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Original London Cast

Musicals based on books

Kitty Underwood

By Kitty Underwood First Published 5 March 2020, Last Updated 11 August 2022

If you love theatre, then at the heart of it all you love stories. Whether they’re sung, spoken or read, sharing stories is at the heart of so much that we do. And so many of the fantastic theatre productions that you know and love just wouldn’t exist were it not for the books that inspired or informed them!

So take a look at our round-up of some of the best musicals that you may or may not know are based on books!

Beauty And The Beast

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You may think that Disney’s newest musical to come to London is based on the film and that’s it, but not only is the film based on a book, but the book itself is based on a true story! Disney’s 1991 animated film is based on the classic French fairy-tale La Belle et la Bete, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in the 1700s.

But that story – which has seen other film adaptations, including the 1946 black and white film starring Josette Day – is actually based on real-life French nobility. Courtier Petrus Gonsalvus became famous for his hairy appearance which was a result of his congenital hypertrichosis, a condition which leads to excessive hair growth. His bride Catherine wasn’t told about his condition until their wedding day but – unlike the fairy-tale! – she didn’t bat an eye and the couple had a long marriage and several children.

Mary Poppins

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When you think of Mary Poppins, you might think of the classic Disney film that every generation seems to have grown up watching since it came out in 1964. People often forget about P.L. Travers, who invented the nanny we all know and love!

The Australian-British writer wrote eight Mary Poppins books in total, which were published between 1934 and 1988. In the books there are five Banks children – Jane, Michael, twins John and Barbara and baby Annabel, who’s born in the middle of the second book.

Bowral, P.L. Travers’ birthplace in Australia, beat the world record attempt for the worlds biggest umbrella mosaic in 2011, to celebrate the author. 2,115 people gathered to create a huge picture of Mary Poppins.

Matilda The Musical

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Matilda was one of Roald Dahl’s later books, coming out in 1988. It’s one of the most beloved children’s books worldwide, with sales reaching 17 million around the globe in 2018. Time magazine included Matilda in its list of the 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time, saying it ‘may be Roald Dahl’s most compelling read for young people’.

The book has inspired children all over the world to read more, and the musical from Tim Minchin and the Royal Shakespeare Company has been delighting children and adults at the Cambridge Theatre since 2011.

Les Misérables

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Did you know that Les Mis – before it was a musical, before it was a film, before you had One Day More playing in your head for weeks on end – was a book? Written in 1862, the book came not long after the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris that inspired the story. It was written by Victor Hugo, who also wrote The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame.

The book is darker than the musical – if you can imagine that. The Thénardiers do a lot more murdering and kidnapping, and throw out or sell their children – including Gavroche, who’s their son in the book. And apparently the deaths of the rebels are a lot longer and more torturous and bleak!

Phantom Of The Opera

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The story of Christine and the Phantom was originally printed as a serial over five months in French newspaper Le Gaulois in the early 1900s. So you’d have to wait for the next week to find out what happened in the dramatic tale!

It’s based on a real rumour about the supposed haunting of the Palais Garnier opera house in 1880s Paris. Known only as the Phantom of the Opera, the ghost was linked to a scary story going around about a real human skeleton being used in a ballet production and blamed for a real infamous chandelier crash.

The underground lake beneath the opera house, however, is entirely real, and is apparently used by firefighters to practice swimming in the dark!

Wicked

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Long before the Apollo Victoria Theatre was all lit up in green, Glinda and Elphaba existed on the page!

It’s a bit of a trick question – you might think it’s taken from the 1900 classic The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, but it is in fact based on the 1955 novel Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West. Written by Gregory Maguire, the book is a dark twisted revisionist look at the characters of The Wizard Of Oz.

It’s the first book in a series – often called The Wicked Years series – which included Son Of A Witch, A Lion Among Men and Out Of Oz, all written in the 2000s. The book – like the musical – turns ideas of good and evil on their head, and re-frames wicked witch Elphaba as a misunderstood girl living in a despotic kingdom under the evil Wizard Of Oz.

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