From Stage to Screen
Ten Broadway Musicals that, when adapted
to the screen, held their own as Motion Pictures.
By Shaun Costello
I had the good fortune to have grown up in New York City, the son of parents who enjoyed Broadway Theater, particularly musicals. On my mother’s side, there was a history going all the way back to Vaudeville, where, as a child, along with her older brother (My Uncle Tommy), she danced with her parents in an act billed as The Dancing Dowlings. They played theaters, mainly in the South, and shared the playbill with such Vaudeville luminaries as; Buck and Bubbles, The Nicholas Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fanny Bryce, and many others. Years later, my mother and uncle wound up as contract players for Twentieth Century Fox, dancing in Fox musicals like “Down Argentine Way” with Don Ameche and Betty Grable. In those days, movie musicals had specialty acts, who would perform as either background or foreground to the film’s principals. Down Argentine Way’s specialty acts included my mother and uncle who did an improvised Conga number, The Nicholas Brothers (Yes, the same guys they performed with as kids), who did their dazzling tap thing, and Carmen Miranda, who sang tongue twisters in Portuguese, and always appeared with fruit on her head.
So, starting at the tender age of five or six, I was dragged along by my parents to Broadway Musicals, and loved every moment. My first Broadway memory was Peter Pan. Not the 1954 Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard/Jule Styne/Comden and Green Peter Pan, which became the accepted standard bearer for the title. And, not the original either, which played back in the Twenties. No, I’m talking about the 1950 Leonard Bernstein (both music and lyrics) Peter Pan, with
Jean Arthur as the dauntless leader of the lost boys, and Boris Karloff as his nemesis, Captain Hook. Unlike the foppish Cyril Ritchard, Karloff’s Captain Hook was terrifying, and scared the hell out of me. To say that Pater Pan, even at that tender age, got me hooked on musicals, would be shamelessly opportunistic, but, none the less – true. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, I don’t think there was an important show that I missed, not one.
I went to high School in Manhattan, and learned the trick of ‘second acting’ Broadway Shows. It’s simple, and I’m sure would still work today. On Wednesdays, Matinee day on Broadway, a few of us at Rhodes Prep would cut our last class or two, and head over to the theater district. There is security at Broadway theaters only at the beginning of the show. When the audience begins to file back in after the intermission, no one checks their tickets. The trick is to mingle with the crowd, pretend to belong, and be the last ones in. With everyone else seated, any empty seats would be ours for the taking, and the second act of the show was seen, free of charge. I must have sat through the second act of Gypsy twenty times.
In 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater, I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct the Pit Orchestra for the overture, on the opening night of West Side Story. I was too young to have understood the significance of that moment, but never forgot it. So, I guess what I’m saying here, is that I’ve been blessed to have been exposed to musical theater from a very young age, and might as well put all this history to some practical use. I know most of you are thinking ‘Oh no, not another list’. But lists are useful, for me anyhow, and this is something I’ve given a great deal of thought to.
Not that long ago, I had a Facebook discussion with my old friend Mal Worob, about the film version of the Broadway Musical “Cabaret”, and how it was probably the best film adaptation of a Broadway Musical, ever. That got me to thinking. If Cabaret was the best, and if the inevitable Top Ten treatment were given to film adaptations of stage musicals, just what exactly would the other nine be? The single most important criterion would have to be, film adaptations of Broadway musicals, that, even if there had been no stage original to compare them to, would stand on their own as Motion Picture Musicals, marvelous entertainment vehicles in their own right.
I also realize that we’re back to the old subjectivity shenanigans again – my list will probably not match yours, but it’s a start, and that’s really all I’m after here.
So, in alphabetical order:
From Christopher Isherwood’s ‘I Am a Camera’ stories of 1920’s and 1930’s Berlin. Bob Fosse, who made his bones as a stage choreographer, dazzles as few have, as a film director. From the
very opening shot, Cabaret is startlingly fresh and different than anything seen before. I think you could blissfully sit through it, even if it had no story, which it has. Sally, an entertainer at Berlin’s Kit-Kat Klub, has affairs with Brian (Michael York), and Maximilian (Helmut Griem), both of whom are bi-sexual, and having a boy-boy thing with each other. Sally becomes pregnant, Brian offers to do the right thing, and none of it matters – the show’s the thing. And Kit-Kat’s MC, Joel Grey mesmerizes here for the camera as much as he did on the stage. Under Fosse’s keen, energetic direction, Kander and Ebb’s score still shines, some songs better in filmed close-up. And if the number at the gasthaus, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” doesn’t put 1930’s Germany into perspective, then you need time at the Reality Resumptive Institute.
Beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, and edited by David Bretherton, Cabaret is like nothing before or since.
Death Row Musicals are few and far between. The stage production was designed in 1975 by Bob Fosse as a dance-driven vehicle for wife Gwen Verdon, and sassy Chita Rivera, and, while
Kander and Ebb’s (Yes, those two again) songs shined, it was Fosse’s inventive choreography that drove the bus, in one number – literally.
But Rob Marshall’s 2002 adaptation, without attempting to imitate, absolutely glows, and with a surprising cast, including Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, and Richard Gere – and, yes they sing their own numbers, and yes, they’re terrific. Marshall wisely chose to accurately recreate Fosse’s original choreography, but on film, Kander and Ebb’s score is given a more intimate performance, keeping pace
with Fosse’s dance numbers. Solid Cinematography by Dion Beebe, and slick editing by Martin Walsh keep things moving. Nice to see modern film technique used to make a good show even better. So, Mr. Marshall, why not do it again? There’s a long list of wonderful shows, just waiting for this kind of transformation.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF 1971
Just who is this Topol guy, and why isn’t Zero Mostel in this movie? This troubled many back in 1971 who, like myself, had seen the show’s protagonist Tevye played by Zero Mostel on the
stage, and would accept no substitute. But Director Norman Jewison had seen an Israeli actor named Chaim Topol do the part on the London stage, and saw him as a more realistic Tevye, more in keeping with his vision for this film. It took about fifteen minutes for Topol to win me over, and I’m a major Mostel fan.
About Jewison’s vision – never has a Movie Musical contained such striking visuals, reminiscent of early Chagall Paintings, and some Van Gogh, as well. Cinematographer Oswald Morris, on Jewison’s suggestion, shot much of the footage through a nylon stocking, in order to achieve just the right diffusion.
So, from the Jewish Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem, come the Tevye stories. Tales of a milkman named Tevye, in the tiny shtetl
of Anatevka, somewhere in the wilds of nineteenth century Czarist Russia. The name Fiddler on the Roof came from the
image in a Chagall painting. The Bock and Harnick score is given lush visual treatment here, along with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Fiddler is a big, expensive, long (3 hours), elaborately produced film, and Jewison’s vision paid off in spades – just the right amount of realism, mixed with absurdity. A lovely, emotionally satisfying three hours of cinema, really done to perfection. I found no faults with it, truly.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM 1966
I guess you can call this Zero’s revenge for his exclusion from the aforementioned title, although this movie was shot five years
earlier than Fiddler. But on this list, it comes alphabetically after Fiddler, so we’ll call it Zero’s revenge and be done with it.
In ancient Rome, the Empire’s laziest slave Pseudolus (Mostel) wants his freedom if it kills him, which it might. Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and Larry Gelbart, and Burt Shrevelove’s book make for some funny doings.
I saw this on Broadway with both Zero Mostel, and Dick Shawn as Pseudolus, and it was a smart, riotously funny show. Handing this Material to film director Dick Lester however, added an element of frenzied energy, that makes it even funnier. And Lester added some spice to the cast with the addition of Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and Buster Keaton.
Wonderful, clever, frantic banter (Thank you Gelbart/Shevelove), and zany musical numbers make for a satisfying, if unusual, movie musical.
Best number – Captain Gloriosus enters the city.
GUYS AND DOLLS 1955
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
So, would Damon Runyan have gotten a kick out of the song and dance treatment given his eccentric Broadway caricatures; Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Harry the
Horse, Big Jule, and Benny Southstreet? I’d like to think so. How could anyone not fall in love with Frank Loesser’s take on Runyan’s happy-go-lucky gang? Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is one of the all-time great Broadway shows, and Joe Mankiewicz, along with writers Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, Runyan, and an uncredited Ben Hecht, turn it into screen gold for Goldwyn. The big risk here, was hiring box office draw Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando? Could he sing? Could
he dance? The answer is, well, sort of – enough to get by, anyway. But, with lyrics like “Luck, if you’ve ever been a Lady to begin with, luck be a Lady tonight”, the song can carry the singer, and here, it does.
