Hello fellow Dorks!
It was an intimidating task to be asked to guest blog for the fellows over here at In The Mouth of Dorkness. As far as I’m concerned, they’re experts in just about every area of Dork-dom and I am continually overwhelmed by their expansive knowledge and encyclopedic memories of all things cinematic. However, it was pretty easy for me to pin-point an area of film history where this blog is woefully lacking in its enthusiastic coverage of the movies - MUSICALS.
Musicals, both those experienced live on Broadway and those captured on the big screen, are my favorite genre of film. The way the boys wax poetic about gritty noir classics or cheesy blaxploitation films is the way I feel about watching my actors on screen burst into song and dance. With the movie musical about to make a solid splash on film screens this week, with Disney’s release of Into The Woods - a big-budget, star-studded adaptation of a wonderfully melancholy and fairly dark musical by Stephen Sondheim (whose genius shall inspire another guest post for another day) - I thought I should turn my critical eye to musical adaptations.
For this list, I decided to take a look at the best film adaptations of Broadway musicals. Just as Into the Woods first debuted on Broadway and wowed audiences for years before being picked up by Hollywood, each musical on this was first presented on the Great White Way before making its way onto the silver screen. This will explain why my favorite musical - Singin’ In The Rain - isn’t on the list or why some cult favorites - like Little Shop of Horrors, which only made it off-Broadway before on the screen - have been excluded. Also, a list of five seemed too short and a list of ten seemed excessive, so I have chosen eight great movie musical adaptations.
Are you ready? Shall we kick it off with a 5-6-7-8?
8. Damn Yankees - Damn Yankees represents a lot of what can go right with a musical adaptation - you can hold on to the stars that made the Broadway debut a Tony-award winning success (in this case, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston as well as a number of supporting cast and dancers). You have the film made just a couple years after the Broadway show smash, while there’s an eager audience ready to see the film on screen. And most importantly, you put a man behind the camera who knows a little something about musical theatre - Stanley Donen (the director behind such immortal classics as Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On The Town, etc etc etc every awesome musical ever.) Having choreography - and a brief appearance by - Bob Fosse certainly doesn’t hurt either.
7. The Music Man - Aside from Robert Preston’s career-defining performance as Professor Harold Hill, the con man with a heart of gold, The Music Man adaptation benefits from understanding how to scale a musical adaptation. While the film certainly takes pleasure in exploring the opportunity presented by a cinematic medium (real locations, interesting camera shots, comedic editing), the film holds up so well over time because it doesn’t drastically try to alter the feel of the original Broadway shows. The set - a town in small-town Iowa - is appropriately small-scaled, with the action unfolding naturally around a handful of locations. It maintains the intimacy and charm of the original musical and is an example why bigger isn’t always better (I’m looking at you, adaptations of Nine and Hello, Dolly!)
And back to Preston for a moment - he had been a B-level movie actor for awhile but having defined the role on Broadway, he was a must-have for the film adaptation. But producer Jack Warner wasn’t thrilled - he wanted Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant, who he begged, to take the role of Hill. Luckily, Grant said that no one could play the role better than Preston - and he was right. As always. Because he’s Cary Grant.
6. South Pacific - Poor Mary Martin. There are so many roles that she originates and defines on Broadway but never has a chance to bring to Hollywood - and the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific is probably the worst of the snubs. Unfortunately for Martin, the casting of Mitzi Gaynor is pretty terrific - she may not sing as well as Martin but she brings an energy and spunk to the role that makes the film my second-favorite of any adapted Rogers & Hammerstein musical. While there is an ill-advised used on color filters in the film, this is otherwise a subtle and lovely adaptation that has the good sense to retain all of the original songs from the show. When you have such killer tunes as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” and “Younger Than Springtime,” you don’t mess with perfection.
