24 December 2012


Tomorrow is significant for any number of reasons, but the release after more than two decades of promises and failed starts of a film adaptation of West End megamusical Les Misérables is not least among them. Divisive, muted reception or not, the film has long promised to be one of the most successful filmed versions of a stage musical ever attempted (and I, at least, found that it made good on that promise), not that the competition for that title is very fierce: while movie musicals are a wonderful genre on the whole, not so many stage adaptations count among the masterpieces of the form. But that inspired me all the more to trot out a long-moribund feature and provide my list of:

The Ten Best Film Adaptations of Stage Musicals

Honorable Mention: Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)

By all means, the best film of Fosse's directorial career - a big claim, for the director of All That Jazz - is one of the all-time great movie musicals, and better than any of the ten films on the list to follow. That being said, it's a basically terrible adaptation of John Kander & Fred Ebb's wonderful stage musical, cutting out songs, subplots, and entire character, streamlining and reducing the material to a story that works extraordinarily well on its own, but is basically a different piece altogether than the musical show staged under the same name. This list is for great movie musicals that also do right by their theatrical predecessors; not just Cabaret, but more than one '30s classic was left off for similar reasons.

10. Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, 1953)

It does leave a little bit to be wanted as an adaptation: Cole Porter' saucy songs are defanged, and the "divorced actors playing Shakespeare together" concept is treated with rather less intelligence and wit, in deference one supposes to the presumptively less-sophisticated film audience. But it's a particularly lush MGM production when that studio was at its most opulent, including the first screen work done by dance/choreographer Bob Fosse, and as the one and only time that I've ever genuinely liked the studio's much-used leading man Howard Keel, I feel honor-bound to admit it. Besides, it's the only 3-D musical of any significance, and clearly that deserves to be recognised.

9. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)

Set aside the baggage of its interactive cult; ignore the debate over whether this is a genuine missive from a sexual counter-culture or just a cheap attempt pour épater le bourgeois. When all the chatter is stripped away, we're left with a sweet-natured, altogether fun parody of '50s B-movies that prod at the achingly straitlaced tone of those movies with bawdy humor, married to a compulsively hummable batch of songs by co-star Richard O'Brien. Sharman's direction is a bit stiff in the non-musical sequences (though he gets most of the numbers just right - "Time Warp" especially), and if the film did nothing besides capture Tim Curry's go-for-broke performance of sweet transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter (the best work, by far, in the actor's career), it would still deserve attention after three and a half decades.

8. The Music Man (Morton DaCosta, 1962)

Speaking of capturing great performances: there are many ways to find fault with the filmed version of Meredith Willson's outstanding masterpiece - one of the great stage musicals of all time, if you asked me - including sets that look awfully like sets, and DaCosta's at times over-literal direction. But the one thing it does absolutely right, and the only thing it really had to, was allow Robert Preston to re-create his Broadway triumph on celluloid, so that every generation to come would be able to stand in gawking amazement at one of the absolute great musical comedy performances. The fact that the rest of the cast is nigh-unto unimprovable, and that the staging of the numbers is at a high ebb of sprightly energy in a decade where movie musicals frequently jammed to an abrupt halt to let the singing happen, are more than enough to put it over, whatever minor problems crop up here or there.

7. Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Minnelli's directorial debut isn't one of his essentials (black-and-white robs him of the most important tool in his arsenal), and the best song in the movie, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg's "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe", magnificently sung by Ethel Waters, was nowhere to be found in the Vernon Duke/John Latouche stage version. But the finest thing about the movie is also the finest thing about the musical: it trains a white-hot spotlight on several African-American musical artists who had not to that point been treated with much respect or dignity by the white establishment, and gives them more complicated interesting characters to play than the Mammy/Sambo stereotypes prevalent in movies to that point. A historical curiosity in many ways, but the songs and their staging are as good as any WWII-era musical.

