STAGE TO SCREEN: Bring in `da (Joyful) Noise

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Bring in `da (Joyful) Noise Sex scandals, great music, juicy characters, lavish costumes -- Joyful Noise seems like a natural for Hollywood.

Sex scandals, great music, juicy characters, lavish costumes -- Joyful Noise seems like a natural for Hollywood.

Tim Slover’s historical drama, currently playing at the Lamb’s Theatre through March 25, follows the real-life hurdles, intrigues and scandals that faced George Frederick Handel as he attempted to premiere his “Messiah” in 1741. Much of the controversy centered around the idea of performing outside of a church with unsuitable performers. For example, Handel’s soprano soloist, Susannah Cibber, had been forced into marriage at age 22; her husband, a theatre manager, later stole her money and brokered an infidelity between Cibber and a man he intended to blackmail. (A transcript of the subsequent trial was published and sold with pornographic engravings.)

The timing seems right for a film of Joyful Noise. The “Messiah” is inescapable every Christmas, and “Shakespeare in Love” and “Topsy-Turvy” are among the recent Anglophile films chronicling the making of classic theatrical works. And as Slover points out, the setting has just enough gaps in the historical record to make it interesting: “The place where the playwright rubs his hands in glee is where the history books say, ‘It is unknown what happened here.’”

“The story is great on stage,” says Peter Johnson, “but it’s even better on film.” Johnson, a longtime friend of Slover’s -- they met while working at Brigham Young University -- commissioned him to adapt the play for the screen after seeing a workshop of it in San Diego. He then brought the screenplay to the San Francisco production company InteliQuest, which has taken a one-year option on the property. Johnson has been attending such likely venues as the Los Angeles Film Market on behalf of InteliQuest in search of a co-production deal with another production house, preferably a British one. The hope is that Johnson, who has directed for television before, would helm the film.

As always, money is the most pressing concern. Unlike so many of today’s off-Broadway plays, Joyful Noise calls for a fairly large budget; period plays set in the upper echelons of society tend to demand a lot of elaborate costumes and luxe settings. Johnson listed $15 million as a ballpark estimate for a film adaptation, which would presumably be filmed in England. “We’re not naive about the obstacles in getting an independent film made,” says Johnson, “especially one with a budget of more than $500,000. But we have a strategy and we think it’s a good one. I have no doubt that we’ll get the film made.”

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By now, you’ve probably all heard that the Los Angeles and New York branches of the Museum of Television & Radio have begun a massive tribute to Stephen Sondheim, with all sorts of rare footage on display. A total of 14 different programs are being shown, each filled with sequences ranging from 2 minutes (Zero Mostel singing “Comedy Tonight” on the 1971 Tony Awards) to 150 minutes (the “American Playhouse” production of Sunday in the Park With George). I’ll probably be there for “Evening Primrose,” Sam Mendes’ 1996 London version of Company, and a film of the original Pacific Overtures. Other obscurities include a “David Frost Show” episode devoted entirely to Follies, an episode of “Topper” written by Sondheim and a 10-minute piece on Gypsy by Gypsy Rose Lee herself. Click onto www.mtr.org if you want more information.

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Never mind all those pay-per-view and PBS Broadway series supposedly on the way. Plenty of other TV adaptations are already in the works. HBO is still supposedly hatching a Jelly’s Last Jam film directed by George C. Wolfe, and Mary Steenburgen is slated to star in a CBS movie of William Inge’s Picnic. First up, though, is the Showtime film of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Nathan Lane and possibly Mark Linn-Baker will reprise their Broadway roles next month.

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So Andrew Lloyd Webber has announced plans to co-produce a stage musical with Shekhar Kapur, presumably cementing a relationship with the intended director of the Phantom of the Opera film. Why does this news leave me unenthused? Is it because Webber has shown more apparent interest in tweaking his new soccer musical, The Beautiful Game, and joining the theatre ownership game in London and going the quick, cheap and profitable route by filming extant stage productions (Cats, Joseph ... Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar) and fiddling with Whistle Down the Wind? Kapur also has other projects in the air beyond Bombay Dreams, the proposed musical; bear in mind, too, that Joel Schumacher, Bruce Beresford, Franco Zeffirelli and -- get this -- John Woo have all been considered for directing the film at one point or another. I could be wrong, but I’ll be surprised if Phantom becomes a viable property within the next year.

