Boy, I learned my lesson this time: Don't do a reader poll unless you have a staff of 15 and a few vacation days to devote to it. The response to last column's questionnaire was much better than I had imagined; not everybody answered every question, but many of you really thought hard and came up with some terrific ideas. As a result, this column is about four times longer than usual. "Cutting-Room Floor" and all the usual features of this column will be back next time, but the next 3,000+ words are devoted to you guys. Thanks for playing; maybe we'll do this again sometime. Maybe.
1. Name the single most egregious piece of stage-to-screen casting ever.
Like any question dealing with the grande dames of theatre, this one inspired some rather heated responses. Barbra Streisand got a fair number of votes for "Hello, Dolly!," along with one lone nod for costar Walter Matthau. Rosalind Russell and Audrey Hepburn drew more than their share of scorn for "Gypsy" and "My Fair Lady," respectively, but by far the most frequent and vehement response went to Lucille Ball for the disastrous film of "Mame." Madonna ("Evita"), Liza Minnelli ("Cabaret"), Elizabeth Taylor ("A Little Night Music"), Vanessa Redgrave ("Camelot") and Shirley MacLaine ("Sweet Charity") all received votes as well.
One wrote in to grumble about casting Juanita Hall but not using her voice in "South Pacific," while another wrote at some length about how both Minnelli and Ann-Margret ("Bye Bye Birdie") qualified as egregious casting choices that nonetheless worked.
The men got off a good bit easier. Will Smith in "Six Degrees of Separation" and Dean Martin in "Toys in the Attic" were among the dramatic performers cited -- one entrant even suggested that Martin's performance "has totally destroyed whatever reputation the play might have had" -- and Michael Douglas was singled out for "A Chorus Line." The one I agree with most, though, is Richard Beymer in "West Side Story"; as one entrant said,"he couldn't act, couldn't sing and didn't even have any name recognition.?" 2. Name the single smartest piece of stage-to-screen casting ever.
Julie Andrew was the hands-down winner for "The Sound of Music." As one person put it, "the youthful innocence of Maria is what really brings the movie to life." (Was this meant as a knock on the forever young Mary Martin, who was almost 46 when she did it on Broadway?) Minnelli's "Cabaret" had far more proponents than detractors, and Hepburn's role in "Wait Until Dark" earned her a bit of public redemption.
Other picks included Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy," John Travolta in "Grease!," Marlon Brando in "Guys and Dolls," Jimmy Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story," Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and the entire cast of "Little Shop of Horrors." (I love that one, even if Ellen Greene is a repeat performer.) Marilyn Monroe received a well-thought-out vote for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes": "Even Carol Channing and Anita Loos recognized a real Lorelei Lee when they saw one, however else the movie distorted the property."
3. What director has moved most comfortably between the two media?
Surprisingly few directors have been able to make their mark both in film and on stage. "When Vincente Minnelli returned to the stage," said one reader, "the result was Mata Hari." The telling phrase there is "returned to the stage" -- any number of directors never left Hollywood once they hit it big.
So most voters stuck with the tried and true. Bob Fosse was, unsurprisingly, the biggest vote-getter, and Elia Kazan (my personal pick) was also well represented. But Mike Nichols actually edged past Kazan, and Nicholas Hytner made a surprisingly strong showing. Jerry Zaks was also suggested (a bit prematurely, I would argue, no matter how good "Marvin's Room" was).
4. Do movie adaptations by definition pale in comparison to their stage antecedents? If so, why? If not, name examples.
A lot of people wrote at great length on this topic, and the consensus here appears to be that movies don't measure up. All the usual suspects were named -- Hollywood casting, no aura of live performance, difficulty on the audience's part to suspend disbelief in the same way. What still isn't quite as clear is whether these failed attempts are incapable of achieving these things or whether most examples thus far just haven't managed it.
One explanation stressed that movie musicals "try too hard. They go overboard with spectacle instead of just trusting the story (and songs) and staying true to the show." This puzzles me: While most of you seem to agree with this sentiment, the movies that you like -- "Grease," "The Sound of Music," "Cabaret" -- are the ones that take the greatest liberties! ("West Side Story" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" are exceptions to this rule.) Which is it? I prefer this answer: "The best movies of plays tend to fall into two categories, faithful adaptations (`Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and `My Fair Lady') or total re-imaginings of the work (`Cabaret' and `Amadeus')."
5. Which adaptation best takes advantage of "opening up" the story for the screen?
Here's one case where musicals really seemed to benefit. Hollywood movies equals Hollywood budgets, and this is where "opening up" can really pile on the glamour and gorgeous vistas. The hills are a lot more alive in "The Sound of Music," and a lot of you liked the use of New York City in "West Side Story," Rome in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and Argentina in "Evita." One person defended Richard Lester's knockabout "Forum" -- "The one-set stage format wouldn't have worked cinematically; broad comedy like this had to climax in a chase sequence.? Ironically, many of you picked "Cabaret"; while I also prefer the film to the play, I would argue that Fosse closed it (by removing all the plot numbers) as much as he opened it.