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

Starring, written by, and directed by the man who created the show, it's not much of a surprise that Mitchell's high-spirited glam rock fantasy of political freedom and genderfucking manages to recapture the spirit and songs of the rock club-influenced original while rebuilding its structure more or less from the ground up. Who better than the original author to understand what matters most about the material, and reframe a theatrical experience theatrically to best showcase it? And the end result is non-stop delirium, maddeningly catchy songs married to a sugar-sweet, massively kinky story of love and identity, all carried off through captivating indie-movie creativity. Follow the bouncing wig!

5. 1776 (Peter H. Hunt, 1972)

Sherman Edwards's magnum opus is by no means the most friendly or tuneful musical to ever grace the stage, but it's one of the best dramas about the American Revolution ever written, and the movie manages to improve on it completely. The naturalistic lighting and heavy use of exterior sets adds a layer of physical authenticity to a book (by Peter Stone) that already did so much to remove the history book fustiness from the Founding Fathers and restore to them a measure of grubby, sexual, selfish humanity; and the cast, largely imported from the original Broadway production, cannot be improved upon. There are few movie musicals that aspire to realism and plausibility this successfully: Hunt's low-key style, dominated by wide-shots, manages to turn the song-and-dance routines into surprisingly effective extensions of the film's overall scheme of bring normal human emotions back to an event that had long since traipsed into myth.

4. Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's warped little off-Broadway cult hit would seem an unlikely choice for a great movie, particularly one coming out in the worst-ever decade for screen musicals; but that's what a terrific cast (Rick Moranis was never better) will do for you, and even more, a director willing to completely embrace the weirdness of the project, if not even amp it up further: the project is inherently a parody of '50s and '60s B-movies (it was adapted from one), but it took Oz to real studio money to make a costly, high-tech film that looked and felt this much like a collaboration between Roger Corman and Arthur Freed. And, if I can be a goddamned despicable heretic for a moment: I actually prefer the studio-mandated happy ending.

3. Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971)

The blockbuster original, the best-known work by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, has an irreducible theatricality that was never going to survive a transmission to the screen, but Jewison (just one movie before directing one of the all-time worst stage-to-screen adaptations, Jesus Christ Superstar) made up for that problem by not trying to recapture it: like 1776 and the #1 film on this list, what makes his approach so great is that it emphasises the physical reality of the movie, turning a heavily stagey piece into a heavily cinematic one, the last of the great roadshow musicals that were so damned popular in the '60s, and by all odds the best. The contrast between the New Hollywood grittiness of the filmmaking and the robust grandeur of the musical numbers is electrifying rather than off-putting, and in the form of the over-the-top cartoon Topol, the film was graced with a lead performance that was absolutely vital to giving it an earthy fullness that grounds it real, rich emotion.

2. Show Boat (James Whale, 1936)

Harder to find than MGM's embalmed adaptation from 1951, Universal's lively adaptation of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece - my very favorite stage musical - would win if only for putting Paul Robeson's scorching take on "Old Man River" on film (the role of Joe was written for him, but he was unavailable at the show's 1927 premiere). But on top of that, it has Whale's elegant direction, making this one of the most kinetic of all '30s musicals, an exceptionally good Irene Dunne performance, and two of the new songs - "I Have the Room Above Her" and "Ah Still Suits Me" - are wonderful, welcome additions to a great score (the third, "Gallivantin' Around", is less so; certainly, serving as the excuse for a most unwelcome blackface number doesn't help it). It tinkers with the original a bit, but that always happens to poor Show Boat, and the changes here result in a much more engaging story than some of the later hatchet jobs.

1. The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

The only Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptation that works more than intermittently - but man, how it works! Four years after co-directing a mis-cast, frequently glassy-eyed West Side Story that enjoys far too generous a reputation nowadays, Wise made good by taking the opulence of a studio musical to the eye-popping beauty of Salzburg, Austria and the surrounding mountains, bringing a sense of movie-magic glamor and physically grounded realism to bear like no other musical ever. The results are lofty and emotionally resonant, all the more so with Julie Andrews in a definitive take on one of the most lyrical roles in the R&H canon. Best of all, the film manages to do something virtually unheard-of in stage-to-screen adaptations: it clearly and decisively improves the story, switching around songs to make considerably more narrative and emotional sense, and adding a new number to deepen the character of featured Von Trapp daughter Liesl.


