13 January
Writing for Stage and Screen

Give My Regards to the Movie Musical

The Hollywood Reporter just announced that Rob Marshall was officially on board to direct the screen adaptation of INTO THE WOODS, the Stephen Sondheim masterwork. This is great news for people who love musicals, but also a reminder also that musicals aren’t the cultural touchstones they once were. In fact, the marketing of these movies often obfuscates just how musical-y they are lest it scare off an uninitiated audience. By the same token, an INTO THE WOODS musical is likely to be completely rewritten with special effects and unnecessary action sequences in the hopes of attracting the all-important demo of teenage boys. I hope Marshall eschews studio logic and makes the movie it was meant to be, but history has led us to expect less from these movies.

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Broadway’s decline as a pop cultural artform has been well noted. PBS documentaries and history books have lionized the last gasp of Broadway’s relevance. It was Louis Armstrong’s 1964 cover of “Hello Dolly,” the last time Broadway topped the Billboard charts. The moment has become couched as pivotally as Bob Dylan going electric or The Beatles coming to Ed Sullivan, but in truth, it sounds much more like a whimper.

Between the 1930s and 70s, INTO THE WOODS would have been made into a movie musical within a decade. Today, we are over 20 years from its initial production without an INTO THE WOODS movie, and that speaks volumes. Sondheim lets us know in his latest book, Look, I Made a Hat, that despite having had two high-profile Hollywood readings with big stars in the major roles (Cher, Meg Ryan, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, etc.), the project had no green light.

And I wouldn’t blame anyone in Hollywood. INTO THE WOODS is a complex, postmodern, feel-good-then-feel-bad musical. Its fairy tale fantasy setting screams big budget with no guarantee of box office return. There are few seriously hummable tunes although Sondheim’s score is among his best. On top of that, it didn’t even win the Tony for Best Musical. It lost to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s behemoth operetta THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, whose film version itself only came out in 2004 to a lukewarm reception unbefitting its pedigree.

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INTO THE WOODS isn’t alone either. SWEENEY TODD took even longer to reach the screen. RENT arrived long after the prime of its topical subject matter. 1960’s THE FANTASTICKS had a movie that was dumped by MGM in 2000, never to be nearly as beloved as its longest running incarnation off-Broadway. NINE won Best Musical in 1982 only to underwhelm on screen in Rob Marshall’s 2009 version. LES MIZ will be coming soon to the movies this December after opening on the West End in 1985. With long stage-to-screen lag times, any enthusiasm these movies might have had during the buzz of their original Broadway runs will have substantially dissipated. At this rate, WICKED won’t be made until Kristin Chenoweth is fit only to play the older Madame Morrible.

Let’s face it. The movie musical as it was has become a dinosaur. Occasionally we still get hits at the box office (for example, CHICAGO and HAIRSPRAY), but only after being tweaked, coddled, and movie-fied. Whereas the old movie musicals like WEST SIDE STORY or THE SOUND OF MUSIC or MY FAIR LADY or OLIVER! (all Best Picture winners by the way) could just have characters break out into song, our new movie musicals require justification. Singing in a story no longer is a foregone conclusion, but one that has to be sold to the audience each and every time. CHICAGO had the conceit (stolen from CABARET by the way) of showing all the musical numbers as taking place in a dream-like cabaret world of the main character’s mind. Some musicals figure an audience will buy such sung exuberance if it stars celebrities and is scored by well-known pop tunes (MAMMA MIA! and the upcoming ROCK OF AGES). DREAMGIRLS needed to convince us of the singing by telling us we are really just watching musicians rehearse. Curiously enough, when the singing in DREAMGIRLS eventually takes the place of the dialogue, it feels jarring and anachronistic. With modern eyes and ears, our desire for realism and cynicism pervade new movie musicals.

Such things were unthinkable in the golden years. The purpose of the movie musical was to bring Broadway to Main Street. Hence, WEST SIDE STORY was not only co-directed by its original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, but it was designed to capture and share the sensibility of the original show. In other words, these musicals looked stagey on purpose to remind viewers they were watching theatre. This can look strange and unfilmic, and many of them have not aged well despite the source material’s longevity. It’s no wonder then that the best movie musical of all time, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, was conceived as a film first.

