Theater haus

The writer of a gay cult classic outsmarted Hollywood 20 years ago; now he’s cashing in

The list of Broadway musicals adapted from films is extensive: Newsies, School of Rock, Waitress, Legally Blonde, Hairspray, The Producers, Billy Elliot and Spamalot just to name a small handfull.

And soon another film, which just so happens to be a dragtastic cult favorite, may get the Broadway treatment: Douglas Carter Beane is adapting his 1995 film To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar into a musical.

The Tony-nominated Beane already has some major Broadway writing credits, Xanadu and Sister Act among them. So it’s only natural that he’d want to bring To Wong Foo to Broadway.

But here’s the ingenious part:

He already owns the stage rights for the film, a fact that shines a light on how the entertainment industry has changed.

When the film was produced in ’95, movie studios had virtually no interest in stage rights. But Beane, coming from a theater background, saw the potential. So he asked for them.

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“I think they thought that was endearing,” he told the NY Post. “‘Isn’t that sweet? He likes to do wood carving, too.’ So they patted me on the head — and gave them to me.”

Nowadays stuidos keep a lockdown on stage rights, hoping to repeat the box office gold of shows like The Lion King.

Twenty-three years later, the success of shows like Hedwig, Kinky Boots and La Cage aux Folles–not to mention the wild television success of RuPaul’s Drag Raceindicates mainstream audiences aren’t scared so easily by drag.

And the story was always meant for the stage to begin with, Beane adds:

“I was a struggling writer trying to break into the theater,” he says. “I was working as a nanny in Brooklyn, and every time the family went on vacation, I’d write a play. I started working on ‘To Wong Foo’ but couldn’t figure out how to put a car onstage. So I turned it into a screenplay instead.”

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With his husband, Lewis Flinn, writing the score, and Beane directing, the show is already ready to be workshopped in front of an audience.

“The songs are very Americana by way of Aaron Copland,” says Beane. “There’s an opera vibe to it, and it’s very open-hearted.”

To Wong Foo centers around three New York drag queens (In the film they’re played by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo) who travel cross-country to compete in a drag pageant. As they stop off in small towns across America, they are challenged by racism and homophobia.

Julie Newmar, Naomi Campbell, Joey Arias, Candis Cayne, Coco Peru, Hedda Lettuce, Lady Bunny, Quentin Crisp, Jose Sarria, Robin Williams and RuPaul (as Rachel Tension) all make cameos in the film.