McAlisterGrant said...

I'm curious, have you seen the recently-release-after-decades-in-the-vault restored original ending to Little Shop?

adampb said...

Finally someone who agrees with me on "Little Shop".

The ending that they shot (yes, I've seen it) just did not work. Presumably it would have been edited down from that interminable workprint, but still.

The "unhappy" ending worked on stage because it was fun to see your physical theatre overtaken, it was fun to see the forlorn actors "trapped inside" the plant in a very campy, theatrical way. The film could not have made the same joke, of course, but the joke they did make didn't have the same charm.

I do wish that the film had kept "Don't Feed the Plants", however, just as a credits tune. They even could have used some of the footage from the "unhappy" ending as a backdrop. Coulda been fun.

But yes, the happy ending works for the film.

-- Adam

Caleb Wimble said...

Oy, no love for Singin' in the Rain, or did I miss a proviso?

Tim said...

McAlister- I haven't seen the cleaned-up version on the new Blu-Ray, but as far as I know, it's just the crappy B&W version that's been around forever, restored, and that version I have seen.

Adam- Great points. I'd add that the movie's original ending feels somehow more cynical than campy.

Caleb- I was going strictly going by adaptations that were stage musicals before they were movies. Movie musicals that begat stage musicals would have been a much different list, with, I am sad to say, considerably better movies on it: Mary Poppins, 42nd Street, Beauty and the Beast...

RickR said...

Yeah, that infamous ending to "Little Shop". (Tim, you should really see the scene restored, edited properly, and in color at some point.) On its own, it's glorious, with jaw-dropping miniature FX and (as already mentioned) "Don't Feed the Plants" is an appropriately show-stopping climactic number.
What nobody seemed to count on was how emotionally invested the audience became in the two leads, and without a sense of slightly detached campiness that the show probably had. No, we wanted Seymour and Audrey to have their happy ending, damnit, and when the plants kill everyone and take over the world, it didn't seem "campy and fun" so much as it felt...sour. Like having Brody and Hooper eaten by barricudas as they swam back to shore at the end of "Jaws".

Still, that downbeat ending is fucking amazing and spectacular, worth every penny of the millions it cost to produce. I'm so glad it's finally available.

halloumi said...

In my mind, when I think about film adaptations of stage musicals, I can't help but divide them into two major categories - films based on musicals, where the stage show plays out as it almost would on stage and the camera becomes an extension to the eye of the audience, and musicals adapted into films, where the stage show is completely re-imagined for the medium of film. Obviously in practice most of these would fall somewhere in between the two categories but I like to think this way because I believe the two mediums are fundamentally different and I find it fascinating to think what exactly makes this so.

In terms of which is my favourite, in the first category I would put the made-for-TV adaptation of Gypsy starring Bette Midler at the top of the list but really only because it faithfully and sincerely captures on film what I believe to be the greatest American musical ever to play on Broadway, with music by Jule Styne, choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Sondheim, the last two of which I think are truly groundbreaking.

In the second category, I would pick Chicago (2002 film). I know Tim would disagree with me on that but it's just my favourite, mainly because in my opinion the stage show is a fairly half-heartedly thrown together collection of songs (which are pretty good) and scenes (which aren't) whereas the film is a complete piece of work. For similiar reasons Cabaret is high on that list because (sorry to disagree again) I think the stage show has many of Kander and Ebb's weakest and uninspired songs (the pineapple song, for example, which grows tiresome after the first verse) and it suffers terribly from an embarrasingly didactic and condescending book.

Mysterious F. said...

I agree with this list very, very much. Glad to see you love Little Shop of Horrors and Show Boat - two very underpraised musicals. Some other pretty good choices, like The Music Man and Cabin in the Sky. Also, I seriously wanted to hug you after I finished reading every single word of what you wrote about The Sound of Music. I've always loved the movie to pieces. (Bonus points for also thinking that West Side Story is awkwardly acted and overrated.) Great list, Tim; one of your best.

