Movie Musicals On the Stage: What Is the Recipe for Success? – Part One
Those classic Hollywood musicals of the old studio system (particularly Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) were, for many of us, our glorious introduction to the musical form. Our affection for the iconic moments and memorable songs in these cinematic masterpieces makes them ripe for the picking to transplant to the Broadway stage. Whether-or-not doing so does them any justice is another question altogether. We are often disappointed by the result; how do you effectively take what was artfully and intimately captured through a camera’s lens and reimagine it in the wider, more distant picture of the stage?
It’s important to note that a camera can follow a performer, one-minute giving us a close-up that reveals emotional nuance, the next moment panning out to reveal the people surrounding them in an elaborate dance number. The stage doesn’t have this luxury and the approach to storytelling is very different. Judy Garland’s pining performance of “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St. Louis benefits from the close inspection of the camera lens. We experience her character very differently onstage where we are not afforded that intimacy. Similarly, would Gene Kelly dancing the title song from Singin’ in the Rain resonate as joyously if the camera remained entirely at a distance, approximating the viewing experience we might have watching in a theatre? No, the leap from screen to stage requires an understanding that different accommodations will be required for a very different beast.
Many musical films that have journeyed from the screen to the stage haven’t fared well. Arguably, their failures are a result of trying too hard to capture the film experience without bringing along its spirit or its essence. Some musical films simply had no business coming to the stage without a major rethinking. Here are some examples of the films that didn’t work on the Broadway stage.
Some of the Misses
Gigi (1973, 103 performances/2014, 86 performances)
Gigi is that remarkable phenomenon: a beloved film (Oscar for Best Picture) about a loathsome subject: the preparing a teenage girl to be a courtesan for a rich playboy. Gigi was mounted twice on the Broadway stage, and both times the audiences didn’t come. Many people did not find it palatable or relatable, and time has made its subjugation of women more unsavory. The chief reason for anyone to even care about a stage version of Gigi was the lush score by Lerner & Loewe and that is wonderful, but when you don’t have Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Leslie Caron, and Louis Jordan to sing it, it is going to be a let-down. Gone, too, was the atmospheric art design, as was Vincente Minelli’s subtle use of the camera. Onstage, Gigi was big, bulky, and dated.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982, 5 performances)
The most memorable aspect of the 1954 film musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was how director Stanley Donen captured Michael Kidd’s choreography on film. Indeed, numbers such as “The Barn Dance” and “Lonesome Polecat” are prime examples of Kidd’s ability to infuse dance with a rural tang while making it soar with unbridled athleticism. This was his trademark. Unfortunately, Kidd was not involved in the 1982 stage production, and the choreography of Jerry Jackson couldn’t erase (or replace) the memory of Kidd’s work. Additionally, to augment the lively Gene de Paul (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) score, Al Kasha (music) and Joel Hirschhorn were brought aboard. Some of the film’s songs were excised and replaced and a few new song opportunities were also identified and filled. Unfortunately, none of the new songs were as fun as the originals.
Singin’ in the Rain (1985, 367 performances)
367 performances isn’t exactly an awful run, but it isn’t exactly a hit either. In reality, Singin’ in the Rain opened in a particularly lean theatre year where several eagerly-anticipated musicals failed to catch fire, and an unexpected hit came when Big River emerged. The well known title of Singin’ in the Rain was good for getting audiences in the door, but critics and word-of-mouth couldn’t keep it running long enough to turn a profit. In the end, recreating iconic moments of the film such as “Good Morning”, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and the title song onstage was never going to compare to the memory of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1989, 252 performances)
Bringing Meet Me in St. Louis to the stage was probably a difficult task. One of the most memorable numbers from the film takes place on a moving trolley with the effervescent Judy Garland singing her heart out. How in the world can you ever achieve that onstage? How do you dare walk in the shadow of the greatest musical film star, Judy Garland. Well, the powers that be pushed ahead, employing the original songwriting team Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and an entirely serviceable stage version of Meet Me in St. Louis failed to stand on its own accord. Produced in the cavernous Gershwin Theatre, any hope of capturing the film’s intimacy and charm was lost.