Don't rule out plays, though. Since straight plays generally have smaller budgets, movie adaptations are often able to create more roles. This often dilutes the story, but more than one of you singled out the movie of "Steel Magnolias" and specifically Tom Skerrit's character as a welcome addition.
6. What existing film could best be turned into a Broadway musical? (By no means does the original need to be a musical.)
Get out your checkbooks, all you producers out there. I've got a few sure things here. "Carrie 2"? "American History X"? "Go"? ("Go" was kind of a cool movie, but ...) Somebody mentioned "Marty," which is a great idea - too great of an idea, since Jason Alexander is supposedly doing it in the next year or two. The only entries that got multiple votes are "The Color Purple" and "Moonstruck." Here's one entrant describing the latter: "Not only does it have a great leading lady role, it has romance, comedy, rewarding supporting/character roles and a wonderful warm feeling." Sounds like a hit to me.
Here are some of the other intriguing picks I received: "The World According to Garp," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "The Player," "The Princess Bride," "Working Girl," "Dead Poets Society," "Shakespeare in Love," Stephen King's "Needful Things," "A League of Their Own," "Midnight Cowboy," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Life Is Beautiful."
7. What playwright or composer translates most comfortably to the screen?
Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams and Rodgers & Hammerstein each got a handful of votes. "There's something about the vibrancy of his characters, especially his women, that plays well to the big screen," one reader said quite rightly of Williams. Alfred Uhry did surprisingly well; the TV movie of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is apparently more anxiously awaited than I realized.
The most thought-provoking pick, however, was George S. Kaufman: "Stage Door," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Solid Gold Cadillac" are all listed as worthy adaptations. It's hard to argue with that batch.
8. What playwright or composer translates least comfortably to the screen?
Here's where the Sond-heads really chimed in: Even though Forum and A Little Night Music are the only ones to get filmed thus far, Stephen Sondheim led the pack, followed closely by Andrew Lloyd Webber ("even the video of `Cats' is bad," said one reader). Tom Stoppard, Sam Shephard and Jerry Herman also received a few votes each.
My single favorite response in the whole quiz came in response to this question: "Ever heard of a Beckett film festival?"
9. Why haven't film musicals fared well in the last several years? What will it take to get them back on track? Have the TV movie musicals of recent years ("Cinderella," "Gypsy," etc.) supplanted them for good? Why do they fare so much better than film musicals?
This question received the greatest number of replies and highest quality of response, so I'm giving this one over to y'all. I've pared down a word here and there, but these are basically your comments verbatim. The one sentiment that seemed to crop up again and again was resentment toward the TV musicals. Everybody wants Cinemascope and big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas again, and I don't blame them. But if Hollywood can't make money with Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Andrew Lloyd Webber, then it needs to find a new model. It may be Disney. It may be TV. But it's got to be something new. Anyway, the floor is yours:
"I blame it more on the Hollywood system. Being very expensive to make to begin with, if a musical fails, the entire genre is blamed and hurt. By comparison, if an action or suspense film fails, no one blames the genre."
"Movies as a medium are often too realistic to fit with song and dance (i.e., `West Side Story'). When they're done well, cartoons, because they are cartoons, sidestep this problem."
"They want to do stuff like Chicago cuz it makes major $$$, but it wouldn't translate well. They need to find something that would translate without bastardizing or changing the stage show as little as possible. And to make a movie musical successful today, they would have to attach major stars to it and do major advertising. TV musicals may be the only way to go for now."
"By definition, a musical is something that needs a suspension of reality. This is easier to bring about on stage as opposed to screen."
"Recent movie musicals have fared badly because there are no experts in the field anymore. In the studio days, each studio had its own musical department full of talented experts. `Annie' and `A Chorus Line' had wonderful casts but were made by people who didn't understand the musical form. ... The TV musicals represent a much smaller financial risk, so you can present a musical as a relative novelty. Personally, I thought the TV version of `Gypsy' was a mess, [but] it was a hit, as was the tacky `Cinderella,' because TV audiences are used to lowered standards. They are both campy and glitzy, and best enjoyed by people who have never seen a real stage show."
"I think you have to be a special kind of director to be able to transition from all the singing into dialogue without losing the intensity inherent and exclusive to each."
"I think it's become unpopular to like musicals, so people won't go to the movies to see them. Even with a musical parody, like in the `South Park' movie (which is genius), people complained about the songs. At home, who's going to know if you spent the night watching `Cinderella' or `Gypsy'? PBS must keep running the theatre-related specials for a reason, so people DO watch them."
