MASTERCLASS: From Dark to Somewhat Lighter or: “Why Do They Have to Change the Ending?” (Part I) – By David Spencer

In the business of adapting a source property from one medium to another, there are all kinds of reasons to change an ending—even a classic ending. And especially—especially—if you’re trying to remain faithful to the source material, which is among the biggest ironies. The change tends to go from a place that is unequivocally dark to a place that allows for light, or at least the hope of light. I’m going to tell you why that happens. And why that’s not done out of misplaced sentiment, or as a “sellout” for “commercial reasons,” but why it’s absolutely necessary.

Having introduced this subject header, I must already add a brief sidebar: I won’t—because I can’t—address the many adaptations that have simply been done badly; in which the adaptor(s) didn’t understand the sensibility and the tone of the original; and/or just monkeyed around with stuff to remake it in their own image for the sake of doing so. That kind of misguided, or self-serving—or at times just plain inept—adaptation has no place in this discussion because it’s a wild card and there’s no way to overview it coherently (notwithstanding perhaps pathologically). No I’m talking here about those of us who are charged or inspired to adapt something we love, to add our craft to it and share it with the world…in part because we hope the world will love it too.

Okay, back to the thematic spine (and more about that term soon): In most cases, this change of ending happens in the transition from novel to dramatization. This for the simple reason that in going from one dramatic form to another (play to film to video, etc. and interchangeably) you’re reconfiguring and retooling certain common elements.

Certainly there are differences: Film is basically a reportorial medium (even in abstraction, you’re seeing exactly what the filmmaker wants you to see); theatre is basically poetic (it has the flexibility to sidestep literal representation and solicit audience imagination to fill in what is only suggested or alluded to, and, even at its most literal, needs the audience to complete the experience); and video (the kind of event we used to think of as “taped for television”) can be a fascinating conflation of the two. But what’s shared are the utilization of actors and dramatic compression (the need to tell a story in a limited amount of time). And whether the source is a film or a play or a video, it’s almost always being adapted because in its original form, it affected watching audiences demonstrably enough that an adapter can begin work with a certain advance notion of “how it plays.” The adapter also begins with a property that was conceived to be observed. Whatever dramatic point of view he’ll hope to communicate, he’ll never actually get the audience inside the head of a character. What he’ll do is put his material through a prism that emphasizes a perspective; if he’s really good at it (and the material lends itself), that also includes subtext—rich details that are implied by dialogue and action that need not be explained or spelled out.

But a novel can take a reading audience into a character’s head. Moreover, the book gets into your head. It’s a dialogue, of sorts, between you and the author, in which he tells you what he wants you to know, and you draw upon your own resources to envision it, and your own experiences (or lack of same) for how keenly you feel it. There are untold dozens of other things at work too: rhythm, pace, style, the way a passage looks in print, narrative devices—third person omniscient, first person subjective, letters, news clippings, non-linear structure and others.

And then there’s the manner in which all those elements, skillfully employed, can gloss over plot holes; or present you with a character who isn’t truly filled out, but who so efficiently serves a purpose in the story that you unconsciously buy into an illusion of completeness (the “female lead” in a male-centric story can be amazingly under-developed; we’ll return to that too). These lapses aren’t intentional, and most times even the author isn’t consciously aware of them. That’s because, as an experience, a novel is a head-trip, totally a head-trip; and to some degree, even the most meticulously constructed linear narrative works on both writer and reader impressionistically. A writer “in the zone,” when the machine is working at full throttle, may correctly give over censoring scrutiny to inspiring energy; and as a reader, when you’re into that stage of turning the pages compulsively to find out what happens next, your critical faculties are down, because you’re engaged—and in pursuit of catharsis.

And there’s something else a novel doesn’t have to worry about.


The novelist may or may not have been saddled with a word count limit by his editor or publisher (many novels are created to fill a marketplace niche), but how he apportions those words between the covers in any given passage is up to him. He gets to follow his muse: to hew hard to the point, to dwell, to be discursive; and if there’s a passage that’s especially wonderful—or perish forfend, confuses—nothing stops the reader from backtracking and re-reading. Meanwhile, a dramatic adaptation, meant to be performed and watched, can only exist in relentlessly forward-moving time. No rewinding. It may (and ideally will) be so richly realized that there are new rewards when it’s revisited (on stage or via the eventual cast album or video), but it has to make clean, comprehensible, straight-through sense from start to finish first time out. Any kind of confusion or impenetrable convolution (sometimes a convoluted plot can be fun, as in a farce, so long as the audience can follow it) is the enemy, because it stops the audience moving in time with you. If they have to pause to think about something they’ve just seen, you have a perceptual logjam, and then you die a little death.

Let’s let those thoughts and concepts simmer for a while. This will all bring us to why endings change, I promise. Meanwhile…

Sidebar: If among your goals as an adapter is to honor the source material, the trick, in going from one venue to another—and from here on in, we’ll concentrate primarily on the journey from novel to musical—is to come up with an equivalent experience that feels at home in the new medium.

