Where do the wonderful world of theatre and the world of film collide? Thomas S. Hischak, author of The Oxford Companion To The American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television is here to document the scene. Hischak is a Professor of Theatre at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of sixteen books on theater, film, and popular music as well as the author of twenty published plays. In The Oxford Companion To The American Musical Hischak offers over two thousand entries on musicals, performers, composers, lyricists, producers, choreographers and much more. In the entry below Hischak makes some recommendations for shows that should be remade as films.
Is the curse of the Broadway over? Has Hollywood gotten over its phobia of screen versions of Broadway musicals? The last half-dozen years have seen more stage-to-screen musicals than the previous 20 years combined. The film versions of Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, The Producers, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Sweeney Todd have found various degrees of success but it seems like Hollywood is once again looking to Broadway for projects. Perhaps they should look to the past as well. The results were uneven, sure, but at one time just about every moderately successful Broadway musical was later filmed. Since Hollywood loves remakes, I suggest they remake some of the less-than-satisfying movie musicals based on Broadway hits.
Perhaps it’s too soon to consider redoing some of the critical and financial bombs of the not-so-distant past, such as A Chorus Line, Annie, and The Wiz. Instead, Hollywood should reach back to the golden age of Broadway and see where some damage can be repaired. Isn’t it time Guys and Dolls was done right? And what about Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, Anything Goes, and Gypsy? All of these have returned to Broadway with great success over the past two decades. Maybe it’s time they returned to the screen in newer, more faithful, more satisfying versions.
The roster of possibilities is long so I’ll limit my wish list to the works of some of the great composers and lyricists. Rodgers and Hammerstein were well served by Hollywood with The King and I and The Sound of Music. Even Flower Drum Song, a musical of secondary importance, made an enjoyable film. But what of the three masterpieces that were made into mediocre movies? The screen versions of Carousel, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific were all box office successes, mainly because the Broadway shows were such giant hits that everyone wanted to see them on screen. Audiences were satisfied because the beloved scores of these musicals were preserved and well sung on screen. But all three films come across as rather lackluster today. How wonderful it would be to see movie versions that handled the stories and characters with more dynamism than the 1950s films? How about Hugh Jackman as Billy Bigelow? Johnny Depp as Jud Fry? Or Amy Adams as Nellie Forbush and Antonio Banderas as Emile de Becque? It’s something to think about.
Lerner and Loewe were poorly served by Hollywood. Even the much-awarded My Fair Lady is a bit sluggish on the screen and might be remade as a very different interpretation of Henry Higgins than Rex Harrison’s. No modern remake of Brigadoon or Paint Your Wagon could be as distressing as the existing films. Why not go to Scotland for Brigadoon and get some real heather on that hill? Or return to Paint Your Wagon’s original story and characters and hope for another Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Then there’s Camelot. The film has many fans but I still ache for a less cumbersome screen version that uses the magic of cinema to recreate the fantasy elements of the musical. Not a heavy Lord of Rings with songs but a whimsical piece of filmmaking. Call in the folks who made A Fairy Tale or Peter Pan.
Cole Porter rarely was given a first-class libretto to score but got lucky with the scripts for Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. The former was filmed three times, though none came close to the daffy joy of the stage work. There is much to enjoy in the screen version of Kiss Me, Kate too, but I still think we deserve better. Irving Berlin also was hampered by weak librettos but there’s nothing wrong with Annie Get Your Gun. The big, colorful movie version with Betty Hutton was a box office hit and many still enjoy it on DVD but I’m not satisfied, are you? Jule Styne was luckier than Porter and Berlin in his stage librettos and sometimes in their screen treatments, as with Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl. But wouldn’t a new film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the Roaring Twenties (not the Marilyn Monroe 1950s) be nice? And then there’s Gypsy, a musical that has found success on Broadway with various stars conquering the ghost of Ethel Merman. Bette Midler was terrific in the television version but if Broadway can have a steady stream of Gypsy productions why can’t we have at least one good film version?
The Rodgers and Hart musicals are problematic: all those great songs and rarely a story worthy of them. The two shows most appealing for revival, The Boys From Syracuse and Pal Joey, were butchered as films. The former would need just the right farcical touch to work on screen but Pal Joey is ripe for a film treatment. The stage production foreshadows Cabaret and Chicago and modern audiences would have no trouble with its sleazy, anti-romanticism. Similarly dark are most of the musicals by Kurt Weill. There are several film versions of The Threepenny Opera but doesn’t Lost in the Stars deserve a better adaptation? And what of his two musical comedies, Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus? Both were botched by Hollywood, barely coming across as musicals at all. With their reliance on dreams and fantasy, they’re extremely cinematic on stage. Why not on film?
Then there’s the question of Stephen Sondheim. His stage works are also very cinematic and in the case of Sweeney Todd the movie was able to tell the macabre story in film terms. That can’t be said for A Little Night Music. A remake, set in Sweden where it belongs, might be very satisfying. It couldn’t be any worse. And a musical remake of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum would be great. Most of the Sondheim stage musicals haven’t been filmed and the ever-recurring talk about screen versions of Follies, Into the Woods, and others is exciting to think about. Let’s hope they’re more like Sweeney Todd and less like A Little Night Music. Before Hollywood remakes Forrest Gump or Gladiator maybe they’ll consider the great musicals that deserve a second and more accomplished showing on the screen.