Movie Musicals On the Stage: Part Two – What Is the Recipe for Success?
In the last “Music That Makes Me Dance” column, we explored movie musicals that did not successfully transfer to the stage. From Meet Me in St. Louis to The Little Mermaid, there have been more than a few titles that failed to ignite when they ventured a life upon the wicked stage. We surmised that the art of looking at a musical through the lens of a camera is not the same beast as the art of filling a theatre auditorium with the same story, songs and characters. No, the stage requires a different recipe for success altogether.
Since we examined “The Misses” in the last column, it is only proper form that we analyze the other side of the equation, “The Hits”, in the follow-up. There have been many film musicals that have been enormously successful on the stage. What is interesting to note is that, in almost every case of these successes, each property had to be reimagined in a way that helped us leave behind our memories of the film and look at the story through fresh eyes.
Some of the Hits
42nd Street (1980, 3,486 performances)
42nd Street, the story of a chorus girl who becomes a star when she goes on for an ailing diva, is a tale as old as the hills. The film featured some of Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s most famous numbers such as the title song, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”. It is also well-remembered for Busby Berekley’s kaleidoscopic chorus numbers led by dancer Ruby Keeler. For the stage production, they brought in director/choreographer extraordinaire Gower Champion who made the musical all about dancing, with a particular emphasis on tap. Additionally, Warren/Dubin songs were mined from some of their other Hollywood films, including “We’re in the Money” and what would become the show-stopping “Lullaby of Broadway”. The musical rarely ever stopped dancing, and Champion even managed to tip his hat to Berkeley by having a tilted mirror lowered to above the playing area, reflecting a stage full of chorus girls dancing in a pastiche of his kaleidoscope configurations.
Beauty and the Beast (1994, 5,461 performances)
Of all the titles on this list, Beauty and the Beast may, at first-glance, appear as though it was simply plunked down on the stage without a whole lot of rethinking. Beauty and the Beast was remarkably true to the film in both design and spirit, but this knee-jerk assumption would be wrong. Beauty and the Beast was, in fact, expanded and deepened by its evolution into a Broadway musical. Alan Menken (music) and Tim Rice (stepping in for the deceased original lyricist Howard Ashman) concocted several new songs for the score that painted richer portraits of the characters. For the heroine Belle, “Home”, “No Matter What” and “A Change In Me”, for the villainous Gaston “Me”, and, the biggest deviation from the film, a full-out song for the Beast “If I Can’t Love Her”. Book writer Linda Woolverton opened up the possibilities for many new moments and plot points. When you see Beauty and the Beast onstage, then revisit the film, it is astounding just how different the two are from one another.
The Lion King (1997, over 8,000 performances as of January, 2017)
Arguably the most-artful reimagining of a musical film for the stage, Disney’s The Lion King surprised audiences by being innovative and breathtaking. Critics could no longer say that Disney was just plunking down successful animated film musicals on the stage. This was high-art. The chief reason for its success was the extraordinary vision of Julie Taymor who employed puppetry and techniques of theatre from around the world to tell a story populated by animals. The first ten-minutes are awe-inspiring as the African savannah comes to life with herds of animals, each a cleverly crafted combination of costume, puppetry, and movement. In fact, The Lion King offers its best scene in the opening number “Circle of Life” and because it is so unparalleled to anything we’ve experienced before onstage ever, it is never topped. This is the one place where The Lion King disappoints, but that has hardly kept audiences away. There is still a compelling story of Shakespearean proportions to keep us engaged.
Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002, 903 performances)
The success of Thoroughly Modern Millie has always been a bit of a surprise to me, as I have always preferred the zaniness of the film and the colorful performances of Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie. Regardless of my personal feelings, the leap to the stage brought about many changes for Thoroughly Modern Millie, including a bevy of new songs by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Dick Scanlan (lyrics). In fact, the only songs from the film to appear are the title tune, “Jimmy” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” It appears that the creators decided not to allow the characters to walk in the shadow of their screen predecessors. Millie was little less curt and driven, Miss Dorothy less melodramatic, and Muzzy, who had been portrayed with wack-a-doodle lunacy by Carol Channing was toned down from caricature to something less-exciting, but more-human. The character of the sinister Mrs. Meers (a trader in white slavery) was fleshed out and given a back story, though her menacing nature was swapped-out for something more comedic and desperate. Also gone were the double takes into the camera, something that could not be achieved on the stage. What Thoroughly Modern Millie became was an entertaining musical comedy that worked for the stage, equal parts humor and dance, less 1920s pastiche, and way more music.
