When it comes to adaptations of stage musicals, Hollywood’s history is not a happy one. More often than not, a show that danced across the stage has plodded across the screen.
But that spotty track record has proven no deterrent to present-day filmmakers, to judge by the torrent of stage-to-screen musical adaptations that has been and will be headed our way.
That means that musical-theater aficionados — for whom judging is a contact sport — will have plenty of opportunities to fume, rave, or shrug at the cinematic treatment of some favorite shows. The broader question will be: Has Hollywood figured out the alchemy required to bring a work of theater to the screen with its magic intact? Or are we in for more static and inert movie musicals that elicit an “Ugh,” “Meh,” or yawn?
We’ll know soon. On Sept. 24, “Dear Evan Hansen” will open in theaters nationwide, starring Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amy Adams. That will be followed in November by “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” the feature film directing debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s a case of one musical-theater giant interpreting the work of another. Miranda created “Hamilton” (which was captured in live performance and began streaming on Disney+ in July 2020), and “In the Heights’' (a film version was released in June), while “Tick, Tick . . . Boom!” was scripted and composed by the late Jonathan Larson, whose better-known musical is the era-defining “Rent.”
Then, in December, comes a movie nearly everyone is guaranteed to have an opinion about, given the canonical status of the original and the heavy-hitters collaborating on the adaptation: “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America” and the screenplay for Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).
That is just the beginning. Indeed, according to Playbill, fully 30 movie versions of stage musicals are in various stages of production or development. They include the long-aborning “Wicked,” “Spring Awakening,” “Once on This Island,” “Lysistrata Jones,” “Be More Chill,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Miss Saigon,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”
The past does not exactly inspire optimism about how they will turn out.
No less an authority than Richard Rodgers described the 1958 movie adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” as “awful” and called its use of color “atrocious.” One of the greatest of all musicals is “Gypsy,” but you’d never know it from the 1962 film version starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, a role originated, as only she could, by Ethel Merman, in 1959.
Marlon Brando was required to sing for his portrayal of Sky Masterson in the 1955 film adaptation of “Guys and Dolls,” and when he did, Brando conceded, it sounded like “the mating call of a yak.”
As for Madonna’s performance as Eva Perón in the 1996 film version of “Evita,” it’s hard to disagree with the scathing verdict of Patti LuPone, who electrified audiences when she originated the role on Broadway, in 1979. Speaking to Andy Cohen a few years ago, LuPone described Madonna’s rendition of “Buenos Aires,” a key song, as “a piece of [expletive],” adding: “Madonna is a movie killer. She’s dead behind the eyes, [and] she cannot act her way out of a paper bag.”
That has seldom stopped Hollywood, of course. Countless stage musicals have been refashioned into creaky, bloated star vehicles on their journey to the screen. All too often, the very actors who made the musical indelible in the first place have gotten big-footed by movie stars, whether or not they are suitable for the roles.
Take last year’s “The Prom.’’ A charmingly idiosyncratic musical when it premiered on Broadway in 2018 with a cast of respected stage performers, “The Prom” sagged beneath the weight of the marquee names — Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman — shoehorned into the cast.
(Filmed versions of live stage performances sidestep that problem, as with “Come From Away,” which began streaming Sept. 10 on Apple TV+, featuring members of the Broadway cast, none of them household names.)
The presence of big stars shifts the expectations of audiences and critics, making it much harder to replicate a stage musical’s word-of-mouth success. Then, too, Streep, Kidman, et al. lack the vocal chops of the originals. This is not a new phenomenon when movie stars elbow aside the original stage cast. When Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn burst into song in, respectively, “The King and I” (1956), “West Side Story” (1961), and “My Fair Lady” (1964), you are actually listening to ghost singer par excellence Marni Nixon.
A fundamental problem with stage-to-screen musical adaptations is that the film versions lack the two-way exchange of electricity that takes place between performers and audience in live performance. That atmospheric voltage is more crucial for musicals than it is for dramas. (We don’t need to see, say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in live performance to be knocked flat by Edward Albee’s play; the 1966 movie version works just fine.)
On Broadway, “The Producers” swept audiences up into a kind of happy delirium, but even human whirlwind Nathan Lane couldn’t generate the fizz needed to make the 2005 film version work. I’ve seen “A Chorus Line” onstage often, and every time I’ve leaned forward in my seat, thoroughly invested in the fates of the desperately auditioning dancers. But when I saw the 1985 film version starring Michael Douglas, I reacted with an indifferent shrug, and I was far from alone.
I think there’s another issue at play that has to do with the structure of musicals, which rest on a kind of cheerful illogic. It’s an art form in which characters suddenly burst into song mid-sentence — satirized in “A Musical,” from the 2015 Broadway hit “Something Rotten!” — and that contrivance can be jarringly highlighted by the hyper-realistic settings that movies, with their multimillion-dollar budgets, can create. The obvious artificiality of a stage set is in harmony, so to speak, with the artificiality of the genre.
It’s notable that some of the best musicals — such as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “Mary Poppins” (1964) — were created for the movies. “The Wizard of Oz” did have a stage antecedent — a musical version opened on Broadway in 1903 — but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the 1939 film occupies a firmer place in cultural memory.
A number of adaptations that are currently in development or production — such as “The Color Purple,” “Mean Girls,” “Matilda,” and “Little Shop of Horrors” — will represent another stop on a winding artistic road. In performance, their original incarnations were as non-musical films (”The Color Purple” and “Matilda” began as novels, of course). Then they were loaded up with songs and fashioned into successful Broadway musicals. And now they are coming full circle as movie musicals.
A new musical about Princess Diana, titled “Diana,” is approaching that circle from a different direction. First, a filmed version of the musical in live performance will stream on Netflix, starting Oct. 1. Only after that, in November, will “Diana” begin performances on Broadway. Its producers are taking a calculated risk, hoping that the Netflix film will boost the Broadway box office. It could, of course, go the other way.
Box office considerations don’t trouble the bulletproof “Cats.” The wretched 2019 film version is not likely to dampen the enthusiasm of that show’s admirers — although for those of us who do not count ourselves among those admirers, the movie version reflected the caliber of the stage musical all too accurately. Some shows are impossible to ruin.