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From Stage to Screen

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When Andy told me to pick a topic that involves the relationship between stage and screen, I knew pretty quickly that I would write about some of my favorite film adaptations of stage musicals. That’s because growing up in suburban Cleveland, I got to see very little theatre. My love of musical theatre may have been born after seeing the national tour of Camelot at age eight, but it was nourished through cast recordings and movies based on Broadway shows. Here are 14 film adaptations that for one reason or another float my boat, in chronological order.

Show Boat (1936)
James Whale’s black-and-white film version of this 1927 Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece was completely unavailable when I was growing up. Oh, I could see MGM’s 1951 color remake on TV occasionally, and when it was broadcast my parents and I would usually watch it, as they were big fans of its star, soprano Kathryn Grayson. My mother would always torture me by saying that the 1936 version was infinitely superior, particularly due to the performance of Paul Robeson. She saw it in its original release, when she was a mere 14 years old. I wouldn’t get a chance to see for myself until years later, long after she was gone. If I remember correctly, I caught it at the Regency Theatre, a house that only showed old films, just a block from my Upper West Side home. As Hammerstein did the screenplay, it was more faithful to the original than MGM’s, and there were also a few new songs written with Kern for it, none of which were in the remake. Mom was right, both about it being a much better version and about Robeson. It was, alas, too late to tell her. There was never a soundtrack recording released, but you can hear stars Irene Dunne (who played Magnolia on Broadway in the original production) and Allan Jones duet on one of those new songs, the lovely “I Have the Room Above Her,” on Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities.

The King and I (1956)
By the time I saw this film in a cinema, in its 1966 re-release at age 12, I had long since memorized the score from the soundtrack LP. So I was very surprised when “My Lord and Master,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” were not included, as they were all on the soundtrack album. They hadn’t been there when I saw the movie on TV, but I assumed they had been cut to make room for commercials. Despite my disappointment, the blazing star performances of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (with a vital vocal assist from Marni Nixon that I wouldn’t find out about for years) and strong story swept me away. I think it’s one of only two Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations that work as well as their stage equivalents, perhaps in part because it is based on a screenplay (1946’s Anna and the King of Siam) and is set in a palace, allowing it to be shot in a studio and more successfully maintain a consistent level of stylized reality. If only they could find the lost footage of “Shall I Tell You…?” and insert it back into the film, it might be an almost perfect movie.

West Side Story (1961)
Book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim have over the years been vocal about their dislike of this film adaptation, but I think they should’ve considered themselves lucky to have such a fine translation of their work. The opening prologue plunges us immediately into a world where music, dance, and rhythm are the natural language of the film. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins employ elaborate studio sets that artfully recall reality while moving it forward a notch. Robbins rethinks his choreography for the screen brilliantly, capturing the essence of his stage work as he mixes it with more realistic actions and movements, making it seem at home on film. The directors elicit strong performances from their four leading actors, two of whom won Oscars. Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, and Sid Ramin treat Leonard Bernstein’s stunning music with painstaking love and care. Making “America” a battle between the male and female Sharks is an improvement (and returns the song to the way it was originally written), while the dramatic re-placements of “Cool,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “I Feel Pretty” allow for an unbroken rising line of dramatic tension necessitated by the absence of an intermission. Admittedly, the dubbing of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer is a drawback, but hardly enough of one to scuttle the overall effect. It’s a brilliant film. I only hope that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake can rise to the same heights.

The Music Man (1962)
This film succeeds by emphasizing its stage origins at every turn, right down to fading out the lights at the ends of scenes, which perhaps is no surprise, as its director, Morton Da Costa, also helmed it on stage. It’s a dangerous choice, but it works here. Da Costa makes the chorus of small-town Iowans a virtual leading character, gleefully embracing their presentational manner to the point that, during the establishing song “Iowa Stubborn,” he includes a shot of star Robert Preston sitting on his salesman’s trunk while watching the company as if he were an audience. The approach suits the proudly old-fashioned material, trumpeting its virtues as a square, corny, retrograde musical comedy and making it seem almost mythical. Heretic that I am, I prefer “Being in Love” to “My White Knight”; I think it makes Marian the Librarian a little more self-aware and a little less romantically overbearing. And the finale, in which the kids and townspeople instantly morph into a snazzy marching band and audience, is transformational, something that could only be done on screen. It’s the visual equivalent of the proud mother crying, “That’s my Barney!” when the ragtag band begins to play for the first time using the think system, and it lifts the proceedings to a new level. It, of course, plays under the credits, and whenever they roll, a tear always rolls down my cheek as well.