But in this context, equivalent is a funny word. Because it’s only rarely achieved in a literal sense; and only rarely should it be. The only good reason to commit to an adaptation is because something in the source material speaks to you, and resonates with something you need to express. So whatever else is true about craft, you’re bringing yourself to the party. Just because you’re adapting something faithfully does not mean you’re adapting it impersonally. Can’t be done. (My two favorite adaptations of Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, both created for television, are the 1962 animated musical Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol [book by Barbara Chain, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill] and the 1984 live-action film starring George C. Scott as Scrooge [teleplay by Roger O. Hirson, librettist of Pippin]. The first one has a this-is-a-Broadway-musical framework, a fairly substantial score for its running time, and clocks in at just over 51 minutes—an incredibly skillful compression. The second, a straight drama, expands upon the source, coming in at just over 101 minutes, brilliantly adding scenes and detail that seem to be drawn straight from the novella, but aren’t. Both adaptations take substantial liberties in terms of structure and selectivity and couldn’t be more different in their approach; yet both are also extraordinarily faithful in spirit—and in tone, even though each also has its own tone.) So add this to the matrix: The more you refine your adaptation, the more the piece becomes yours, because you become the prism through which it passes.

To continue:

An average-length novel (median page count hovering around 300) read aloud, if we go by unabridged audiobooks, takes up about eight or nine hours. Much of that contains the kind of description, embellishment, repetition (literal and implied) or incident that you don’t actually need to simply tell the story, which is why abridged audiobooks can be surprisingly effective, if trimmed artfully and carefully. Average running time for those: Three hours.

A musical theatre adaptation gets less time than that. Let’s say the announced butts-in-seats-for-curtainrise hour is 8:00pm. In NYC there’s a tacitly understood 7-minute delay before the show actually begins. Curtain rises at 8:07. Generally unions and management want audiences the hell outta the house by 11:00, so the curtain has to come down by about 10:45 at the latest. And a full-length two-acter requires a 15-minute intermission. So the maximum playing time of your show is about 2 hours, 20 minutes. Plus you have songs! And even in the most sophisticated of contemporary musical songwriting, in which narrative action is handed off from speech to song for small-to-very-substantial chunks of story, song time still moves more slowly than dialogue time, because song depends upon structural repetition to establish title ideas, melody, rhetorical & rhyme patterns, etc. (Ideally a song expands upon what’s called the event of the scene, giving it more breadth.) Effectively, then, depending upon the proportion of song-to-speech and the way the score works stylistically, you have between 90 minutes and two hours of practical storytelling time.

What makes it possible?

Discovering what your show is about—not plot-wise, but thematically; figuring out the dramatic spine.

One of the most famous anecdotes in the canon is the one about the creative team of Fiddler on the Roof. Jerome Robbins had agreed to direct the show, but told the writers he couldn’t begin unless the show had such definition. He kept asking “What is it about?” And the first answers were, “Well, it’s about this milkman and his five marriageable daughters,” which Robbins dismissed. That was the story, not the theme. It took several days of discussion—and remember, this is after the show had its first fully drafted script—before someone realized that each time he’d give his blessing to a daughter getting married, Tevye would have to reconcile breaking with another long-standing tenet of his culture. “My God,” that someone said, “it’s about the dissolution of a way of life; it’s about changing tradition!” At that answer, Robbins became very enthusiastic. He declared that to be “it” and bade composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick to go off and write an opening number called “Tradition”, which of course they did. And if you look at the finished show, you’ll note that every scene and every song is somehow an amplification of that theme. Anything that didn’t hew to that spine fell away from subsequent drafts.

Finding the spine, as that story demonstrates, can take some time. (This is why so many early drafts of musicals are so long; and why there are so many tales about classic musicals—in the days before workshops and staged readings and developmental networks—debuting in out-of-town, tryout venues with running times as long as four hours.)

Sometimes you hit the wall and discover you’re writing to the wrong spine.

But once you’re on the right track, the show naturally starts to tighten to a manageable shape, because with thematic unity comes concision.

Now I can talk about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz a little bit. And why endings change.

And I will, when you return for Part Two …


For more information about THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ at the Segal Centre in Montreal, please click here.

David Spencer-headshot 2

About David Spencer

Composer-lyricist-librettist: The Golden Calf (an adventure of Ostap Bender), in progress. Composer-lyricist: The Fabulist (book: Stephen Witkin); Theatreworks/USA’s The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables (book & direction: Rob Barron). Lyricist-librettist: Weird Romance(co-librettist: Alan Brennert), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (music for both: Alan Menken); Public Theatre La Bohème (music: Giacomo Puccini). Books: The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival GuideWeird RomanceAlien Nation: Passing Fancy. Awards: Kleban, Rodgers, Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla. Faculty: BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.


Please subscribe to our blog. Enter your email address on the top left side of the page and click “Follow” and sign up for our email list.

Visit for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.