First of all, I wanted to clarify an error from the last column. It was fixed pretty early on, so you may not have seen it, but I inaccurately lumped the TV version of Bye Bye Birdie in with the recent string of movies produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. They were in no way involved with “Birdie.” Sorry about the error.
Now, on to the fall/winter movie preview. This is when the studios begin rolling out their end-of-year prestige pictures -- generally a prime time for glittery stage adaptations. But the cupboard is unusually bare this year. That doesn’t mean the fall will be a loss for stage fans, not with David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Savion Glover and Kenneth Lonergan all represented. But based on the most up-to-date studio projections, I see only five adaptations coming to the screen this season -- and only one of those is a major studio release. In chronological order, they are:
• “Urbania” (Sept. 13): This gay-themed drama had a successful staging in Los Angeles under the name Urban Folk Tales. Daniel Reitz adapted his own script for the film, which stars Dan Futterman (Dealer’s Choice), Alan Cumming and off-Broadway stalwart Josh Hamilton. It apparently experiments with flashbacks and surreal shifts in time, using a series of urban legends as jumping-off points. I’ll let you know more when I know more.
• “The Fantasticks” (Sept. 22): More on this next column, but this limited release -- currently scheduled for New York and Los Angeles only -- seems geared primarily to boost interest in the video and DVD. • “Twilight: Los Angeles” (Sept. 27): Anna Deavere Smith’s acclaimed one-man show about the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots earned a fair amount of positive attention at Sundance this year. It’s technically not coming out until next spring, when PBS plans to air it on its new “Stage on Screen” series, but New York audiences can catch it for two weeks at Film Forum.
• “Once in the Life” (Nov. 3): As discussed last column, this is another name change. Laurence Fishburne adapted his own play Riff Raff and is directing this crime drama about two brothers who find it hard to get out of the New York underworld. Annabella Sciorra and Gregory Hines costar.
• “Quills” (Nov. 22): This is the big one. Doug Wright has adapted his own off-Broadway cause celebre about the aging Marquis de Sade writing his memoirs in an insane asylum. Director Philip Kaufman (“Henry & June,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) is no stranger to film erotica; let’s see what he can do with the most famous pervert in history. Fox Searchlight is behind this film in a big way, thanks largely to the knockout cast: Geoffrey Rush plays de Sade, with Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet and recent Oscar honoree Michael Caine along for the ride.
Now, what to make of these movie musicals? Unless “Love’s Labour’s Lost” has frightened audiences away from live musicals forever, several big-ticket releases rely heavily on full-fledged musical sequences. (And I’m not counting rock music: If I were, I’d be able to sneak in my personal choice for the season’s most eagerly awaited flick, Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.”) Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh have stumbled on this kind of material in recent years, in my opinion, and the buzz on all four of these films is that audiences will either love them or despise them. But with directors like these, it’s hard to count them out.
• “Dancer in the Dark” (Sept. 23): Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”) continues to push the boundaries with this bleak 1960s-set drama, which earned top honors at the Cannes Film Festival. It apparently veers wildly from jerky dramatic scenes to lushly photographed musical numbers. Bjork and Catherine Deneuve costar.
• “Bamboozled” (Oct. 6): Ever thought you’d see Savion Glover dance in a Spike Lee film -- in blackface? The word on this is surprisingly subdued, but it looks like Spike is back to his old rabble-rousing self again. The plot hinges on a WB-esque television network that decides to put on a modern-day minstrel show. Glover and Tommy Davidson star on the show-within-a-show; judging from the truly shocking trailer, they’ll be doing plenty of tap dancing.
• “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Dec. 22): I am an enormous fan of the Coen brothers -- “Miller’s Crossing” is just about a perfect film, in my opinion -- but they keep getting stranger and stranger. This Depression-era screwball comedy features George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as escaped convicts who end up recording a hit single. Oh, in case you hadn’t guessed, it’s apparently an update of Homer’s “Odyssey.” Naturally.