Mary Poppins (2006, 2,619 performances)
Mary Poppins had an unconventional voyage to the stage. Though Disney held the rights to the classic Richard and Robert Sherman score, British producer Cameron Mackintosh held the stage rights to the P.L. Travers books. For years, both Disney and Mackintosh individually envisioned a stage version of Mary Poppins, but it wasn’t until they were working in tandem with each other that it legally and successfully could move forward. The result was a Mary Poppins onstage that was reminiscent of the Disney film, but that featured additional stories, characters, and darker aspects of the books that were held by Mackintosh. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe provided some new songs to augment the Sherman Brothers’ score. Songs and sequences from the film were such as “Sister Suffragettes” and “I Love to Laugh”, and the “Jolly Holiday/Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sequence was entirely reimagined, with little resemblance to its onscreen counterpart. Still, there was plenty of magic, wonder, and melody to evoke strong memories of the film and audiences loved Mary Poppins on Broadway.
Newsies (2012, 1,004 performances)
Now, here is a film musical that was a bomb at the box office, a critical disaster that developed a cult-following over the years, and that was then reworked for the stage where it became a hit. The story of the newsboy strike of 1899 made for an earnest, but convoluted (and ultimately tedious) film. The premise wasn’t a bad one, however, and the Alan Menken (music) / Jack Feldman (lyrics) score yielded a few popular tunes in “Seize the Day”, “Santa Fe” and “King of New York.” For the stage, librettist Harvey Fierstein was brought in and he shaped the story, focused the plot, and created a love interest for the lead character that became the journalist who helped get the newsboys’ story out (in the film, that character had been a man). Menken and Feldman got to work on some additional songs for the piece, and suddenly the stage was full of “heart-throbby” newsboys jumping around the stage with athleticism and pluck, striking for fairness in the workplace. Newsies, the film musical failure, was suddenly a Broadway hit.
Aladdin (2014, over 1,190 performances as of January, 2017)
Disney’s animated film Aladdin had a handful of terrific songs by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman/Tim Rice (lyrics), but it was not the most musical of the Disney Renaissance efforts. In fact, the film became less-musical as it went along as it morphed into more of an adventure-comedy. The main event of Aladdin has always been the Genie, and the film featured Robin William’s as the Genie’s voice. His bravura comedic performance establishes the energy and pace of the piece. Onstage, Aladdin had to be expanded to a full Broadway score, but it also had to find a way to fill the void of Williams’s portrayal of the Genie. Fortunately, James Monroe Iglehart found his own show-stopping approach to the character and though he cannot erase the memory of Williams, he established a worthy alternative.
An American in Paris (2015, 623 performances)
The film An American in Paris was an Academy Award-winning masterpiece, with stunning visuals and impossible-to-surpass choreography by its star Gene Kelly. The thin plot crafted by Alan J. Lerner was just a reason for Kelly and Leslie Caron to dance to some glorious George and Ira Gershwin songs. The film was directed with the usual flair and care of Vincente Minnelli. Moving it to the stage proved to be surprisingly successful, especially since playwright Craig Lucas was brought onboard to create a more discernible plot and compelling character development. No one could ever hope to capture Minnelli’s indelible style, so An American in Paris onstage smartly kept the focus on its two strongest assets: the music and the dance. Christopher Wheeldon directed and choreographed, creating a seamless evening heightened by glorious movement. It may not have been the beloved film we remembered, but it was instead a very different visual experience that could give it a run for its money. Isn’t that the best we can hope for a Broadway show born of an iconic film musical?