The plot is simple, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) is in charge of setting up “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating
Crap Game in New York”. But he needs a thousand bucks to fund the game. So he bets gambler Sky Masterson (Brando) a thousand clams that Sky can’t persuade Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to abandon her Times Square Mission and fly to Havana with him. Sky hands Nathan his “Marker”, and the game is on. Two Vets from the Broadway original, Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, and the remarkable Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely, whose show stopper, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” is pure joy on the screen, as well.
And Loesser’s glorious lyrics; “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”, and “And the Devil will drag you under, by the sharp lapel on your checkered coat”, still delight the senses of the otherwise sensible.
I think we all know the story here. Incorrigible stage mother Mama Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russel) bets the ranch on daughter
Baby June (Morgan Btittany) becoming a Vaudeville star. But when June flees the theatrical nest, Mama Rose is forced to turn her questionable attentions to older, and less obviously talented sister Louise (Natalie Wood) who winds up becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous stripper at Minsky’s Burlesque. The Styne/Sondheim Musical, starring the indomitable Ethel Merman, is one of Broadways real champs, and the switch from Merman to Rosalind Russell in the movie was risky, but paid off. Russell, while not as powerful in the musical numbers, created a far more complex and compelling Mama
Rose on the screen. And, the addition of Karl Malden as Mama Rose’s relentless beau Herbie, rounds out a nice cast of principals.
The book for the show, written by Arthur Laurents, was based on gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs. Unlike the predecessors on this list, Gypsy is stagey, but forgivably so. The delicious and familiar score, and a game cast make this memorably entertaining. Give Gypsy a chance. Let her entertain you.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 1986
I’ll bet I scared you with this one, but believe me, it belongs here. An unusual theatrical ancestry – The Off Broadway (So, sue me) Musical was based on Roger Corman’s 1960 absurdist
horror/comedy (that’s how it wound up, anyway) that featured a very young Jack Nicholson. The Off Broadway production was a very dark musical indeed, but hilariously so. And, unlike others on this list, the movie wound up quite different from its theatrical parent, with several songs deleted and new ones added.
Nerdy florist Seymour (Rick Morainis) works in a flower shop, and has a crush on co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene). Seymour finds that he has an unusual plant on his hands, an ever-growing carnivorous cactus with a hunger for human blood. He names his thirsty succulent Audrey II, after his love interest, and winds up feeding Audrey’s sadistic Dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) to his plant-pal. Seymour’s boss, who witnessed the dentist’s demise, is the next man on the menu. Where will it end? The plant keeps growing larger, and has Seymour’s girlfriend Audrey in its crosshairs. The insatiable succulent has only one oft-repeated line, “FEED ME”.
Ridiculous, I know, but outrageously funny stuff here, and some catchy tunes as well. If you haven’t seen this, what’s stopping you?
Adapted from the London, then Broadway stage, and of course based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver was filmed at England’s Shepperton Studios. Lionel Bart’s (music and lyrics)
Oliver was one of my very favorite stage musicals, featuring an inventive staging unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. Carol Reed’s movie version recreates a dark, somber, Dickensian London – a perfect background for the story at hand.
Young Oliver escapes a cruel orphanage, and winds up recruited by a band of Dickensian London’s homeless boys, and their greedy mentor Fagin, who
teaches him, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”, in one of the production’s memorable musical numbers. Legend has it that over five thousand boys were auditioned before Reed settled on young Mark Lester for the title role.
Fagin’s character in the Dickens book, as well as subsequent movie versions (David Lean’s memorable film with a young, huge-nosed Alec Guiness as Fagin, comes to mind) had strong anti-Semitic overtones, but Lionel Bart, himself Jewish) softened the miser’s character to make him almost likeable.
