This musical was based on a powerfully honest film that perfectly captured the feel of its setting and featured a slate of classic songs like “Lookin’ For Love”, “Could I Have This Dance?”, “Lyin’ Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. The original film was, in fact, one of the very few of the Eighties movement of pop-flavored movie musicals to still hold up well to this day, but the stage musical based on it was almost universally agreed to be an unmitigated disaster.
What went wrong? Well, the two leading performers were solid and appealing, and the songs retained from the film work well enough, but the songs written for the stage show are generally weak, with even the ultra-talented Jason Robert Brown contributing clinkers like “Mr. Hopalong Heartbreak” (‘Mr. riggity-righteous, Mr. tiggity-tough’). The truckload of interpolations from semi-contemporary country music (such as Brooks and Dunn’s “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie”) are, for the most part, better songs, but the fact that none of them have anything to do with the story is a serious liability. Even the film’s songs, fine as they are, aren’t integrated into the story as seamlessly as the songs in, say, Saturday Night Fever, so they make a much less convincing transition into integrated theater songs.
On top of that, these undramatic songs are so numerous they practically bury the book, leaving little time for actual dialogue. Said book, meanwhile, is trying to have it both ways, alternating between raucous vulgarity and hackneyed sentimentality. The central couple are so patently unsuited for each other that it’s hard to care about their relationship, and the hero comes off as a thoroughly unlikable, hypocritical douchebag, who makes his entrance by bedding two women at once and who’s perfectly willing to go off and cheat on his love interest the moment he even suspects she might be doing the same to him.
Granted, all that happens in the movie, too, but the film was essentially a South-Western Saturday Night Fever, and its gritty honesty was far more compatible with the sometimes unpalatable characters than the stage version’s uncertain combination of titillation and romance-novel clichés. In fact, the stage book was written by Aaron Latham, co-author of the film’s screenplay, but that just serves to illustrate how much the film’s plot loses when divorced from the uncanny feeling of authenticity it achieves in its portrayal of the honky-tonk culture.
The show’s trashiness is emphasized by the raunchy choreography that fills the piece and by some desperately heavy-handed attempts at product placement for Budweiser that may be the most blatant example of that practice on Broadway since The Prince of Central Park. And the film’s climax, involving a wild ride on a mechanical bull, is severely unsuited to being done on a live stage, resulting in a disappointing and anticlimactic effect with all the dangerous elements toned down to keep the actors from blowing the scene and/or hurting themselves. This isn’t quite as blatantly insulting as the stage version of Saturday Night Fever, but it’s certainly not far behind it in terms of screwing up good source material.