November 05, 2020

Give opera's regard to Broadway

Did you know that some Broadway musicals are based on operas? Just as opera takes inspiration from novels or plays, musicals can be influenced by the operas that came before them! Here are some famous examples of musicals that are based on operas, as well as some typically classical works that have been seen on the Great White Way.


Every musical theater fan knows the song “Seasons of Love,” but did you know the cult-classic Rent was loosely based on Puccini’s La bohème? While there are some characteristic differences between the musical and opera—mainly the setting of Paris in 1830 compared to New York City in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS crisis—the underlying theme of friendship and love throughout hardships reigns true in both.

Michael Fabiano and Maria Agresta in Lyric's 2018/19 La bohème.



Written by Tim Rice and Elton John, Aida (the musical) takes inspiration from Verdi’s Aida. While both are set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt and share the same characters, the musical incorporates a modern twist to the story and a happier ending. Verdi’s influence is felt throughout Elton John’s music to convey the tragic love story.

A scene from Aida during the 2011/12 Season.


Miss Saigon 

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon drew inspiration from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While Miss Saigon moves the setting from 1900s Japan to the Vietnam War, the overarching plot of love and heartbreak remains the same. Both Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon feature two heroines who face tragic circumstances, but ultimately sacrifice their lives to give their sons better opportunities with their respective fathers in America.

A scene in Puccini's Madama Butterfly from Lyric Opera's 2019/20 season.


Carmen Jones

Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones is the musical adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen. Bizet’s music was orchestrated for Broadway by Robert Russell Bennett, and the musical updates the setting to World War II-era America. The famous melody heard in “Habanera” from Carmen can still be found in Carmen Jones, but penned under the name “Dat’s Love” and sung in English. In 1954, Carmen Jones was also made into a legendary movie starring greats Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. Dandridge was the first African American actress to be nominated as Best Actress for this role.

Ekaterina Gubanova as Carmen in Lyric's 2016/17 Season.

Moulin Rouge

Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top movie musical Moulin Rouge (2001) became a Broadway and touring musical, and shares strong parallels with Verdi's La traviata. The story of Satine, a Parisian showgirl and courtesan with a heart of gold, who falls in love with Christian, but their affair is doomed for many reasons  not the least of which is her illness with consumption  won Academy Awards and critical acclaim. It's definitely not hard to imagine Verdi's Violetta entertaining guests with a rendition of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in another time.

Lyric's production of La traviata during the 2018/19 Season.

Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess was adapted from DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play Porgy. Along with writing the novel Porgy that the play was based on, DuBose and Heyward also penned the opera’s libretto. Famous songs like “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” and “Summertime” are classic hits that have been covered by musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby. Houston Grand Opera was the first American opera company to tackle Porgy and Bess. Their production won a Tony Award in 1976, making it the only opera ever to receive the award. The production went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 1978.

Eric Owens and Adina Aaron in Lyric's Porgy and Bess, 2014/15.  


Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is an operetta based on a novella with the same name written by Voltaire in 1759. First performed in 1956, the operetta was not met with much success. But in 1989, Candide was revised, revived, and achieved more popularity. Kristen Chenoweth famously performed the operetta’s hit song “Glitter and Be Gay” in a 2004 concert production with the New York Philharmonic, which is a favorite among sopranos. Along with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim also had a hand in helping create the libretto for Candide. The pair also famously worked together on West Side Story. And if you were lucky enough to catch it, Lyric presented Candide in 1994!

Lyric's production of Candide during the 1994/95 Season.

Header image: A scene from Lyric's 2014/15 Porgy and Bess. (Todd Rosenberg)

Photos: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dan Rest, Todd Rosenberg