“Food, glorious food”, sing the boys at the orphanage, and a glorious musical score this is, with songs expertly staged to match the story, with more dark lensing from
cinematographer Oswald Morris, Production Design by John Box, Art Direction by Terence Marsh, and costumes by Phyllis Dalton. And, a tasty cast including Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Shani Wallace as Nancy, Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble, and old Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate.
A lush, luscious feast for the eyes and ears.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965
Once upon a time, in a pre-Star Wars world, before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rewrote the game plan for box office bonanzas, there was one movie that broke all attendance records
world-wide, and ruled the box office roost for many, many years. It had no special effects to speak of, no space ships or cute and fuzzy aliens, no super heroes saving mankind from dark misadventure. It was simply, the world’s favorite movie. All it had was a simple story of good triumphing over ignorance and impending evil, Rogers and Hammerstein’s
magnificent music, and the visual splendor of Alpine Austria. And, that incredible opening sequence.
It was based on the true story (with the appropriate liberties taken) of the Trapp family, in late 1930’s Austria, and the nanny
Maria (Julie Andrews), a failed nun, who would change their lives forever. A family of musical prodigies, tutored by Maria, and led by their smitten (with Maria, that is) father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), they would use their musical performances to escape their Nazi-occupied homeland. Most of them wound up in Vermont, where their descendents still operate the Trapp Family Lodge.
Hard to imagine film producers attempting such a thing today, but The Sound of Music was shot by Ted McCord in 70MM Anamorphic Panavision, and is visually glorious to behold. The production was designed by Boris Leven, Costume Design by Dorothy Jeakins, and seamlessly edited by Bill Reynolds. Kudos to a top-flight crew.
If there’s anyone reading this who has not seen The Sound of Music, go find it. It’s out there. Probably Rogers and Hammerstein’s best all around score, and that’s saying something. You don’t have to tell anyone. Keep it a secret, if you like, but see it.
WEST SIDE STORY 1961
Shakespeare invades Hell’s Kitchen. Instead of the feuding Montagues and Capulets, we have the Sharks and the Jets. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have Tony and Maria. Different names
and situations, but star-crossed, ill-fated lovers, just the same. And to bring it all about, we are blessed with the sheer genius of two men, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, who would each do their best work here.
In New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, competing gangs vie for supremacy, and there is no love lost, or room for negotiation. The lyrics say so:
“When you’re a Jet,
you’re a Jet all the way,
from your first cigarette,
to your last dying day”
Riff leads the white Jets, and Bernardo the Puerto Rican Sharks, and there’s no room for intermingling. But, at a dance, while Jets and Sharks compete through ethnically-driven dance routines, Riff’s cousin Tony and Bernardo’s sister Maria suddenly notice each other across the gym, and, for this ill-fated couple, the world simply disappears. Sounds corny, I know, but it works, and you’re hooked.
Jerome Robbins creates original, high energy choreography, as the Sharks and Jets dance across streets and playgrounds singing Leonard Bernstein’s unprecedented score, all along headed toward the tragic conclusion that we all know is coming. During a gang fight, Tony, while trying to stop the violence, accidently stabs Bernardo, and the Sharks and the Jets go to the mattresses. Regardless of the lyrics, there is no place for the love between Tony and Maria, who, like that couple in Verona, succumb to the hatred and prejudice of their peers.
Natalie Wood is a compelling Maria. You know her voice is dubbed in the songs, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Richard Beymer however, is a questionable, even effeminate Tony, the only real casting mistake. Russ Tamblyn is a bouncy Riff, and his Sharks counterpart, Bernardo, is well turned by George Chakiris. But the show is stolen by a vivacious Rita Moreno, whose spicy Anita steals every shot she’s in.
Robert Wise steers the ship with a quietly firm directorial hand, leaving Robbins to do the brilliant grunt work. New York City postponed the early construction of Linclon Center, while the troupe cavorted about on the center’s future location. Steven
Sondheim’s first adult job here, as lyricist. He’s said in recent interviews that he finds his work on West Side Story to be mostly embarrassingly bad. Hardly – but certainly much simpler stuff than his later shows.
A story by Shakespeare, Bernstein and Robbins’ best work, and a bunch of pros, singing and dancing their heads off – what could be better?
© 2011 Shaun Costello