Broadway, Hollywood and TV

Broadway, Hollywood and TV Michael Buckley discusses the new triangle trade: Broadway and the movie and television industries.
TV and movie star Helen Hunt in Life (x) 3.
TV and movie star Helen Hunt in Life (x) 3. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gene Kelly singin' in the rain...Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away"..."You'll Never Know" performed by Alice Faye. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra toasting high society in "Well, Did You Evah?"...the classic clowning of Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'Em Laugh."

There are memorable moments galore in movie musicals, the glorious genre that's been restored to popularity by the superb film of Chicago (based on the razor-edged show by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb). “Chicago” won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 2002, and became the top-grossing film ever for Miramax Pictures.

It's not really so long ago that hit Broadway musicals were virtually synonymous with cinema. They were almost always made into movies — sometimes preserving Tony-winning performances (Yul Brynner in “The King and I”; Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”), other times not (most regrettably, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury having their Hello, Dolly! and Mame roles played respectively by Barbra Streisand and Lucille Ball). There were even two years in a row when Tony-winning Best Musicals became Oscar-winning Best Pictures: “My Fair Lady” (1964) and “The Sound of Music” (1965).

Over the years, however, some movie musicals, like “Mame,” “A Chorus Line” and “A Little Night Music” failed to strike responsive chords with audiences. Despite modest successes like “The Wiz” and “Evita,” the path between Broadway and Hollywood became a yellowed brick road.

Now, the stylish “Chicago” has the public clamoring for more. The New York Post recently observed, "The success of ‘Chicago’ has launched a musical frenzy in the film biz." Among titles mentioned as potential movies are Hairspray (returning to the world of film, this time as a musical), Sweeney Todd, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, and even a hip-hop Bye Bye Birdie, with a script by 23-year-old filmmaker Jon M. Chu. Storyline Entertainment, the Craig Zadan-Neil Meron company, is planning a big-screen adaptation of Sondheim's Into the Woods, but next up for the producing team is Guys and Dolls. Meron said, "[Producer] Harvey [Weinstein]'s been quoted as saying he wants it to be out in two years." (It's too early for casting, but Weinstein himself would make a great Big Jule.) Most theatre fans welcome a new era of crossovers from Broadway to Hollywood. But the tide has been flowing successfully the other way for more than two decades since the stage adaptation of 42nd Street won the Tony as Best Musical. In the past ten years, six of the Tony-winning Best Musicals were adapted from movies: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Sunset Boulevard (1995), The Lion King (1998), The Producers (2001), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) and Hairspray (2003). Three of this past season's musicals were adapted from movies: Hairspray, Urban Cowboy and Dance of the Vampires.

The 1982 Tony-winning Best Musical, Nine, which was adapted from Federico Fellini's “8 1/2,” returned this season in an opulent revival led by film star Antonio Banderas. Alan Menken's breakout musical, Little Shop of Horrors, adapted from the Roger Corman monster movie, will make its Broadway debut this fall.

In various phases of being readied for the Broadway musical stage are (at least) four shows based on movies: three Oscar-winning Best Pictures, “An American in Paris” (1951), “Marty” (1955) and “Moonstruck” (1987), plus “Mary Poppins,” which won a 1964 Oscar for Julie Andrews, who didn't get to reprise her Broadway role in “My Fair Lady.”

And there is a third corner to the emerging triangle entertainment trade: television. Dozens of Broadway actors have made triumphant crossovers to TV, including Angela Lansbury ("Murder, She Wrote"), Jerry Orbach ("Law & Order"), Jane Krakowski ("Ally McBeal") and Sarah Jessica Parker ("Sex and the City") to name just four.

Not all have had instant success. Nathan Lane's first sitcom, "Encore! Encore!," was short-lived; his second, "Charlie Lawrence," has already been pulled from the CBS schedule. Audra McDonald played the female lead in "Mister Sterling," a political drama that won't return for a second term, and Kristin Chenoweth starred in a series that didn't last quite as long as the Carousel "Soliloquy." But these are people who built their careers on the stage, and it's significant that TV continues to seek ways to translate their Broadway stardom to the small screen.

In the days leading up to the recent Tony Awards ceremony, Turner Classic Movies presented the film versions of eight winners of the Tony for Best Musical , including Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and Cabaret. TCM executive vice president and general manager Ted Karsch said, "Broadway has a rich history in film as well as on the New York stage, and we're happy to present this first-time festival showcasing these great performances."

“Chicago” film director Rob Marshall's journey from Broadway to the big screen was made via TV, where he choreographed Jerry Herman's “Mrs. Santa Claus” and Rodgers and Hammerstein's “Cinderella.” The latter began his association with Storyline Entertainment, and resulted in Marshall directing and choreographing their “Annie.” A major improvement over the film version, its cast included a number of Broadway talents, including Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth and Andrea McArdle.

Zadan and Meron, two co-producers of the “Chicago” film, have kept the movie musical alive on TV — starting with 1993's “Gypsy,” which featured Bette Midler's stellar turn as Rose. Neil Meron said "no better link" exists between Broadway and Hollywood than television, "and all roads lead back to Bette Midler. Had she not agreed to do ‘Gypsy,’ the [new age of the] TV musical would never have been."

Zadan said, "If we hadn't done the next one, ‘Cinderella,’ and hired Rob Marshall, we wouldn't have met him. And if we hadn't had Rob do ‘Annie,’ Harvey Weinstein's kids wouldn't have been watching, and Harvey [of Miramax Films] wouldn't have seen the movie and offered Rob the chance to direct ‘Chicago.’"

Meron said, "The next musical for TV is a live-action ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ and there's still the possibility of ‘Mame.’" Their TV-movie of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ Zadan assured, "is only postponed, not cancelled. We thought it far too dangerous at this time [to film overseas]."

Who will star in the new “Guys and Dolls”? What will be the next successful movie musical? When will Rob Marshall decide on his follow-up feature? Where else but in the unique universe of musical theatre would these questions arise? Why worry, though?

Meanwhile, let's salute “Chicago” for reconnecting Broadway and Hollywood. We should thank: Gwen Verdon, whose dream was to make a musical out of Maurine Watkins' 1926 play; Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who made Verdon's dream come true; the creators of the revival; and Rob Marshall, for bringing song and dance back to the movies. To quote Mr. Ebb, "It's...Great, isn't it? Swell, isn't it? Fun, isn't it? Nowadays!"

Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco in <i>Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune</i>.
Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Photo by Joan Marcus)