STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Let's Go to the Movies

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Let's Go to the Movies So if you own all those other reference books on musicals, why do you need Denny Martin Flinn's "Musical! A Grand Tour?

So if you own all those other reference books on musicals, why do you need Denny Martin Flinn's "Musical! A Grand Tour?

Well, if for no other reason, you must buy this book because Flinn devotes 19 pages to "Broadway on Film," in an endeavor to list every movie musical with Great White Way roots. Though he makes the list his book's appendix, this is no vestigial organ to those of us interested in how Hollywood has dealt with our precious art form.

Even when the results aren't all that we could have hoped for.

Alas, in its zeal to "improve" the product, Tinseltown has often done just the opposite. Flinn has detailed most every miscarriage of justice.

Of A Chorus Line, Flinn says, "The worst film of a great Broadway musical. Ever." When one considers the show's achievement and the movie's lack of it, he could be right. But he may be overreacting because he was close to the show. He did, after all, write "What They Did for Love," one of the documentary tomes about the landmark show. Surveying Hollywood adaptations, he'll tell you when only a few songs were retained: Head's Up and Little Johnny Jones kept two. Call Me Mister, Lady Be Good, and Louisiana Purchase retained three. Naughty Marietta salvaged five, while Music in the Air saved six. Then there are the musicals that kept little but their hit songs: Gay Divorce(e) (only "Night and Day"), Whoopee (just "Making Whoopee"), and Knickerbocker Holiday ("'September Song' remains, but not much else"). As for Flying High and Strike up the Band, they retained only their title songs. The biggest irony: Hold Everything held onto nothing but its title, period.

Cole Porter, Flinn notes, had a particularly tough time with Hollywood. Fifty Million Frenchmen can't be right if only six of its 23 songs remain. Something for the Boys only kept the title song; Panama Hattie and Paris dropped his entire score, and Red, Hot and Blue saved only the title. Not the title song. The title.

Flinn, sad to say, omits Mexican Hayride. I know, I can hear you now, screeching, "But that wasn't a musical movie at all when it made it to film. Hollywood dropped Porter's score and just made it an Abbott and Costello flick." Well, I would have agreed with you, but Flinn lists Fanny and Irma La Douce, which suffered a similar music-amputating fate. So why miss Mexican?

On the credit side of the ledger, Flinn divulges that "after decades of being ignored, Cole Porter replaced George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg" on Rosalie. And at least the substitutions in Can-Can were all vintage Porter works.

Then there are the movie musicals that held onto the songs, but not the book, such as Maytime, New Moon, and The Cat and the Fiddle ("nixed by the Hays office"). Flinn's most fascinating nugget: George Bernard Shaw wouldn't give Louis B. Mayer the rights to Arms and the Man, which inspired The Chocolate Soldier that Mayer wanted to film -- so the mogul just went out and bought Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman, and used that story to buttress the Oscar Strauss-Stanislaus Stange score.

Other oddities: For The Great Waltz, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote new lyrics to Johann Strauss' music. Rudolf Friml's melodies were retained for Firefly, but Otto Harbach's book and lyrics weren't. The big hit song from that film, by the way, was "The Donkey Serenade" -- which wasn't from the show. Don't you hate when that happens?

You can be excused if you never heard of some of the properties -- such as 1938's Sally, Irene, and Mary ("no relation to the original" 1922 musical), or 1948's Are You with It? which was first a 1945 Dolores Gray-starrer that ran a respectable 266 performances. You may have seen Laurel and Hardy's The Bohemian Girl, but did you know that it began life as an 1843 British musical?

These are facts. I got no ax to grind. But I'll take issue with a few items.

I wish Flinn were right when he said that Cabaret won the Oscar for Best Picture, but that 1972 honor went to The Godfather.

Of Top Banana, Flinn writes, "Due to legal complications, it hardly ever surfaces." Gee, I've been seeing it in stores for years.

Flinn says, Lost in the Stars was "a photographed stage production." That isn't my 1974 memory of it, when I saw it on the first day of its two-day engagement. (Oh, Lost's two-day run was not necessarily an indication of its quality. Back in the early '70s, an executive named Ely Landau started a company called The American Film Theatre, which produced movies of plays and musicals. His unorthodox plan was to exhibit each film for -- I'm serious -- two days only, and that would be that. Also from this series, which lasted but two years, was a fascinating, surrealistic, very cinematic filming of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris -- which Flinn forgot to list.)

Strange, though, that Flinn overlooked Hazel Flagg, which was metamorphosed into Living It Up. The title had to go, because Hazel had a sex-change operation and became Homer Flagg. Helen Gallagher could have never dreamed when the movie was made of the musical created for her that she'd be replaced by Jerry Lewis.

Any list such as this, though, always seems to have a few omissions. Others Flinn forgot: Don't Play Us Cheap (which is starting to show up in video stores), Evita, Expresso Bongo, Meet the People, Oh, What a Lovely War, The Pirates of Penzance, Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off (not to mention Sammy Stops the World) The Threepenny Opera, and that cartoon of Shinbone Alley. (You can decide if Thousands Cheer -- whose title just had to be inspired by As Thousands Cheer -- belongs.) Then there's The Fantasticks, which was never released. Flinn presumably hasn't seen that, or else he'd name it "The worst film of a great off-Broadway musical. Ever."

Given that Flinn lists the musicals that retained nothing more from Broadway than their titles (Yokel Boy), some might say that he should have included M-G-M's 1946 effort, Ziegfeld Follies. But in actuality, not until 1958 was there actually a show simply titled Ziegfeld Follies. Each extravaganza that flowed from Flo Ziegfeld's checkbook also had as part of its title the year the revue reached Broadway. Ziegfeld Follies of 1907, Ziegfeld Follies of 1908, et al. So let's let Flinn off the hook on that one.

Whatever tiny reservations any of us might have, this is still quite an accomplished list. Flinn notes the movies made twice -- Anything Goes ('36 and '56), Babes in Toyland ('34 and '61), Good News ('30 and '47), Rio Rita ('29 and '42), Student Prince ('26 and '54), Sunny ('30 and '41), Vagabond King ('30 and '56). Then he details the ones made thrice -- The Desert Song ('29, '43, and '53), Merry Widow ('25, '34, and '52), No, No, Nanette ('30, '40, and '50 -- as Tea for Two), Hit the Deck ('30 and '54 -- even '36, if you count Follow the Fleet), Show Boat ('29, '36, and '51), Rose-Marie ('28, '36, and '54), and Girl Crazy ('32, '43, and '65 -- as When the Boys Meet the Girls).

And when all is said and done, the most useful aspect of Flinn's list is its cataloguing which musical movies changed their names en route from Broadway to Hollywood. So if your TV Guide tells you that Follow the Leader is on -- good news! That's Manhattan Mary. And while you probably know that Lovely to Look At is Roberta, and Broadway Rhythm has ties to Very Warm for May, you probably didn't realize that The Smiling Lieutenant is Waltz Dream, or that Kiss Me Again is Mademoiselle Modiste. Other Flinn-tastic pieces of info: Leathernecking is actually Present Arms, Song of the West is Rainbow, Cuckoos is The Ramblers, and Rogue Song is Gypsy Love.

Flinn limits his survey to film, and eschews videotape, though he does include Mary Martin's Peter Pan. So there are no opinions or information on such direct-to-video items as Ain't Misbehavin', Barnum, Nunsense, Nunsense 2, Pippin, Purlie, any of the four Sondheims, or, of course, the Company cast album session. We'll look forward to that list in Flinn's next book.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com