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Following up on an item from the Jan. 16 column: I mentioned a film called “Julie Johnson,” based on a Wendy Hammond play that debuted at the Humana Festival a few years ago. Lili Taylor was scheduled to star in this story of a Hoboken housewife who gets her GED and falls in love at the same time. Taylor is now a definite, and Courtney Love will apparently play Taylor’s new love interest. Photography begins in the next few weeks.

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Cutting-Room Floor: “American Beauty” has swept nearly every specialized pre-Oscar award and looks like an almost sure thing for several major awards, including Best Director (Sam Mendes) and Best Film, on March 26. ... In addition to co-writing the book to Aida, David Henry Hwang is getting some work in Hollywood. He wrote the script for the upcoming four-hour NBC miniseries, “The Monkey King.” ... Two starry adaptations have been making the post-Sundance festival rounds. “The Big Kahuna,” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, kicked off the Santa Barbara film fest earlier this month. It’s scheduled to open in limited release on April 28, the same week Joe Mantegna’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Lakeboat premieres at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Judging from the recent McCarter production of Glengarry Glen Ross, “Lakeboat” co-star Charles Durning has a definite knack for Mamet. “Lakeboat” has no release date yet. ... The Patricia Arquette film of David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room has been announced several times, only to be delayed for various reasons. Now it looks like Patricia Arquette will start filming in Philadelphia in May. ... After several years of script difficulties, Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) appears to have written a usable adaptation of Pat Conroy’s novel “Beach Music.” Brad Pitt is apparently interested in playing the male lead. ... Two extremely loose stage adaptations hit theatres the week of April 24. The kung fu/rap actioner “Romeo Must Die” takes its cue from Shakespeare on April 22, and “Whatever It Takes” gives Cyrano de Bergerac the Hollywood-teen update. The only stage veteran involved in either is Julia Sweeney (God Said, “Ha!”) in “Whatever It Takes.” Meanwhile, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh sing songs by Elton John and Tim Rice in “The Road to El Dorado”; it opens March 31, just nine days after the John/Rice Aida opens on Broadway. Also opening March 31 is a South African documentary with a potentially misleading title: “Long Night’s Journey Into Day.”

My Favorite Thought: Several good wish lists came in for TV productions of plays. One person wanted PBS to film Killer Joe; that seems a bit raw for public television, but I’d love to see HBO or Showtime take a crack at it. Other suggestions include Meryl Streep in Sunset Boulevard, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with John Lithgow, Glenn Close, Matt Damon and Kate Winslet.

But Kevin Dawson puts the whole project into perspective:

“Broadway Tonight sounds like a classic case of technology coming too late for quality. A while back there was talk of how "botched movie versions" of Broadway shows tarnished the reputations of the plays because of film's relative permanence. Similarly, it would be a shame for posterity to recognize an inferior “revisal” of a classic show as the show in its definitive stage. (Broadway Tonight and the other channels may find slim pickings in future seasons in the field of entirely new shows. Even Smokey Joe's Café and Putting it Together are revues of old songs.)”

And this update from a cast member of the Cathy Rigby Peter Pan that has touched down on Broadway between touring dates:

“Shooting will be completed tomorrow on the Cathy Rigby production of Peter Pan, which is being produced for broadcast on A&E and subsequent video release. I don't know when the broadcast is planned for, but they've done a really great job of producing it, and from what I saw of the shots, it's going to be beautiful.”

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Your Thoughts: Who deserves the next big Museum of Television & Radio retrospective? Eugene O’Neill? Rodgers and Hammerstein? Tennessee Williams? Andrew Lloyd Webber? And do you think the Phantom movie will ever happen? (I’m not particularly interested in who will or won’t star -- I’m just asking whether it will ever see the garish light of day.)

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.