It’s hard to outfox a movie studio, but Broadway’s Douglas Carter Beane seems to have done just that.
The Tony-nominated playwright has long wanted to turn his 1995 cult movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” into a musical.
Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced the movie and Universal Studios distributed it. That would usually mean they’d control the prospect of all things “To Wong Foo” forever.
Except for one little detail.
Back then, before most studios thought about achieving into the theater business, Beane asked for the stage rights.
“I think they thought that was endearing,” he says. “‘Isn’t that sweet? He likes to do wood carving, too.’ So they patted me on the head — and gave them to me.”
Two decades later — after such Broadway smashes as “The Lion King,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Kinky Boots” — every studio in Hollywood is mining its back catalog for Broadway.
But “To Wong Foo: The Musical” belongs to Beane, who’s staging a workshop of the show this week. Not only has he written the script, but he’s directing, too.
“To Wong Foo” tells the story of three New York drag queens — Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in the film — who travel across America to compete in a parade. Along the way, they encounter racism, homophobia and sexism, but also make friends with some of the rednecks. Newmar makes a memorable came when she crowns the winner.
Beane says he originally wrote “To Wong Foo” for the stage.
“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 began working on ‘To Wong Foo’ but couldn’t find out how to put a car onstage. So I turned it into a screenplay instead.”
When his agent told colleagues that Beane’s script was about three drag queens on a road trip, one of them shook his head and said, “God, they don’t make it simple for you, do they?”
Produced on a modest budget, the film went on to gross $50 million. Meanwhile, Beane has written a slew of successful plays and musicals, including “As Bees in Honey Drown,” “Xanadu” and “Sister Act.”
Beane’s husband, Lewis Flinn, is writing the score.
“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.”
The cast for the workshop includes Daniel Breaker, Alice Ripley, Ann Harada and Annie Golden.
Santino Fontana is playing the Swayze role of drag queen Vida Boheme. Fontana’s also playing the lead in the upcoming Broadway musical “Tootsie.”
“Santino no longer does trouser roles,” says Beane. “His wife is thrilled.”
Beane and Flinn are also doing a workshop this month of another musical, “Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure,” which had a successful run in Dallas last year and is likely to open on Broadway next season.
Beane, who’s now Mr. Mogul, is directing that one, too.
“I am completely out of control,” he says with a laugh.