By Don Leavitt
Believe it or not, the 1985 movie version of Clue is not the first theatrical adaptation of the classic Hasbro board game. Dare I claim that this distinction belongs to Riverview Junior High School in Murray, Utah? It was the winter of 1983. Our school had no drama program, so one of our English teachers got permission to hold an after-school club, “all eighth and ninth grade students welcome,” and once a week we met to engage in a series of acting and improv games. We weren’t a huge group, but we had fun, and the club was a safe place to just be.
We quickly discovered, however, that there are only so many times you can play theatre games like Park Bench and One-Word Story. By February, we were bored stiff of the same old games, and we begged our faculty advisor for something new. The following week, she obliged us.
“We’re going to act out the board game Clue,” she announced. She had written up a skeleton plot and added several characters to give everyone in the club a chance to play someone. In addition to the six main characters of the game, we also had a butler, a chauffeur, a police detective, and “significant others” for several of the main characters. Girls outnumbered boys in the club by nearly three to one, so all the character names were put in a bowl for us to draw out, and the only caveat was that we had to play whomever we drew, no trading and no complaining. This meant that boys might be playing a woman and girls might be playing a man. I played a hell of a good Miss Scarlett. Other than that, I really don’t remember much about our version, except that it was incredibly clumsy, and I’m pretty sure we never figured out which one of us was supposed to be the killer; but we laughed a lot and at the very least, preceded the film adaptation by about two years. Never underestimate the power of bragging rights.
I don’t honestly believe ours was the first attempt to act out Clue. It’s quite possible that some other theatre group somewhere had the same idea. It’s even conceivable that somewhere, sometime, someone hosted a Clue-themed party to much the same effect. It’s the mere fact that anyone, anywhere has ever dreamed of dramatizing a board game that is most fascinating. Of course, unlike most board games, Clue lends itself to playacting—can you imagine sitting through a three-hour musical production of Monopoly? —with its story-like, character-driven mystery and interactive gameplay.
Any discussion of bringing Clue to the stage must begin with the origins of the game and the ironic fact that the board game itself was inspired by actor-driven murder mystery parties of the 1920s and 1930s. The game was invented by Anthony E. Pratt, a British musician who, prior to the Second World War, made a career of playing piano for hotels and cruise ships. His idea, inspired by the popularity of Agatha Christie’s novels (particularly And Then There Were None), was sparked by the mystery parties he attended as a musician at country hotels, where part of the entertainment included mystery games involving actors and hotel guests playing characters trying to solve a murder.
Pratt loved these games and wanted to capture their essence in a simple board game that could be played at home. In 1943, Pratt and his wife, Elva, began designing the game (originally called Murder!), and applied for a patent on their design in 1944. In 1945, games manufacturer Waddingtons agreed to produce the game under the name Cluedo, a combination of “clue” and “ludo,” the Latin word for “I play.” In 1953, Waddingtons acquired the international rights and licensed the game to Parker Brothers, who changed the name to Clue for the American market; today, the international rights are held by Hasbro, and while the different versions have slightly different characters and rules, it continues to be known as Clue in North America, and Cluedo everywhere else.
The game proved to be wildly popular, so perhaps a film adaptation was inevitable. In 1985, filmmaker John Landis worked with producer Debra Hill and director Jonathan Lynn to develop the story; Landis created the film’s multiple ending concept and Lynn completed the script, giving him the sole writing credit.
Jonathan Lynn is an English stage and film actor, writer, director and producer. Born in Bath, Somerset, he studied law at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he participated in the Cambridge University Footlights Club revue, Cambridge Circus. His first West End stage appearance came in 1965, and from then on, he wrote and appeared in a number of British television sitcoms. His first screenplay credit was for 1974’s The Internecine Project, followed by the British classics Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. As a director, Lynn is best known for Clue, My Cousin Vinny (1992), and The Fighting Temptations (2003).
Although not critically or financially successful, Clue garnered an almost cult-like fan following that spawned everything from books to game shows in Australia and the UK; a five-part television miniseries that ran on American cable channel The Hub in November 2011; and stage productions that include a musical comedy that ran off-Broadway from 1997 to 1999, and a play version by Robert Duncan in cooperation with Waddingtons that debuted in 1985 and toured the UK until 1990.
The current version being produced this year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival “based on the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Sandy Rustin. Additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price” (taken from the script cover). It is unclear how much or exactly what additional content Foster, Price and Rustin contributed, but according to www.playscripts.com, the ultimate credit belongs to Rustin.
Sandy Rustin is an actress who has appeared on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Shumer and in numerous stage and improv shows. As a playwright, she created the musical adaptation of the 1988 MGM film Mystic Pizza, and has won awards for her plays Houston and Rated P for Parenthood. According to her website, Sandyrustin.com, the play broke box office records during its regional premiere and was named the “most produced play” of 2020. An accomplished voiceover actress, Rustin is the founding co-artistic director of Midtown Rep and is an advocate for the Cowden Foundation, a non-profit that raises funds for leukemia research.
Eric Price is a prolific writer, lyricist, director, and producer, best known for the Apple TV+ animated series Central Park. In addition to his contributions to Clue, Price has also written the lyrics and book for *The Violet Hour, Radioactive,*and his musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, among others. Price was the long-time assistant to director/producer Hal Prince and currently serves as an adjunct professor of musical theatre at Pace University. He is the co-founder of This MT Space (www.thismtspace.com), an online musical theatre education platform.
Hunter Foster is an American musical theatre actor, singer, librettist, playwright, and director. In addition to his contributions to Clue, Foster is best known for his award-winning performance as Bobby Strong in Urinetown and his Tony-nominated performance in 2003’s Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. Younger audiences may recognize him for his portrayal of Scotty on the ABC Family (now Freeform) show Bunheads (2012–2013), where he acted alongside his real-life sister, actress Sutton Foster. Not only does he have a writing credit on Clue, Foster also had the honor to direct its world premiere at New Hope, Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse in 2017 and is directing it this summer for the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
No matter what form it takes, Clue is an icon of not just American but global pop culture. As one reviewer of Clue noted, “Yes, it’s a play based on the classic board game. . . but more directly, it’s based on the 1985 movie version . . . that’s become a TV staple over the years and has developed a cult following. . . . The stage version is even sillier and cornier than the movie. . . . [It] isn’t a perfect murder comedy, but it’s got a dizzy, stimulating joy that makes it a whole lot of fun. It’s a game that’s definitely worth playing” (Tim Dunleavy, “Review: ‘Clue: On Stage’ at Bucks County Playhouse,” May 10, 2017; https://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2017/05/10/review-clue-stage-bucks-county-playhouse/).