State Fair (1996, 110 performances)
The only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to start out as a feature film and then become a Broadway show was State Fair. State Fair made for a sweet, little, family-friendly musical in content, but it had two-things going against it. First, it wasn’t all that exciting of an event considering it opened in a season of musicals that were getting much more hoopla. Rent, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, Victor/Victoria (heck, even the flop Big) were all getting more word of mouth than State Fair which felt like it appeared out of nowhere. Considering the cutting-edge nature of the first two titles in that list, State Fair had little to offer that was new or game-changing. The other problem was that it was virtually impossible to capture all the exciting sights and sounds that both film versions did. It was a sparse looking affair.
High Society (1998, 144 performances)
Timing may have been what hurt High Society, an agreeable stage adaptation of the Cole Porter film musical that was, itself, adapted from the play and film The Philadelphia Story. High Society was never a beloved film musical with legions of adoring fans like some of the other titles on this list. In fact, the stage adaptation had to steal from more popular Cole Porter scores to ensure a few more recognizable hits were there to wow the audience. That being said, High Society might have been a modest hit in a meager or uninspired season. Unfortunately, it opened in the year of The Lion King, Ragtime, Side Show and the mind-blowing revival of Cabaret. High Society was relegated to the “stale, reheated musicals of yesteryear” bin since it provided nothing particularly fresh or different.
Tarzan (2006, 486 performances)
Not every animated Disney film musical is easily reimagined for the stage. Of all the Disney endeavors to take Broadway by storm, this title may have been their strangest choice. To begin with, the film itself is only marginally a musical in the traditional sense. Most of the music is sung by composer/lyricist/pop singer Phil Collins as commentary on the action and isn’t conveying a character’s point of view. This made telling Tarzan onstage a tricky endeavor, since Collins would not be there every night to sing these songs. He had to craft additional ditties for the stage, writing in the more traditional musical theatre vein. This wasn’t his forte and Tarzan onstage never ignited musically. Also, creating a jungle atmosphere where actors could swing through the trees proved an enormous challenge. Perhaps Tarzan just wasn’t the right property for a stage musical.
The Little Mermaid (2008, 685 performances)
If Tarzan was probably a poor choice for adapting to the musical stage, The Little Mermaid seemed like an inspired one. The Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics) score was perfectly suited for a Broadway-style treatment. Creating an undersea world with swimming creatures would be challenging, but not all that different from Peter Pan flying through the night sky or the aerial acrobatics of a Cirque du Soleil type show. Obviously, The Little Mermaid didn’t do awful, running 685 performances, but considering the luck Disney traditionally has with their “Princess” projects, the failure to recoup its investment doesn’t exactly make it a winner by Disney standards. Chiefly, I think The Little Mermaid didn’t do better for two reasons: the treatment of the villain Ursula was all wrong. Gone was the drag queen-style camp that made her so deliciously different for Disney. The other problem: The Little Mermaid may be one of Disney’s most visually stunning films, making it hard to forget what looked so remarkable on the big screen and accept its stage-bound limits.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005, 285 performances)
I had the fortune of seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London where it played like a dream. That same production was brought to New York City where I saw it again and was shocked at how it fizzled. The film, although beloved, has its problems. Characters are not particularly well-developed and songs are rarely integrated in any kind of effective way that helps us know the characters better. This may work in the world of British pantomime where that is an accepted convention overcome with pageantry and spectacle? Was it poorly transplanted to Broadway with a less-effective cast? Was it too British for American audiences? Did I just enjoy its spectacle so much the first time around that my second visit left me underwhelmed and allowed me to see the cracks? I think it is fair to say that all of these factors were a part of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s failure to thrill.
Stay-tuned for the second half of this piece which will explore the many films musicals that DID transition from screen to stage with great success!