10 Banned Books That Found Their Way to Broadway | Playbill

News 10 Banned Books That Found Their Way to Broadway From Fun Home to Big River, many of Broadway's best plays and musicals started out as a banned books!

In honor of Banned Books Week, we're taking a look at ten books that made their way to the Broadway stage after—and in some cases, during—challenges to keep the books out of schools and libraries.


1. Fun Home, this year's Best Musical winner at the Tony Awards, started its life as a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. Due to its depictions of lesbian relationships, there have been efforts to keep the book out of classrooms and libraries as recently as this past August, when a group of freshmen students at Duke University refused to read the book, citing its "pornographic" content.

In April 2014, a similar controversy at the College of Charleston inspired the cast and creators of the musical adaptation of Fun Home to travel to Charleston for two special concert stagings of the production.

2. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck is a beloved classic of American literature, but that hasn't protected the work from encountering calls for the book's banning. It was banned and burned in some locations almost immediately upon publication, even while simultaneously becoming a best-seller. The novel's fictitious account of the very real Dust Bowl had many upset with what they thought were unfair depictions of American life. The book remains on lists of the most-challenged books even today.

In 1990, The Grapes of Wrath made its debut as a Broadway play, adapted and directed by Frank Galati. It went on to become the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 1990, and Galati received a Tony for his direction as well.


3. Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," like "Fun Home," has created controversy for its "sexual and social explicitness, and troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality," as a high school in Oakland, CA put it in 1984. Despite this, the book has become one of the most lauded in literary history, winning the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction along with a Pulitzer.

It was adapted into a successful film in 1985, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. Twenty years later, Broadway got a musical adaptation of The Color Purple with a book by Marsha Norman and a score by Allee Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray. LaChanze won a 2006 Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her performance as Celie. Next month, the first Broadway revival of the musical adaptation will arrive at the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre, starring Cynthia Erivo, Danielle Brooks and Jennifer Hudson, each making their Broadway debut.

4. Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" was controversial right from the start, and that's not any big surprise; the story concerns a 37-year-old professor who has a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Despite the controversial subject matter, "Lolita" achieved classic status fairly quickly.

The novel became a successful film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, in 1962. A Broadway musical adaptation was written by John Barry and Alan Jay Lerner (of Lerner and Loewe fame) entitled Lolita, My Love, but it closed in Boston during its pre-Broadway tour. In 1981, Edward Albee tried his hand at a Broadway play adaptation, titled Lolita, starring Donald Sutherland. It closed following a 12-performance run.


5. "Of Mice and Men," another Steinbeck classic, has faced at least 54 challenges since its publication in 1936 for allegedly "promoting euthanasia," "condoning racial slurs," "vulgar language" and being "anti-business," according to the American Library Association.

Nevertheless, Of Mice and Men appeared almost immediately on Broadway, opening in an adaptation written by Steinbeck himself in November 1937—it won the 1938 Drama Critics' Circle award for Best American Play. The stage adaptation was revived in 1974 in a production that starred James Earl Jones and Kevin Conway, and more recently in 2014 starring James Franco and Chris O'Dowd.

6. Richard Wright's "Native Son" was released in 1940. It tells the story of a 20-year-old African American man named Bigger Thomas who lives in Chicago's destitute South Side in the 1930s. Bigger ends up committing some pretty violent crimes, but Wright's novel depicts a systematic inevitability behind them. Its violence and language have kept it atop the lists of the most-challenged and banned books since its publication.

In 1941, Native Son became a Broadway play written by Paul Green and Richard Wright. Canada Lee starred as Bigger Thomas. It was nominated for a New York Drama Critics' Circle award for Best American Play, but lost out to Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine.

7. Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" takes place in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, a response to profound changes in how psychiatry was being approached in America at the time of its writing, 1959. Though it is considered by many to be a classic—Time Magazine named it one of the "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005"—it has also one of this country's most challenged and banned novels. According to the American Library Association, complaints have been made alleging that the novel "glorifies criminal activity" and promotes "secular humanism."


In November 1963, #One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became a Broadway play, adapted by Dale Wasserman and starring Kirk Douglas. Though it had a relatively-short run of 82 performances, a revival of the stage adaptation was mounted in 2001 starring Gary Sinise. That production fared somewhat better, winning the 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

8. You'd be hard pressed to find a better-loved American novel than "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but the Mark Twain novel of live on the Mississippi has nevertheless been controversial since its initial release. It's frank depiction and discussion of racial issues has been interpreted by some as vulgar, an interpretation that continues to cause challenges against the book being taught in schools even today.

The novel has received many film adaptations over the years, but it first made an appearance on Broadway in 1985, in a musical adaptation titled Big River. Written by Roger Miller and William Hauptman, the musical was a big success, running 1,005 performances and winning seven 1985 Tony Awards including Best Musical. In 2003, a production that was originally produced by Deaf West Theatre transferred to Broadway, winning a special Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. Like their current production of Spring Awakening, the production featured a mix of both deaf and hearing performers, all of whom used sign language throughout the performance.


9. "Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes, began in 1959 as a short story about a man and mouse who both have received experimental surgery to artificially increase their intelligence. Keyes expanded the story into a full novel in 1966. It has faced banning challenges frequently since then, usually in response to the novel's depiction of the main character's struggle to understand his sexual desires.

Charles Strouse and David Rogers adapted the novel into a musical in 1979, titled Charlie and Algernon. It played London's West End and starred Michael Crawford. It transferred to Broadway in 1980 with P.J. Benjamin taking over the lead, but the production had a brief run of only 17 performances.

10. Several of Stephen King's books have faced banning over the years, such as "Carrie," originally published in 1974. According to the American Library Association, complaints about the novel's language and "satanic killing" sequence have been responsible for the book's successful banning at several libraries and schools over the years.

Carrie also became one of the most infamous Broadway musicals ever produced shortly after it premiered in 1988. The musical adaptation, written by Dean Pitchford, Michael Gore and Lawrence D. Cohen, came to Broadway after a London production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It starred Betty Buckley, Linzi Hately, Charlotte d'Amboise and Darlene Love and played a five-performance run at the Virginia Theatre. Despite its brief tenure on Broadway, the show became a cult-favorite amongst musical theatre fans. Over 20 years later, a revised version of the show returned to New York, playing Off-Broadway in a production by MCC Theater. This new version of the show recently opened in Los Angeles, where it is scheduled to run through Nov. 15.

(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)

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