Gregory Madden and Zach Livingston Credit: Suzanne Plunkett

Big media companies have long since figured out that they can extend the profitability of their film assets by turning them into stage shows. Disney alone has recycled properties from Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin. We’ve seen theatricalizations of Kinky Boots and Shrek, School of Rock and Once. Hairspray and The Producers both started out as movies, transmuted into musicals, and then morphed back into movies. A scored version of Groundhog Day will premiere at London’s Old Vic this year.

Sometimes the makeover makes aesthetic sense, sometimes not—but it doesn’t really have to as long as the economic argument is sound.

A live iteration of Midnight Cowboy is a whole different story. It’s got everything working against it from a commercial point of view, including the bleakest settings, direst situations, and saddest ending this side of Son of Saul. Even plague-riven Rent has its Christmas-miracle finale; if you’ve seen John Schlesinger’s classic 1969 movie version of Midnight Cowboy, you know how poorly it would lend itself to snappy production numbers.

So the motives behind Chris Hainsworth’s stage adaptation must be artistic.
Hainsworth evidently believed he could reveal something new by going back to the James Leo Herlihy novel that inspired Schlesinger’s film and teasing a play out of it. He succeeded, too, after a fashion: we definitely get a different Midnight Cowboy than the one we know. But the overwhelming effect of Lifeline Theatre’s world-premiere production is to demonstrate just how smart Waldo Salt’s Academy Award-winning screenplay was. And what a bad idea it can be to mess with Salt’s approach.

Both onscreen and in the book, Midnight Cowboy is the tale of Joe Buck, dim bulb and lost soul, who leaves the American southwest to make his fortune as a cowboy gigolo in New York City—where, he reasons, rich ladies will pay high prices for sex because all the local guys are “tutti-fruities.” Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Joe’s first big-city assignation actually loses him money, and it’s mostly downhill from there, until he finds himself hanging out in Times Square among the other Marlboro Man hustlers, getting blown for pay in sticky-floor porn houses.

Along the way he meets Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, a sickly but resourceful gimp nicknamed Ratso against his will. Ratso’s dream is to spend his next winter in Miami, living on sunlight and coconut water (oddly prescient of him, considering the current energy drink fad). Here too, results fail to meet expectations. Ratso and Joe room together in an unheated squat as the cold weather sets in and Ratso’s health looks to be the only thing going south.

Salt’s screenplay takes a quick eight or ten minutes to introduce Joe Buck, sketch out his demons and delusions, and get him to Manhattan. From there it’s only a couple scenes more before our hero is sitting in a bar, getting befriended by Ratso. Hainsworth and director Christopher M. Walsh declare their fidelity to the novel, on the other hand, by devoting the first hour of a two-and-a-half-hour show to Joe’s psychic biography. Sure, we learn some interesting things. Salt, for instance, eliminated a character named Perry from the film; here, he’s not only been reinstated but looms as a great and terrible force in Joe’s life. Likewise, a lowlife preacher who merits only a set piece in the movie grows into a kind of guardian angel in a bathrobe. Indeed Hainsworth and Walsh go a long way toward putting an imitation-of-Christ spin on Joe’s travails.

The problem is that, for all they do to explain Joe’s state of mind, these resurrected elements all but kill the play’s dramatic flow. Things only get going when Joe and Ratso start moving toward their shared tragedy. Hainsworth and Walsh don’t arrive at that point until their second half; Salt and Schlesinger, wisely, made it the foundation of the entire, propulsive movie.

And didn’t lose a thing by it, either. Whatever is made explicit in Hainsworth’s adaptation still manages to resonate powerfully through Salt’s script even though it’s never mentioned.

Zach Livingston has his strong moments as Joe, as does Adam Marcantoni as Ratso (though he seems awfully clean for a man living inches from the street). But the really vivid performances belong to supporting cast members—particularly Megan DeLay, Patrick Blashill, Jack Miggins, and Heather Smith—in multiple roles. v

This story has been amended to reflect the correct name of cast member Patrick Blashill.