NEW YORK — Movie musicals have been back in fashion in Hollywood for more than a decade, but filmmakers still struggle to reconcile the problem of their inherent theatricality. Film is a realistic medium, so characters bursting into song in the middle of a conversation or as they stroll down the street just doesn’t feel natural.
To solve the dilemma, filmmakers have come up with all kinds of conceits to justify the unnatural quality of people breaking into song and dance. “Chicago” imagined the musical numbers as dream sequences unfolding in the minds of its characters. With Tim Burton employing his trademark macabre theatricality, the singing in “Sweeney Todd” never felt too strange because of the heightened nature of the material.
“Jersey Boys,” which opens on Friday, has another, simpler solution: Give the reins to Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood.
A bio-musical about the roller coaster rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Jersey Boys” is set in the world of show business, so the songs can be more naturally integrated into the movie, as was the case in such previous stage-to-screen adaptations as “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray.”
However, Eastwood also brings his knack for gritty realism to this tale of four tough guys from the working-class streets of Jersey who fight their way into the limelight and become chart-topping superstars with songs such as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
“It’s a wonderful play, and it had a lot of excitement. But I tried to approach it more from a realistic angle,” Eastwood said at a recent “Jersey Boys” press conference. “There’s a lot of things that you can do in a movie that you can’t do onstage. I just tried to open it up and give it a certain realism.”
John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli in the film. In an interview before the press conference, he said, “Clint Eastwood has proven time and again that he understands the sort of dark underbelly of American life. Capturing the dark with the light, that is Clint’s signature. It’s almost like a chiaroscuro painting.”
Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rick Elice based on their book for the musical, said that in translating “Jersey Boys” to the big screen, they had to be mindful that some techniques work onstage but not in film, and vice versa.
“What we tried to do in the screenplay was deepen it a little bit,” Brickman said. “A 2½-minute song on the stage, in performance, will hold with an audience, because there’s something mystical and wonderful about being in the room with the actual live performers. On film, that doesn’t work as well. So you’re dependent on a certain kind of invention and a brilliant director to keep the thing moving along.”
In the stage version, Brickman said, the music and the story have about equal weight. “What Clint did,” he explained, “was to put the story a little more in front, because the story is really everything in a movie.”
An example of that adjustment, said Young, is that the film was able to flesh out Frankie’s loving-yet-strained relationship with his daughter, Francine — showing the inner turmoil he felt as a parent who couldn’t always be present in his children’s lives.
“The tragedies that Frankie has in his life, you go through them with him in a more immediate way on film than you do onstage,” Young said. “There’s something about film that makes certain emotions and psychological subtleties more immediate and relatable than they are onstage.”
Dramatic plays such as “August: Osage County” or “Venus in Fur,” which often take place in a single room or location, can be even harder to translate to the big screen — because “opening up” the action can often undermine the author’s original intention. Edward Albee famously objected to the 1966 film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because director Mike Nichols staged several scenes outside of George and Martha’s house, in their front yard, in their car, and at a nearby roadhouse bar. The result was a breakdown in the stifling claustrophobia Albee had intended.
“Plenty of movies have ruined good plays by trying to take them out of where they are,” said the playwright David Ives, who teamed up with the director Roman Polanski to adapt his comedic drama, “Venus in Fur,” staged on Broadway in 2011, into a film. The movie, which opens in Boston in July but is available on video-on-demand starting June 20, centers on a struggling actress auditioning for a pompous playwright in an empty theater. Bedraggled and hours late for her appointment, the gum-chewing Vanda doesn’t appear to have the polished sophistication necessary to play the part. But she turns the tables on Thomas and is soon skewering the misogyny of the erotic novel he has adapted.
“[Polanski] told me right from the get-go that he didn’t want to open it up,” Ives said. “He didn’t want to create something that it wasn’t.’’
In the film, the biggest change is that the action takes place inside a ramshackle old theater in Paris instead of a rehearsal studio, which allowed for more freedom of movement. Polanski also created a cinematic opening sequence, with the camera tracking down a desolate, rain-soaked boulevard and through the doors of the theater in a single point-of-view shot. And he fashioned a slightly revised ending that amplifies Ives’s original leap into the fantastical.
While Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” was a close approximation of Ives’s intimate comedy, contemporary audiences can quickly lose patience with a film that feels static or too talky or lacks the leavening effects of humor.
Indeed, with last year’s adaptation of “August: Osage County,” the challenge for writer Tracy Letts and director John Wells was maintaining the barbed humor rife in Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. When “August” debuted on Broadway, the laughter in the theater was nearly riotous, despite the fact that it’s a three-hour dysfunctional family drama with a pill-popping matriarch at its center. But savage put-downs and acerbic one-liners that elicit guffaws from a live audience may feel unfunny, stilted, or just mean-spirited in the more realistic medium of cinema.
“We saved every single laugh [from the play],” Wells said last year, “so that the humor is what allows the characters to progress, to undermine the tension.”
In adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Rabbit Hole,” for the big screen in 2010, David Lindsay-Abaire, a South Boston native, saw it as an opportunity to create scenes that were previously only described by characters in the play, which centers on grief-stricken parents who have lost their young son in a tragic accident.
“What the story had in its back pocket that a lot of plays don’t have is a fairly extensive off-stage life,” Lindsay-Abaire has said. “There are a lot of references to the group therapy, for example. It’s hinted that the husband may or may not be having an affair. We hear about him maybe getting into a bar fight. I could now go to all of those places! . . . They allowed me to crack it open and make it cinematic. Those scenes made it a movie and not a play that’s bound by the stage.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.