Stage to Screen: The 10 Worst Adaptations of Musicals
What plays beautifully on the stage might not necessarily translate effortlessly to the screen. Move musicals that have been adapted from popular stage musicals do not always make the transition successfully. For every West Side Story, The King and I, and The Music Man, there is a musical that just didn’t work so well when Hollywood got their hands on it. Here are ten of the worst stage to screen journeys that make us wonder just what happened.
10. A Chorus Line
The film of A Chorus Line somehow managed to take a stage musical that was an ensemble piece about individual dancers telling their stories about why they stuck by a difficult career for their love of dancing, and instead moved these compelling character studies to the background. The focus was shifted to the director Zach and his past relationship with one of the audition dancers, Cassie. One singular sensation it was not. This approach diminished the musical’s theme that connected the piece with the audience: that we ALL put ourselves on the line to get what we want in life.
9. A Little Night Music
On paper, this should have worked. Harold Prince, directing a film of the stage production he brilliantly imagined in the theatre, with some of the original cast members recreating their roles. Oddly, the two performers who won Tony Awards for their work in the stage production (Glynis Johns and Patricia Elliott) were not asked to reprise their roles onscreen, replaced by Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg (respectively). Two of A Little Night Music’s best songs “Liaisons” and “The Miller’s Son” were excised. The worst part is, what was so thrilling and magical onstage, was stodgy and earth-bound onscreen.
Realizing that it was a reasonably successful film venture, I still find the screen adaptation of Brigadoon to be about was exciting as lukewarm haggis. Yes, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance beautifully, but if these two actors were supposed to be conveying a couple falling love, all traces of that spark disappeared into the morning mist. The studio-bound production values do very little to add to the mystery or magic of Brigadoon. A handful of songs were also cut, melodies that added some depth to what are already cardboard cutout characters.
7. Into the Woods
I’m sure I will take some heat for this one, but I greatly resent what was done to Into the Woods in its transition from stage to screen. I understand that they are two different beasts and that some changes need to be made, but the alterations here are egregious. From Rapunzel not dying (thus destroying the Witch’s motivations for the last third of the story), to the removal of the song “No More”, the musical’s most poignant and necessary song, Disney and company watered-down a powerful stage show into an unsatisfying and bland non-event.
6. The Wiz
Diana Ross, as Dorothy, was about as big of a mistake as there could be. Her Dorothy was an adult woman, completely out of place in this story, socially incapable and frustratingly detached. Though she is ably supported by Michael Jackson, a fantastic Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion (respectively), Ross barely connects with any of them. The concept of Oz as a dystopian New York City is clever, but also frightening. The Wizard of Oz is generally a children’s story, but so much about this film is too horrific for children, and too tedious for adults. It’s a shame that the energy and wit of the stage production were not captured in this excruciatingly hard-to-sit-through film.
Camelot had its own challenges on the stage, but it was well-acted, lovely to look at, and the music has always been Lerner and Loewe’s finest score after My Fair Lady. Despite its exponentially long book, Camelot has many things going for it. Alas, capturing the perfect kingdom onscreen proved to be an impossibility. “Stiff” would be a good way to explain the film, with none of the leads exuding much passion or charm. What is more, what was so opulent onstage, the costumes and scenery, looked dank and dirty onscreen. Merlin needed to conjure up some magic to save this one.
4. Paint Your Wagon
Lerner and Loewe provided a bright and atmospheric score for the musical Paint Your Wagon, but the piece has always suffered from a mediocre book, so a film adaptation was always going to require rethinking. Instead of saying, “Okay, these are our challenges. Let’s offset them by casting performers with strong musical and dance ability,” they decided to secure the talents of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood who were never known for either. At least they managed to cast Harve Presnell to sing the musical’s most haunting song “They Call the Wind Maria”, but that only goes so far when the rest of your leading cast is not up to the challenge of a musical.
3. Man of La Mancha
Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, how can you go wrong? You could. Apparently, people wanted more out of their Man of a La Mancha than a fragmented mess and heightened vulgarity. Sure, the film went through a lot of writers and directors, so its unevenness can possibly be attributed to the revolving door leadership. The film version has two key problems: it never strikes a consistent tone, and it never captures the inspirational feel of the stage musical or its source material Don Quixote by Cervantes. It feels overly long, punching in at two-hours and change, but feeling closer to three.
2. The Fantasticks
Some musicals are better off remaining onstage. The Fantasticks is so inherently theatrical that the idea of opening it up to a musical film treatment is not likely to work. Technically, this small cast musical is a product of Off-Broadway in an age where small and experimental was des rigueur. This only adds to its theatrical nature. The film is an awkward stumble through what should be charming and poetic. In fact, this film was considered such a misfire that it sat on the shelf for almost five years before it was given a theatrical release on four screens.
Somewhat notorious amongst musical film adaptations as being one of the worst, Mame mostly suffers from a lack of spark and a miscast leading lady. Lucille Ball, who was legendary for her comedic ability and spot-on timing, might have sounded like a good choice on paper to portray the lively and liberal aunt who celebrates life, but as this film demonstrates, something doesn’t click. She never feels like a person who could win over a wide-eyed kid, let alone entice the eccentric characters who orbit her life. And, for a story that bursts with color, the film just looks ugly and cold. Sure, Bea Arthur adds short bursts of delectably bitchery as Mame’s best friend Vera Charles (repeating her Tony-winning Broadway performance), but it’s not enough to compensate for Ball’s laden performance.