Brian said...

Cabaret is such a great movie. I've never seen the original stage production, but the reworked version done by Sam Mendes is fucking amazing. Of course, I was blessed to see it with Neil Patrick Harris as the MC, so that added to it. AFAIK, it's closer to the original play than the movie, but grimier and dirtier and a bit more explicit.

Kiss Me Kate is one of my 5 or so favorite musicals of all-time, but the film version just doesn't ever capture it. There is an amazing filmed version of the play available on dvd from a decade or so back that is spectacular though.

The Sound of Music is a good shout for number 1.

No love at all for the admittedly at times stuffy My Fair Lady?

Benjamin said...

I don't think Jesus Christ Superstar is all that bad. I think its weird stagey frame is at least more interesting than, say, anesthetizing lushness of Evita. How much this has to do with source material, I'm not sure.

I dig the Rocky Horror Picture Show too, but its iconic status--and the cult that's grown up around it--has ruined the original stage show.

atheisthotel said...

Jesus Christ Superstar was bad because it featured artists who simply couldn't sing(I believe those priests played by Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian are an insult to music), Carl Anderson and Yvonne Eliman notwithstanding.

And (this is Webber's fault) when it didn't contain spritely and groovealicious tunes, it had awful, banal tracks just thrown in there to needlessly continue the story.

Really I don't like anything Webber makes.

Brian said...

I may be biased on the grounds that I played Judah in 11th grade, but I'm somewhat fond of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Tim said...

Rick- If the new version has been re-edited, it's definitely got to be worth a look, since the obvious rough-cut nature of it was my biggest problem. Will have to check it out - and probably soon, a Little Shop Personal Canon double feature is on my to-do list.

halloumi- A terrific distinction, and looking over my list, I think have some of both - The Music Man is certainly nothing at all but a great "film the musical" exercise that's almost eagerly uncinematic. Haven't seen the Midler Gypsy, but it's the second time in four days I've heard it praised.

I will have to concede to you that the pineapple song is a piece of shit.

My problem with Chicago is now, and ever shall be, that it buries all the numbers in dream sequences, and Zellweger can't dance worth a damn.

Mysterious F.- Show Boat, I think, is just too rare to get the love it deserves, and that's why it was my #2. Almost #1, but I couldn't quite pull the trigger on that one.

Brian, 1st- I don't know the stage KMK that well, but I was flailing for a #10. My Fair Lady is just too slow-moving and airless; Rex Harrison's performance is amazing, of course, but it's one of my least favorite Audrey Hepburn performances ever.

The Jesus Christ Superstar conversation- my problems is less with the musical, which is my favorite Webber, as it is mostly bouncy and has gleefully deranged lyrics - Joseph is number two, and for similar reasons - nor with the weaker-than-necessary cast, than with the strange, strange things Jewison does in staging numbers. Watch the chorus blink in and out of existence! See the unbelievably terrible things we can do with wide shots in "King Herod's Song!" It feels like a parody of Godard hiding in a high-concept prestige musical adaptation.

franklinshepard said...

Well, I would probably put My Fair Lady above Kiss Me Kate, but I do have two other gripes with this list - I think there is one other R&H adaptation that works quite well (and in some ways it improves the original book): Flower Drum Song. For my money, I'd take it over Sound of Music, although that's probably just cause I'm overfamiliar with Sound of Music (and I miss "How Can Love Survive" from the stage version.)

My other problem is no Lil' Abner - a terrific adaptation for the most part, and I've never seen dance better-used in a stage-to-screen adaptation. I would swap out Cabin in the Sky for this (honestly, the film version has very little in common with the stage version anyway - it's almost as different as Cabaret is.)

Brian said...

