Have you ever wondered how your favourite musicals came to be? Are they based on a true story, or a play, or a film? I knew Wicked and Les Misérables were both based on novels and, as an avid reader, I started to wonder what other shows started their lives as books. And so, I fell into a deep rabbit hole of novel-based musicals and am happy to have come out the other side with a nice little list for all of you!

Did you know that this early book illustration of Cosette by Émile Bayard served as the inspiration for the Les Misérables logo that we all know and love?

The King And I / Anna and the King of Siam

Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1951, The King and I has had successful productions all over the world. It is based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which in turn found inspiration from Anna Leonowens’ memoirs, during her time as governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam.


Though the original musical production was not on Broadway very long, the story found success through other mediums. Originally a 1945 novella by Colette, Gigi follows the story of a young, spirited girl living in Paris as she is groomed for her societal debut. In 1951, the novella was adapted into a play, starring Audrey Hepburn in her first principal role. In 1958, the film adaptation was released to tremendous success and won all nine Academy Awards it was nominated for.

Colette photographed by Henri Manuel

Anne of Green Gables

The musical of the little Canadian, red-haired braided orphan has been charming visitors of the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island since 1965. In 2014, it was recognized as the longest-running annual musical theatre production in the world by the Guinness World Records. But did you know its charming protagonist is based on the character from the 1908 novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery? In fact, the series has eight books, chronicling Anne’s adventures until she has children of her own. While the musical Anne of Green Gables stories her younger years, its sequel, Anne & Gilbert, covers the content in the middle books of the series.

Legally Blonde

Most people know that this flashy, pink musical was based on the 2001 movie starring Reece Witherspoon. But surprise! The iconic film was also based on a novel of the same name, written just earlier that year. Author Amanda Brown wrote Legally Blonde as an ode to her own personal experience as a blonde fashionista lawyer at Stanford Law School. She wrote the whole thing on pink paper with a furry pink pen and stood out because of it!

Fiddler on the Roof / Tevye and his Daughters

The 1964 musical tells the story of a Jewish family; head of the household Tevye, his wife Golda, and his five daughters, as they navigate life in the village of Anatevka at the height of Imperial Russia. The musical is based on a collection of eight short stories titled Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem. Originally written in Yiddish in 1894, they have been published and translated under many names, and together, make up the basic plot of the musical.

Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original Broadway production, 1964 [PD-US]

The Color Purple

Set in the southern United States in the 1920s, The Color Purple musical is based on the novel of the same name by Alice Walker and its film adaptation in 1985. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Walker the first black woman to win, as well as the National Book Award for Fiction. Controversially, it was placed on the American Library Association list of the 100 most frequently challenged and banned books from 1990-2019 because of the explicit violent and sexual content. In 2023, it was adapted once again into a new movie musical.

Fun Home / Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home tells the story of Alison Bechdel, a young lesbian trying to navigate life, love, and her relationship with her father. Written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, it is narrated by adult Alison using a series of non-linear scenes and vignettes. Differentiating from the rest, it is the only musical on our list whose source material is told through images and words. The graphic memoir it is based on, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was first released in 2006 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and was both a popular and critical success. It took Bechdel seven years to write it because of her slow and detailed artistic process. She took pictures of every scene before illustrating them, often using herself as a model and a digital camera.

Mary Poppins

Everyone loves a Disney blockbuster musical, and Mary Poppins is no different. Though most people associate the British nanny with the iconic Julie Andrews, she was not in fact, the first incarnation of the character. P. L. Travers thought up the practically perfect nanny in her series of eight books from 1934 to 1988, all chronicling her adventures with the Banks family. In 2013, Walt Disney Pictures released the movie Saving Mr. Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, which told the true story of how Walt Disney acquired the rights to the film from Mrs Travers.

South Pacific / The Tales of the South Pacific

The second on our list by Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific was a huge hit and ran on Broadway for a staggering 1925 performances. The musical is loosely based on James A. Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, which features a collection of short stories, all about the Pacific in World War II. Author Michener was stationed on Vanuatu Island as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy during the war and used his observations and experiences to inform his writing. Though characters were merged and simplified to better serve a musical format, the heart and story remain the same as its original source material.

The final tableau from the original production of South Pacific

The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County is a 2013 musical with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Though many are familiar with the 1995 film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, both the movie and the musical are based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Robert James Waller. The story follows an Italian war bride in 1965 Iowa, who falls in love with a National Geographic photographer shooting pictures of the famous covered bridges of Madison County. The novel is one of the bestselling books of the 20th century and was written in only 11 days. After he finished writing the book, Waller realized that he had perhaps based the protagonist of the story after his wife, whom she physically resembled.

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