10. Does the presence of movie stars help or hinder adaptations?
Wow, I may as well have asked, "Did the presence of Madonna help or hinder `Evita'" Nearly everybody who wrote in wanted to talk about Madonna. They said they personally found her distracting but begrudgingly admitted that she got more people into the theatre. And Madonna is one of the few truly accomplished (settle down -- I said "accomplished," not "skilled") musical performers out there. In the old days, Hollywood would cast a pure star with no vocal background whatsoever. Most of the grumbling about "Chicago" has been about Madonna as Velma, but I would think the casting of Goldie Hawn or Charlize Theron as Roxie would be a much bigger lightning rod for criticism. Is it still OK if some anonymous singer dubs in their voice? What does it say when arguably the most emphatic casting campaign in musical theatre history has been on behalf of a man with virtually no proven star presence in the traditional Hollywood box office sense -- Michael Crawford for the Phantom movie?
Anyway, most people seemed to agree that a well-cast star can do a lot of good for a project. "Great as Gwen Verdon was in it," wrote one perceptive reader, "`Damn Yankees' would have been a smash if it had starred Marilyn Monroe." I think this entry said it best: "Sylvester Stallone should never play Jean Valjean." Fair enough.
11. What early (i.e., pre-Hollywood) play or musical do you most wish had been captured on film?
Was it something I said? Fewer than one-fifth of you responded to this question. I take the blame; in retrospect, it was a bit vague. Basically, I wanted to know what original production you felt would be most deserving of an archival film. Some of you wanted to go a good ways back, asking for movies of Medea and The Cherry Orchard, and the idea of seeing original performers held a lot of interest. (I have a hunch a video of Jessica Tandy in Streetcar could be the equivalent of about three years of conservatory training for actresses everywhere.)
As a few readers pointed out, though, early musicals were treated rather shabbily by what one of you called "Hollywood's `Trunk Show' period." A faithful production of Pal Joey seemed to hold some interest, as did movies of Anything Goes and Strike Up the Band.
12. Are you tempted to clap at the end of songs in movie musicals? Do you? If not, why do the directors always leave two or three seconds of silence at the end of the songs?
Despite the occasional urge to clap, it looks like the theatres of America are pretty quiet after songs. As one reader asked, "Whom would I be applauding, the projectionist?" All right, all right, but then why the silence? The consensus seems to be that people need the beat or two to let the song sink in and shift back to dialogue mode. One reader hypothesized that directors keep it in solely for the benefit of the obligatory applause at premieres -- that seems a bit implausible to me, but who knows? I guess I'm one of the only ones who really feels uncomfortable during the silence. Several of the "South Park" songs end with a wide-angle shot of smiling kids, and some weird part of me didn't want to disappoint those badly drawn little troupers by not responding.
13. What play or musical in the last, say, 20 years is screaming out for a movie version?
13a. Who would star in this film? Who would direct it? Would the playwright or composer (if they're still alive) have to do any rewrites?
I may have stacked the deck a bit with this question by giving my personal top choice, Sweeney Todd, as an example. More than half of you discussed the feasibility of a film of Sweeney, which one of you memorably called "the most -- and virtually the only -- cinematic Sondheim show" (although I think Into the Woods could also fit that definition). Lots of votes for Kevin Kline as Sweeney, which I think is divine, but fewer people had legitimate picks for Mrs. Lovett -- Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett were among the options. With Tim Burton behind the camera, Robin Williams as Pirelli and either Donald Sutherland or James Coburn as Judge Turpin, we really could have a smash on our hands.
A bunch of you listed the usual suspects: Les Miserables, Phantom, Sunset Boulevard and Rent. City of Angels also got a number of votes -- including one with Matthew Broderick and Steve Martin as Stine and Stone -- as did Dreamgirls. A few entries posited that Phantom might be a lot more effective on film than it ever was on stage. And one rather diplomatic reader suggested that we could clear up the whole Phantom casting mess by going with Michael Crawford - and demoting Antonio Banderas to Raoul! Now, why didn't Sir Andrew think of that?
Other intriguing choices included La Cage aux Folles, done by the entire cast and crew of "The Birdcage"; Once on This Island, possibly as an animated film; and Mike Nichols directing Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck in As Bees in Honey Drown. Below are two more projects worth mentioning:
"Falsettos starring Dylan McDermott (Marvin), Joseph Fiennes (Whizzer), Joan Cusack (Trina), Jason Alexander (Mendel), Lisa Nicole Carson (Dr. Charlotte -- give Ally McBeal's roommate a chance to shine), and Jane Krakowski (Cordelia). Directed by Nora Ephron."
"If She Loves Me had been a hit, I rather imagine MGM -- which had the rights to the source material -- making a nice movie of it if they didn't overdo production (which they probably would have, even though MGM really didn't have the money for a big musical extravaganza in the mid 60s). I see Shirley Jones as Amalia, Richard Chamberlain or James Franciscus (I know, they were under contract to Metro at the time) as Georg, Gwen Verdon as Illona, Jack Cassidy as Kodaly and Hans Conreid doing `Romantic Atmosphere.' I wouldn't want She Loves Me done today, would you? They'd probably make it an Adam Sandler vehicle."
Terrific job all around. Thanks again for all your insightful responses.
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for BackStage.