My Fair Lady (1964)
Alan Jay Lerner is on record as saying that none of the film adaptations of his stage work—all of which he was involved with as screenwriter and/or producer—were as good as the original. And, indeed, he won his two screenwriting Oscars for the original film musicals An American in Paris and Gigi, so perhaps his feelings are understandable. Nevertheless, I think director George Cukor gave him an elegant, sophisticated, and emotionally resonant film with My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway artfully recalibrate their stage performances for the screen, and the supporting cast—from Wilfrid Hyde-White to Gladys Cooper to Jeremy Brett—is unimpeachable. Audrey Hepburn does very fine work as Eliza Doolittle despite being mostly dubbed in the songs by Marni Nixon, who matches Hepburn’s acting choices admirably if not her vocal quality. No, Hepburn is not Julie Andrews, but casting Andrews was never in the cards. The stylization of the Ascot sequence is just right, as is the section when we see Covent Garden come to life in a series of frozen images that then suddenly burst into movement. I’ve seen My Fair Lady on stage many times in a variety of productions, including 1976’s Broadway edition that reproduced director Moss Hart’s original production, but the only one I’ve seen that equaled the film is the current Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher. There’s a reason the movie won the 1965 best picture Oscar: It’s very, very good.

The Sound of Music (1965)
This is the other R&H film adaptation noted above, and I think it actually improves on the stage version. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay scrapes off much of the operetta sugaring of Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse’s book, while his repurposing of the songs “My Favorite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd” uses them to better dramatic effect than on stage. The addition of “I Have Confidence,” a much-needed character-establishing song for Maria, is also a plus, though, alas, exchanging “An Ordinary Couple” for the equally bland “Something Good” is largely a wash. Making Baroness Schrader responsible for Maria’s choice to go back to the abbey adds an important scene to the story. Director Robert Wise’s thrilling opening sequence makes the location photography a crucial part of the mise en scène while also setting up the musical language of the film. Cutting the two comedy songs for Max and the Baroness is also wise. Characters on screen need greater permission to sing than they do on stage, and these are too peripheral to merit song time. Indeed, they register more strongly by not singing. Julie Andrews anchors it all with a mesmerizing star performance. Oscar Hammerstein II died, of course, before the film was made, but I have to think that upon its release he was smiling happily somewhere.

Camelot (1967)
Director Joshua Logan’s film version of Lerner and Loewe’s final Broadway show doesn’t get much love from film critics and cineastes, but I’m happy to stand up for it. I wonder if its bad reputation doesn’t stem in part from the fact that for many years you could only see it in a horribly butchered version that sacrificed cohesion for length. I saw the uncut roadshow release only once in a theatre, and it wasn’t before the film’s release on videocassette sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s that I was able to see it again. For his screenplay, Lerner actually returned to his first draft of the stage musical, which underwent a torturous out-of-town tryout during which a great deal was cut in an effort to lighten this tale of a bold attempt at civilization that founders on the rocks of adultery and betrayal. In particular, Lerner chose to tell the film in flashback, beginning with a scene of King Arthur and his troops awaiting the coming of dawn and war with Sir Lancelot. He had contemplated doing this on stage, in an effort to marry the lighter first act with the darker second, but the first act was playing so well that he didn’t have the nerve. (For later stage revivals, however, he incorporated it.) On screen Lerner finally successfully negotiates the story’s shift in tone. While Logan’s direction is sometimes heavy-handed, the film is bolstered by Vanessa Redgrave’s mercurial, sensuous, and stunningly beautiful Guenevere, while Franco Nero is a suitably dashing, quietly romantic Lancelot, finding unexpected depth in the character, especially in his speech about being a “fanatic.” Richard Harris is an uneven King Arthur, a bit too self-conscious in his quest for charm, but he’s still a great actor who has his share of fine dramatic moments. For me, the flaws in presentation are more than outweighed by the considerable improvement in the telling of the story. It reminds me that initial instincts are often to be trusted.

