STAGE TO SCREEN: Phantom Comes to the Screen; Sweeney, Too

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Phantom Comes to the Screen; Sweeney, Too This column will be on the short side for two reasons. One, it's the middle of the summer, and very little is going on in the world of theatre-based film. Two, I'm actually filing this from Montreal, so I'm a bit out of the loop.
New
New "Phantom" Carlotta Minnie Driver.

I poked around in an attempt to answer a few reader questions—and largely came up dry. People wondered what Julie Taymor plans to follow "Frida" with. (No comment, according to her people.) Is "Class," in fact, the new song that will surface in the upcoming theatrical rerelease of "Chicago"? (No definitive answer, but I'd bet a fair amount of money that it is.) What's going on with the "Contact" film? (No word from Susan Stroman.)

I did manage to speak, however, with Really Useful Company spokesman Peter Brown about the "Phantom of the Opera" movie, which is finally scheduled to start filming Sept. 15. We talked before Minnie Driver had been named for the supporting role of Carlotta, but he was at liberty to talk about the three leads chosen by Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Joel Schumacher: up-and-coming British actor Gerard Butler in the title role, Broadway veteran Patrick Wilson (The Full Monty, Oklahoma!) as Raoul and young soprano Emily Rossum ("a nice Jewish girl, 16 years old") as Christine.

"Joel's concept was to go young. He wanted young people who have great voices," Brown says. "The girl has to be young, and if Raoul is to be believable, he can't be much older than her." But what about the Phantom, who presumably brings to the table qualities other than youth and beauty? "Well, that was Joel's concept."

Brown confirmed that filming will take place entirely at London's Pinewood Studios, with the exception of some exterior shots in Paris. He said Webber met with the three actors after Schumacher had expressed his interest in casting them. And he corrected reports that the film would open in Christmas 2004, suggesting that a Thanksgiving release would also be possible.

As for future Webber projects, nothing is on the immediate horizon, but Brown reiterated that Webber has high hopes for filming Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. "Aspects is a smaller show," Brown says, "and it was always thought, 'It wouldn't be difficult to film,' but it hasn't happened." The format is still up in the air, but Sunset would almost certainly be a filmed-for-television venture, much like previous versions of Cats and Joseph. ***

The last few weeks haven't been completely dead. Filming wrapped earlier this month in New York City on the film of "Marie and Bruce," Wallace Shawn's underrated dark comedy about an affluent Manhattan couple in complete meltdown. Second Stage had planned to revive the day-in-the-life play a few years ago, to be directed by the priceless Bob Balaban, but the project fell through.

Anyway, it's back, this time as a film starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick in the title roles. Balaban, who also starred in the original production of the play, has a supporting role here, as do Griffin Dunne and Campbell Scott. Moore strikes me as just about perfect for Marie: The role takes a part she's tackled many times before, that of the stultified wife lashing out ("The Hours" and "Far From Heaven," most recently, but especially "Short Cuts"), and adds several savage new layers to it. As big a fan as I am of Shawn's extended-monologue pieces, I've been anxious for him to return to narrative works like "Marie and Bruce." Perhaps this film will kick-start some interest in them.

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What to make of the news that Dreamworks has expressed interest in making a "Sweeney Todd" movie? Beyond the possible benefits that go along with having multiple suitors (Econ 101 lesson: Competition is always good for the consumer), Dreamworks should be able to make a compelling case. Several commentators have played up the Steven Spielberg connection, but Dreamworks co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen have had considerably more experience with the world of musical theatre. (Disney essentially brought American musicals back to life under Katzenberg's watch in the late 1980's and early 90's, and Geffen has been involved with everything from the "Little Shop of Horrors" movie to the recent Radiant Baby.) And maybe the news that Dreamworks is teaming with Tony winning writers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on a "Catch Me If You Can" musical signals a new direction for the studio. I still think Marty Richards has the inside track on the "Sweeney" film because of his perseverance and skill in getting "Chicago" made, but it would be great if Spielberg could reach out to his "Amazing Stories"/"Family Dog" cohort Tim Burton and get Burton back on board with "Sweeney."

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I had put off watching the first batch of American Film Theater releases for a while because, frankly, I was nervous. The enthusiastic responses that so many of you have had about the mid-1970's series of filmed plays didn't really jibe with recent articles about the series. But I finally decided to break open the first batch and see how they've held up. My plan is to discuss one AFT release in each column.

Sadly, the years have not been kind to "Rhinoceros," Tom O'Horgan's take on the 1959 Eugene Ionesco parable of conformity. The main selling point of this film is the reteaming of co-stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, five years after they made comic history in "The Producers."

I will say this: Wilder has always impressed me as a dramatic actor on the rare chances he gets to flex those muscles, and he and Mostel still have plenty of comic rapport. But Mostel's performance here, as a dandy who transforms into a rhino, makes his "Producers" work look like the picture of restraint. His performance was undoubtedly stunning on stage—he won the Tony for Rhinoceros in 1961—but with the cameras only inches away from Mostel's bug-eyed face, it looks sweaty and desperate. O'Horgan and screenwriter Julian Barry have inserted a musical dream sequence (with a song by O'Horgan's Hair collaborator, Galt McDermot) that beggars description, and the individual scenes range from the odd to the painful. As Broadway audiences saw in 1998 with a ferociously intelligent revival of The Chairs, Ionesco still has the potential to wow audiences. But "Rhinoceros" paints a particularly unflattering picture of the playwright's deft mix of nihilism and humor.

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Only two things opening this month really jump out as having appeal for theatre buffs. The much-loved (at least by me) Dana Ivey can be seen in "Legally Blonde 2" (July 2). Judging from the preview, she will be singing and dancing up a storm. And the following week will see Sinead Cusack in "I Capture the Castle," a coming-of-age romantic comedy set in 1930's England. It's based on the book by British playwright Dodie Smith, who switched to novels after moving to America in the 1940's. (She's probably best known for her children's book "The Hundred and One Dalmatians.")

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Your Thoughts: Again, my apologies for the abbreviated column. Any thoughts on the "Phantom" movie? Do you think the younger cast will work for or against the film?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.