Apparently the 2003 KMK production dvd is out of print and it's now absurdly expensive on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Kiss-Me-Kate-Brent-Barrett/dp/B00008NFR6/ref=sr_1_3?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1356503910&sr=1-3&keywords=kiss+me+kate

Not sure it's good enough that I recommend spending 45 bucks on it, but it's definitely good enough that I highly recommend seeing it. Way, way better than the film.

Brian said...

Out of curiosity, Tim, what did you think of Rent?

Mysterious F. said...

Also, what were some of the other musicals you excluded because they were too different from the stage version?

Michael Houston said...

Right on the money with Sound of Music. I also really like Little Shop and (even though it's not on your list) Chicago. Also, a movie adaptation that is much better than the stage version - Grease. Maybe it's not one of the best movie musicals, but it's a huge improvement on the source material. Plus, Olivia Newton John was my 6th grade crush, maybe that's because John Travolta and I have so much in common.

Zev Valancy said...

I'm so torn on CABARET--on the one hand, it's one of my favorite movies ever (and probably just below SINGIN' IN THE RAIN as my favorite movie musical, though it's not a genre in which I have the greatest expertise), but it has essentially erased the original version of the musical. No production today includes the original Money Song, or the Telephone Song, or Meeskite or A Pineapple (which I adore, shut up), and none of them leaves out Mein Herr, or Maybe This Time, or the duet Money Song (all of which started with the movie). None lack the influence of Bob Fosse (who had nothing to do with it onstage--Hal Prince directed and Ron Field choreographed). And none allow you to remember that CABARET premiered in the same year as MAME and SWEET CHARITY. It was revolutionary, certainly, but not completely out of left field. One can debate which version works best (though I'd like to speak against the Mendes version's influence--the Kit Kat Club needs to be seductive in some way, rather than irredeemably gross, or none of Cliff's decisions make sense), but it makes me sad that the musical that premiered in 1966 has stopped existing.

I would put SWEENEY TODD on the same honorable mention list as CABARET, incidentally--it's not the definitive SWEENEY, but it's a worthwhile take on the material, and works well on its own terms. (Well, aside from Helena Bonham Carter, but based on LES MIS, that's apparently the only performance she gives these days.)

But yeah, I can't think of any stage-adapted film musical I like enough to want added to this list--and I only would choose to rewatch about half of the ones already on the list. I love musicals too much to be okay with what Hollywood usually does to them.

(That said, I always appreciate when 1776 gets the respect it deserves. It is absolutely on my favorite musicals ever list.)

Tim said...

Franklin- I must confess that a) I've never seen Flower Drum Song, which I've always heard called R&H's weakest show, so I figured I was safe; b) Cabin in the Sky was a matter of, "Okay, a lot of the songs are the same, and I really need ten titles". And it was important to me not to include My Fair Lady.

Brian- Still haven't seen the movie Rent, but I have literally no affection for the show at all.

Mysterious F.- The Gay Divorcee and The Merry Widow. The latter would already be pushing it, because musicals are not the same as operettas, but it's very nearly my favorite Lubitsch film.

Michael- Grease is just one of those movies I came to much too late in life, I'm afraid. And I have a certain instinctive revulsion to the leads.

Zev- Good points on Cabaret. As you know, we part ways on Sweeney Todd, which I have come to think is only a good - even great - Tim Burton film that uses the musical as a prop, as I am generally unable to forgive the butchering of the "Joanna" quartet, "God That's Good," or Depp's inability to hit a majority of his character's notes.

RickR said...

Tim wrote- "Brian- Still haven't seen the movie Rent, but I have literally no affection for the show at all."

Well, regardless of how you feel about the show, "Rent: The Movie" should be high on anybody's list of the WORST stage-to-screen adaptations of a musical, ever. Chris Columbus is at his most hacktastic, and the decision to use most of the original Broadway cast in the roles means that this collection of passionate, angst-ridden 20-something slackers look every bit on the wrong side of 40. It's actually pretty surreal. The behavior of the characters might, might make sense with a very young, talented cast, but with actors this old, the characters just come off as obnoxious.