• “Moulin Rouge” (Dec. 25): Baz Luhrmann has used music to great effect in “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo + Juliet,” so why not set the Orpheus story in turn-of-the-century Paris -- and fill it with modern-day songs and visuals? Ewan McGregor quotes U2 and Rodgers & Hammerstein throughout, Nicole Kidman has some pretty wild dance sequences and John Leguizamo plays Toulouse-Lautrec. What better way to spend Christmas Day?
Let’s see, what else? Stephen Daldry (An Inspector Calls) hopes to follow in the footsteps of last year’s London director du jour, Sam Mendes, with his directorial debut, “Billy Elliot” (Oct. 13). It’s about an 11-year-old British boy who shocks his parents by yearning to become a ballet dancer. (Still no sign of Daldry’s film of the David Hare one-man show Via Dolorosa, which was screened earlier this year at Sundance.) Neil LaBute’s Cannes hit “Nurse Betty” opens Sept. 8, and the Tom Stoppard-scripted “Vatel” opens on Christmas. Debuting on Dec. 22 is David Mamet’s “State and Main,” which features William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ken Lonergan’s long-awaited “You Can Count on Me” is now scheduled for a Nov. 17 release, and Tap Dogs creator Dein Perry has an autobiographical tale called “Bootmen” opening on Oct. 6. And watch for “Backstage” (Sept. 8), the rap documentary featuring Jay-Z. Regardless of your feelings about DMX and the Lox (two of the other rappers featured), this film bears mentioning because of its original title: “Hard Knock Life,” in honor of the Annie song sampled in Jay-Z’s hit single.
My Favorite Thought: A bunch of good casting suggestions came in for Tevye in the TV “Fiddler on the Roof,” ranging from John Goodman to James Earl Jones. Here are two readers with suggestions:
Patty Petite: “Assuming he sings, a different sort of choice would be Richard Kind of ‘Spin City.’ I liked his work when I first saw him on the late, unlamented revival of ‘The Carol Burnett Show.’ I was quite impressed with him as a person -- and I saw a lot of dramatic potential, frankly -- in his recent appearance on ‘Politically Incorrect.’ He spoke very passionately pro-abortion, anti-‘dumbing down of America,’ etc. What a mensch! And a fine actor. Is ‘Fiddler’ planned for ABC? Some name/network recognition, too …”
Philip, meanwhile, goes with a more conventional choice: “My feeling on ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is that they will go with a mostly Broadway cast (a la the recent ‘Annie’). It's cheaper than paying a ‘star’ salary, which I'm sure is being saved for whatever Babs does. ‘Annie’ proved popular enough without major star pull (Middle America doesn't recognize Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, etc.) Everyone knows ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (it's been done in every dinner theatre in every corner of the world), and they'll watch no matter who plays the role.
“My offering for Tevye is Mandy Patinkin. They can still capitalize on his ‘Chicago Hope’ appearances, and his CD ‘Mamaloshen’ absolutely screams, ‘Audition me for this role.’ The only question in the producer's mind is: Can they calm down his vocal histrionics for TV?
“If I could get the producer's ear, my biggest plea would be to get Bea Arthur to recreate the Matchmaker role. She obviously is willing to do small roles on TV because she recently appeared on ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’ What a great contribution she would make to the project.
P.S. On another topic, I want Bette Midler to do ‘Mame.’ Everyone always taps into Mame's finesse, but Midler could bring out her wild side. After all, in the book Mame took Patrick to a nudist party. And can't you see Midler's reaction when she's told she has to raise Patrick as a Catholic? (How about Christine Baranski as Vera? Faith Prince as Gooch?).
Your Thoughts: Based on what you’ve heard so far, which of these stage-themed movies do you think have the highest hopes for end-of-year recognition? Is the glut of live-action musicals more than a coincidence? And will you see a modern-day minstrel show?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.