Oliver! (1968)
Sir Carol Reed’s direction is what most distinguishes this film of Lionel Bart’s 1960 London stage hit based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In particular, he imposes subtext and dramatic action on a score that largely lacked them in the theatre. Character interaction and dramatic context are always present during the musical sequences, even huge production numbers like “Consider Yourself,” keeping the audience interested in songs that on stage relied merely on live performance energy. Reed’s use of “Oom-Pah-Pah” is an example. Originally a pure performance number, on screen it becomes a diversionary tactic by Nancy, in which she distracts her abusive lover, Bill Sykes, allowing her to steal Oliver away from him and take the boy to freedom. Reed also removes Sykes’ only song, “My Name” (though it is used as underscoring), allowing his nephew, actor Oliver Reed, to give a gritty, menacing, dangerous performance as a man much too evil to be able to participate in the musical universe of the score. The film is filled with fine acting and singing, splashy choreography, and expensive sets, but it’s Reed’s attention to character detail and storytelling that makes it all work. Shockingly, the film soundtrack CD seems to be out of print and has never been made available digitally, but you can buy used copies on Amazon.com.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
This is as unlikely a musical film as you might encounter, a star-studded, savagely satiric, defiantly surreal movie derived from Joan Littlewood’s plucky, bare-bones, experimental fringe stage revue. What both share is a fierce anti-war sentiment that is dramatized through song parodies created and sung by the soldiers who were coolly slaughtered without purpose in World War I. First-time film director Richard Attenborough finds imaginative visual equivalents for the show’s Brechtian stage presentation, and his use of a single British family that loses numerous sons to the conflict provides a narrative thread that holds the revue’s disparate pieces together, something the numerous star cameos also do. The movie’s final image, a helicopter shot that keeps pulling back and back, never stopping, as the women of the Smith family become tiny moving dots of white in a sea of white crosses planted in a verdant green field as a male chorus sings “Oh, We’ll Never Tell Them,” a parody of Jerome Kern and Herbert Reynold’s 1914 hit romantic ballad “They’ll Never Believe Me,” is simply one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed on the big screen. It’s just not the same at home on DVD, but you certainly will get the idea. The richly sung and orchestrated soundtrack LP never even made the leap to CD, but you can stream the movie on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

The Boy Friend (1971)
I was a freshman in college when Ken Russell’s rambunctious, flamboyantly huge adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s delicate satire of 1920s musicals arrived on screen, and at the time I hated it. I thought Russell was treating the material with condescension and contempt, because rather than simply telling the story, he instead focused on a seedy provincial theatre production of the show, giving us only excerpts from The Boy Friend surrounded by the shoddy backstage shenanigans of the company producing it and the wild big-screen fantasies of those actors, all hoping that the presence of a Hollywood producer in the audience will whisk them off to film stardom. Of course, I didn’t know I was seeing a cut version of Russell’s vision (it ran unaltered in England), but I don’t think that would have changed my mind. It took time and maturation for me to understand that a straightforward adaptation would have landed with a sorry squish in 1971. I finally saw the uncut version years later in a revival house, and I watched with an unwavering smile, finally able to see Russell’s affection for the property while being impressed by his reinvention of it to satirize the tropes of 1930s film musicals. No, it wasn’t The Boy Friend, but it was a lovely salute to what that show was that searched for a way for contemporary audiences to be entertained by it. For me, it found that way, and I’ve been a fan ever since. My only complaint is the unbilled cameo by Glenda Jackson as the star who breaks an ankle, allowing poor unrehearsed Twiggy to go on as understudy. Jackson is very funny, but the role should have been played by Julie Andrews. I gather they asked, but she demurred. What a pity. (Unfortunately, the film soundtrack, as with Oh! What a Lovely War, remains locked in vinyl.)

Cabaret (1972)
Bob Fosse’s film version of this superb Joe Masteroff–John Kander–Fred Ebb–Harold Prince musical was, to put it simply, a shock. Because I owned the soundtrack LP, I knew going in that all of the character numbers had been cut. Every song was diegetic, a performance number. Also, the subplot about the ill-fated middle-aged romance between German Fraulein Schneider and Jewish Herr Schultz had been cut, replaced by a different one of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories that featured younger characters. I had seen and loved the Broadway version, so I was extremely skeptical, and yet Fosse’s take on the material was mesmerizing. I was just as bowled over by his film as I had been by the stage piece. They were just, well, different, that’s all. I think that Cabaret is probably the single best film on this list. However, it was of no use in solving the problem of audiences accepting characters singing non-realistically on film. Audiences had always been uneasy with book musicals on screen, and the rock revolution was only exacerbating the problem. It would soon lead to the near-extinction of the genre for a period of 30 years.