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However, there is a genre of movie musical that didn’t exist in the heyday of the movie musical, one that could possibly redeem the whole enterprise. That genre is the musical concert film. Rather than giving the show a makeover, a documentarian simply captures the excitement of a live Broadway performance with few compromises. Adding in advancements in camera technique, these films can often feel more dynamic and in-the-moment than their narrative film counterparts.

While Rob Marshall’s hiring is good news, for many the idea of an INTO THE WOODS movie seems redundant since its concert film starring Bernadette Peters is already definitive. Similarly, on DVD, you can see Bernadette and Mandy Patinkin in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and Angela Lansbury in SWEENEY TODD, all in their original glories. Experiencing closing night of RENT is a bittersweet sight to behold, and the brilliant but seldom seen rock musical PASSING STRANGE will live on forever as a Spike Lee joint. While the chance of one of these becoming a blockbuster or Oscar-winner is slim to none, they do offer musical lovers what they long for within Netflix’s long tail: to see these stories told as if they mattered.

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4 Responses to “Give My Regards to the Movie Musical”

  1. Dinah says:

    Howard, what a great post. Reading you, I have to ask myself why it is I resist movie musicals–what is it that bothers me? I guess what justifies the form for me, at least in part, is live performance: one thing to film a concert or a play, which in some way acknowledges the original audience; quite another to sing for the camera. It’s not that it can’t done–of course it can, to great effect. But for me, the joy of musical theatre has everything to do with its theatricality–with a suspension of disbelief that allows for the idea that bursting into song is not just reasonable but necessary, having everything to do with telling the story for an audience sitting, hopefully, on the edge of their chairs. Meanwhile, as a kid, did I love the film versions of West Side Story and The Sound of Music? I did. But I saw the films before I saw either show in a theatre–where, finally, I felt I was seeing and believing (or suspending my disbelief) as I was meant to see and believe…

  2. Howard Ho says:

    Thanks, Dinah! I do agree that all my fondest memories of musicals were experienced live and not in a movie theatre.

    While the magic of a theatre piece can’t be re-created for a film version, musicals that were originally conceived as movies perhaps can be just as fulfilling. I can’t deny the joy of Singin’ in the Rain or The Wizard of Oz or even more recently the film Once.

  3. Dinah says:

    Yes! You’re exactly right! I’m resisting adaptation, I think… Although, I am one of the few who did NOT like Moulin Rouge, hmmm. (Did you?) With Once, anyway, the music is absolutely organic to the story, right? It’s not as though there’s an orchestra hiding behind a tree. And since The W. of O is a fable of sorts–make believe–the music there works in much the same way. Singin’ in the Rain? Well, having everything to do with the stars, right? Singing and dancing came so naturally to them… You can’t do Sondheim without real singers–why shouldn’t it work on film? I guess, for me, movies simulate reality in a way theatre doesn’t; Theatre is very frankly a ‘performance’–means to be theatrical–isn’t pretending to be anything else. Sondheim on film, for me, would highlight the wrong things about the material…

  4. Howard Ho says:

    I saw Moulin Rouge too many years ago, but I remember that I liked it enough. Today, I might scoff at its use of pop songs.

    In the final estimation, I think an INTO THE WOODS movie wouldn’t enhance the musical, but it would enter the popular culture. Likewise, I didn’t think Chicago the movie was better than Chicago the musical, but having it on film meant that it would be more widely available to a mass audience and that they might like it (and indeed they did). And as a fairy-tale mash up, INTO THE WOODS feels like the best candidate for adaptation.

    Maybe the solution is to get real singers in there? Whenever they cast a Hollywood star, you know you’re in for some painful lip syncing. One reason CHICAGO worked as well as it did was Catherine Zeta Jones is a legitimate stage talent. But will Sondheim’s monologue-y songs work on film without substantially altering it? Probably not.

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