The casting was the first of Columbus' horrid decisions, but it was hardly the last. The movie has this big Hollywood sheen that is completely at odds with the material. The musical interludes between songs were retained, but no longer SUNG, leaving dialogue scenes where the characters inexplicably speak in rhyme for no reason. The list goes on.
And it's all wrapped up in a nice, safe PG-13 rated package.

Columbus didn't adapt the stage show so much as he EMBALMED it. It has all the "exuberance" of a wake.

(For the record, I enjoyed the stage production I saw a great deal, even if I recognize the weaknesses of the project as a whole. But I love the Rent-bashing joke running through "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", whose songs are so so much better than the best song in "Rent".)

Brian said...

The thing I find fascinating (and not in a good way) about the Rent film is that the same guy who buried the two Harry Potter movies he made by being way to slavish to the source material wound up cutting Rent to shreds. The lack of Goodbye Love is, in and of itself, literally unforgivable. And setting it in 1989 renders lines about Thelma and Louise and the Oklahoma City bombing anachronistic.

And his refusal to make a sung-through movie out of a sung-through show pisses me off still (part of why I really loved Les Mis is that they didn't do that.)

franklinshepard said...

I would definitely suggest seeing Flower Drum Song. There's a vitality and life to it that is missing in the ossified adaptations of Carousel and South Pacific.

It's definitely pure musical comedy, but easily R&H's best musical comedy (a form they were never as comfortable in as musical play.) I don't want to build it up too much, but it's a great score and a mostly delightful film.

Kelsy said...

My personal favorite Howard-Keel-abuses-ladies-for-comedic-effect movie would have to be Calamity Jane. Is it awful? Yes. But at least Keel and Doris Day have some semblence of chemistry. Although it's a movie-to-stage production and wouldn't make this list.

I also have to confess a love of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. The direction of the film is crazy, but my affection for the music and the good cast of singers makes it rewatchable.

Mysterious F. said...

What about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Oliver!, Tim?

Tim said...

My understanding is that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is wildly different from the stage version, about which I know absolutely nothing.

And Oliver! is a fine movie, well-made by a talented director, and it surely doesn't deserve the shit it gets for beating a movie that wasn't even nominated for that year's Best Picture Oscar. I just don't have any inordinate fondness for the show.

Richter Scale said...

Tim, which song are you talking about when you say a new song was written for Liesl? The only songs written for the movie were I Have Confidence (which is Maria going to the Von Trapp house) and Something Good (the love ballad between Maria and the Captain, which to me is actually the most boring scene in the movie). Every other song in the movie is also in the musical, only in a different order. It's funny reading this now, because I'm actually involved in a High School production of The Sound of Music (we opened yesterday to a standing ovation) and while I really enjoy it, watching the show reminds me of all the things the movie did to improve it (though I must say, I miss both How Can Love Survive and No Way to Stop It).

Tim said...

Really? I'd always been told that "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" was new for the movie, but I also have very little active familiarity with the show.

Richter Scale said...

No, Sixteen Going on Seventeen has always been in the musical (it's one of the show's signature songs) and you can actually tell the lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein (who died before the movie came out, so the lyrics for the new songs in the movie were by Richard Rodgers himself). Still, pretty much everything you say about the movie improving on the show is right on the money (there's a few scenes from the movie that I wish were in the play, particularly the scene when Maria first has dinner with the Captain and the children and sits on a pinecone, or the scene where the children tell the Captain they were out berry-picking when they actually went to see Maria in the abbey, or that final confrontation between the Captain and Rolfe, since in the stage musical Rolfe finds them but lies to his commanding officer that no one was there).....

Zev said...

I may have said this elsewhere, but "No Way to Stop It" contains my pick for the single most howlingly awful lyric of Hammerstein's career--the one where he rhymes "feats of derring-do" with "Up against a shark, what can a herring do?" The last time I saw a production, I was unable to suppress a snort of derision when that lyric was sung. Hammerstein was a great lyricist, but Cole Porter he wasn't.