Broadway Titles Flickered as Films 2008-09; More to Come

Special Features   Broadway Titles Flickered as Films 2008-09; More to Come The hit 2002 movie adaptation of the 1997 Tony-winning Best Revival Chicago changed the way Hollywood thinks about stage musicals.
Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film version of Chicago
Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film version of Chicago Photo by David James

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When "Chicago" won the Academy Award as Best Picture, it was the first stage musical adaptation to do so since "Oliver!" 34 years earlier, and it helped to get a green light for film versions of other Tony-winning Broadway shows including Rent, The Producers and Sweeney Todd.

The trend continued this past year with three major stage-to-screen projects — and more are on the way.

Up for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards ceremony was "Frost/Nixon," the movie version of Peter Morgan's Best Play nominee. It was filmed with its two stage stars: Michael Sheen, as David Frost, and Frank Langella, reprising his (third) Tony-winning role as Richard M. Nixon.

Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon"
photo by © 2008 Universal Pictures

While it's true that a theatre experience can be exciting and unparalleled, it's hard to fully realize certain locales (such as the terrace, overlooking the ocean, of Nixon's California home) and instances, especially close-up scenes. Following the final Frost interview, a defeated Nixon stops on the way to his car to admire an onlooker's dog, creating an unexpected, tender moment. "Doubt," another 2008 film, was based on John Patrick Shanley's Best Play, which also received the Pulitzer Prize, among numerous other honors. Its entire cast (of four) were Tony nominees: Cherry Jones, Brian F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh (now Mrs. O'Byrne), and Adriane Lenox. (Jones and Lenox took home Tony Awards.)

Oscar nominations were earned by the movie's four leads: Meryl Streep (a record 15th nod for the two-time winner), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor for "Capote"), Amy Adams, and Viola Davis (a Tony winner for King Hedley II).

Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt"
photo by Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Film Corp.

On screen, the action was opened up to show the Bronx neighborhood, the child at the center of the story, plus the schoolyard and his classmates. Sister Aloysius (Streep) meets with the boy's mother (Davis) at a park, rather than in an office, as in the play. Arguments between nun and priest (Hoffman) have a heightened intensity, because of the in-your-face dimension added by the camera. However, Cherry Jones believes that Doubt, in which she played 708 times (in New York and on tour), "makes for a stronger story and has a bigger impact in the theater. It's a parable, and parables are easier to do well onstage.

"You don't need to open it up. Mean, lean, compact, four people. It's left to the imagination. That's not, in any way, meant to diminish the film. More people will get to see it."

Another 2008 film with Broadway origins that starred Meryl Streep was the movie version of Mamma Mia! (a 2002 Best Musical nominee still on Broadway). Streep traded habits to play a single-mother "Dancing Queen," and with a worldwide box-office take of a half-billion dollars (and counting), it became the highest-grossing film musical ever made.

Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!"
photo by Peter Mountain/ © Universal Pictures

Was she surprised at the film's success? "No," Streep admits. "They were — over at Universal City. Why? Because they're — " she whispers — "men." She laughs. "The budget would have fit into the prop-budget for 'Hellboy.'" Would Streep do a sequel? "Yes — if they film it in the same place," a reference to the sumptuous locations in Greece.

Broadway Movies in the Pipeline

Hollywood will continue its rediscovery of Broadway in the months to come. A sequel to "Hairspray" is one the drawing board (titled "Hairspray 2: White Lipstick"). In the 2008 film, John Travolta inherited Harvey Fierstein's gender-bending, Tony-winning role of Edna Turnblad, playing opposite Oscar winner Christopher Walken (the most dynamic duo since Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire). No word yet on whether they will repeat in the sequel.

Also up to bat for Storyline partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers of the "Hairspray" sequel, is a movie remake of "Damn Yankees" (based on 1956's Best Musical), the only film in which Gwen Verdon reprised one of (her four) Tony-winning roles. At press time, only two stars were cast: Jim Carrey (as Mr. Applegate) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Joe Hardy).

Last year's Best Play, August: Osage County, is headed to the screen; Oscar winner Emma Thompson is working on a new screenplay for "My Fair Lady" (By George, she is!); and a movie of Nine - 1982's Best Musical, 2003's Best Revival — will be a November 2009 release. "Nine," the musical based on Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," the 1963 Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film, features a stellar cast of Oscar winners: Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren — and is directed by "Chicago" helmer Rob Marshall.

This features appears in the Playbill for the 2009 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall. Michael Buckley writes the monthly Stage to Screens column for Playbill.com.

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