1776 (1972)
What a disappointment this movie was! Original Broadway director Peter H. Hunt made his film debut with it, and most of his actors had played the show on Broadway, many of them in the original cast. Perhaps that’s why it felt so stodgy and choppy. Another reason was the amount of material cut to make the film shorter, including the wonderful song for the conservatives in Congress, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” I thought the best thing about it was the chance to experience Howard Da Silva’s Benjamin Franklin, a performance that hadn’t been preserved on the OBCR because the actor suffered a heart attack during final Broadway previews. Reviews weren’t good, and the film flopped pretty quickly. Cut to 1992, when a laser disc “restoration” was announced. It turned out that Hunt had shot the entire Broadway show, but producer Jack L. Warner, spooked by the increasing unpopularity of film musicals, had slashed 39 minutes out of the film before releasing it and insisted that the cut material be destroyed. Fortunately, some folks didn’t comply. The laser disc used a variety of sources, some of them faded work prints, but the original was pieced back together except for one single missing shot. Then a complete negative of what Hunt had intended to release, 12 minutes shorter than the laser disc print, was discovered. Hunt’s vision is an entirely different film. With his shooting rhythms intact, you can appreciate his use of panning shots and deep focus, reminiscent of Citizen Kane, that make the film feel vibrantly alive even though it mostly takes place in one room. The cuts to Peter Stone’s script had been the most harmful of all, robbing the characters and their political arguments of complexity. I actually prefer the 180-minute laser disc cut to the 168-minute Hunt original release cut, but the differences are small and both are terrific films. This movie improves every time I watch it. I’m so glad that somebody ignored Jack L. Warner. (Alas, this is the third soundtrack LP on this list never to have made it to CD.)

Chicago (2002)
In the 30 years after 1776 there were, of course, some attempts to adapt a Broadway book musical to the screen. However, films such as Annie, A Little Night Music, A Chorus Line, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas didn’t do much to help the cause. Nor really did Hair or Grease, though they got better reviews and Grease was actually a hit. Director-choreographer Rob Marshall started to put an end to the drought with his delightful 1999 TV remake of Annie for Disney. I saw it in a special screening at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and it looked just fine on the big screen, though the need to keep it to 90 minutes meant that the original had to be seriously abridged. Then Marshall delivered Chicago, and everything changed. He and screenwriter Bill Condon didn’t have the nerve to just let characters sing, but the device they used of having all the musical numbers be fantasies in Roxie’s head worked well for the material, and Marshall, who grew up loving the book musical film adaptations of the 1950s and ’60s, knew in his bones how they functioned. While I do miss a few of the songs that Marshall cut, especially, “My Own Best Friend” and “Class,” Chicago is a first-rate film, delivering its story and characters with punch, wit, and flair. I liked it at once, but when I saw how he filmed “The Cell Block Tango,” I was convinced he was the real deal.

Into the Woods (2014)
Even Marshall had a learning curve, which is the only way I can explain how he mucked up his next film musical adaptation, 2009’s Nine. The less said about it, the better, but it made me very nervous about what he would do to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s much-loved fairy tale show. Of course, with Lapine doing his own screenplay, there appeared to be hope. I settled into my seat at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre with fingers crossed, and they were quickly disengaged. Here was a full-out book show, with no attempt to apologize for characters singing about their thoughts and feelings. The cast was uniformly strong, with Meryl Streep for my money the best Witch ever seen. I even felt that Lapine and Marshall had improved on the original, simplifying the sometimes-overcomplicated storytelling neatly. The only song I missed was “No More,” but I could understand its absence due to the loss of the character of the Mysterious Man narrator, and I actually preferred having the Baker narrate the story. Marshall’s Into the Woods has become my favorite iteration of the material. His next film was the 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns for Disney, a wonderful film shot through with love for the original. Even Vincente Minnelli made Yolanda and the Thief, so I won’t hold Nine against Marshall. I’m just so glad that we have him.

Well, it seems that after a five-year run BwayTunes is closing shop. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Having just turned 65, I’m nevertheless nowhere near ready to retire. I don’t know what’s next, but whatever it is, I’m certain it will have something to do with the two most glorious words in the English language: musical theatre.

 


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