuitous. It is all done with purpose and never for the sake of exploitation. That being said, it does not make the book any less difficult to get through, or to properly review. Perhaps it is best then to avoid any further summary or attempts at recommendation. The Color Purple is one of those rare books that feels alive in your hands when you read it. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.