5. Fiddler on the Roof - Fiddler on the Roof was a bona fide Broadway smash - the first show to surpass 3,000 performances and held the record as the longest-running Broadway show for almost ten years. Part of the show’s success was the powerhouse performance of Zero Mostel, an actor whose shadow would be hard to come out from under. Luckily, Chaim Topol, who portrays the patriarch Tevye in the film, brings an unparalleled energy and passion to the role, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Some people will claim the film is too long or too faithful an adaptation of the stage show, but in my opinion, the film benefits from capturing all of the changes, big and small, faced by this Jewish family living in Anatevka in 1905.
4. On The Town - Breaking with many of the other films on this list, On The Town is so enjoyable partly because it deviates decidedly from the original Broadway version. Co-directed by Stanley Donen (of course) and Gene Kelly (who has truly given us the Eighth Wonder Of The World), the film tosses out most of the operatic Broadway music in favor of new music that captures the peppy, vibrant tone of the film. The dancers Donen and Kelly also have an incredible eye for capturing dance on film, which makes On The Town - shot on location in New York City - a dazzling, visual spectacle.
3. Cabaret - Forget the criticisms you’ve heard - Liza Minelli is too talented to portray a washed-up, no talent singer like Sally Bowles, the film cuts out too many supporting characters from the stage show, that the love triangle isn’t necessary. Go back and watch the film. Seriously. I’ll wait. What Cabaret does is throw off all the cliches you think you know about musicals and their film adaptations and as Ebert brilliant describes it, “goes right to the bleak heart of the material and stayed there.” There’s a good reason why Bob Fosse, whose choreography is brilliant and direction even sharper, won the Academy Award for Best Director. And seriously, go back and watch Minelli and Joel Grey (the devious Cabaret Emcee) revel in their moral anarchy with their iconic performances of “Cabaret,” “Money” and “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” and tell me this adaptation is damned close to perfect.
2. The Sound of Music - Film casting is a funny thing. The original Broadway version of this classic starred (of course) Mary Martin as Maria. Julie Andrews, who had originated the role of Eliza Doolitle on Broadway in My Fair Lady had been passed over for the film role because she wasn’t well-known enough. That didn’t prove to be a problem for Walt Disney, who cast her in Mary Poppins and made her an American film star. Thus, Julie Andrews was the must-have choice for The Sound of Music. Poor Mary Martin.
Martin’s loss is cinema’s gain - Andrews’ performance of a mischievous postulant-turned-governess-turned Nazi-fleeing wife is a tour-de-force of charm, energy, and beautiful music. There’s a reason why almost 50 years later, people still sit down together as a family to watch this film. The movie has everything you could want - laughter, music, romance, danger, Nazis - and it’s filmed beautifully on location in Salzburg, capturing the world of the story that the stage show could never quite pull off. Plus, I dare you to watch that scene where Christopher Plummer sings “Edelweiss” with his children and not get a little misty-eyed.
1. West Side Story - This should not be a surprise. When you have a show that is this good - music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and a story that contains one of the sharpest adaptations of Romeo & Juliet, it would be hard to go wrong. The film is both a loving and faithful adaptation of the brilliant stage show that also elevates the musical and expands the gritty world of rival street gangs in the 1950s to create an enduring cinematic classic. This film holds the record for most Academy Award wins for a musical (10!) and it’s not hard to see why. You have the beautiful Natalie Wood (who, yes, I know, doesn’t sing but still manages to convey heartbreaking innocence) and soulful Richard Beymer, falling in love amongst the fire escapes and back alleyways of New York City. You have Rita Moreno, full of fire and seduction, singing the praises of her adopted country in “America.” You have Russ Tamblyn, all kinetic movement and wiseacre energy bordering on rage, as the leader of the Jets, hungrily circling George Chakiris and his Puerto Rican sharks. The performances are amazing. The music is amazing. The choreography is - SERIOUSLY - amazing. There is no better adaptation of a musical ever in the history of film.
Of course, feel free to tell me I’m wrong! What films did I miss? Do you think it’s harsh that I haven’t included anything post-1970s? Leave your thoughts in the comments or tweet me at @beccagrawl. If you’re curious to hear what the boys think about movie musicals, send your questions to @ITMODCast and perhaps we can get them to talk musicals on the show!