Film & TV Features15 Movies About Life in the Theatre From the Last 20 YearsFrom Orson Welles to high school musicals, there are plenty of films set in a backstage milieu.
November 27, 2019
Hollywood has never shied away from movies set in the theatre—in fact, some of Tinseltown’s most beloved works are behind-the-curtain dramas and comedies. All About Eve, All That Jazz, and the original The Producers are just a few that brought the world of Broadway to audiences across America.
Twenty years ago, Tim Robbins wrote and directed Cradle Will Rock, about one of the most infamous productions in Broadway history. In celebration of its December 10, 1999, release, Playbill looks back at it and 14 other theatre-centered films since then.
Cradle Will Rock (1999) The film follows the behind-the-scenes drama of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. Originally funded by the Federal Theatre Project and directed by Orson Welles, the Broadway musical was shut down by the Works Progress Administration for its then-unprecedented tackling of social issues. Hank Azaria stars as Blitzstein with Angus Macfadyen as Welles and Bob Balaban as Harry Hopkins, one the WPA’s major architects. The star-studded cast also includes Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Bill Murray, Jack Black, Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Topsy-Turvey (1999) Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (Iris) stars as playwright W.S. Gilbert opposite Broadway alum Allan Corduner (My Fair Lady) as composer Arthur Sullivan as they struggle to complete their Mikado. The pair sparred frequently during its making , thanks to the weight of their popularity at the time and Gilbert’s obsession with magical elements in their work. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay for director Mike Leigh, winning for Best Make-Up and Best Costume Design.
Moulin Rouge! (2001) Long before Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit starred, Nicole Kidman earned her first Oscar nomination as Satine in Moulin Rouge!, opposite Ewan McGregor as Christian. The Baz Luhrman musical follows the couple’s love affair as the Moulin Rouge attempts to stay afloat by putting on a musical, funded by the a rich and jealous client, The Duke. Richard Roxburgh plays The Duke with Jim Broadbent as Harold Zeigler and John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec.
Camp (2003) Musical theatre summer camp has never been crazier than in this Todd Graff film. Starring a young Anna Kendrick and future three-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesús, Camp follows several aspiring performers as they puts on a production of Company, for which the young thespians leave their heart and soul—and some industrial strength cleaner—on the stage. Throughout it all, they encounter bitter counselors past their prime, explore their sexuality, and engage in backstage cat fights. A cult favorite, the film also stars Daniel Letterle and Sasha Allen, with a cameo by Stephen Sondheim himself.
Being Julia (2004) In an Oscar-nominated performance, Annette Bening plays fictitious London theatre star Julia Lambert, whose career ennui dissipates with the introduction of a new, younger lover to her life. But as Tom's affections become less certain and a young ingenue catches the eye of Julia's director husband, Julia must stake a claim once and for all for her place in the theatre—which climaxes in one of the greatest onstage sequences ever filmed for a comedy. Directed by István Szabó, Being Julia was based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham.
Stage Beauty (2004) Tony winner Billy Crudup (The Coast of Utopia) and Claire Danes (Pygmalion) star in this film adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The movie follows 16th-century performer Ned Kynaston and his dresser Maria as they both struggle with their own theatrical careers. Ned becomes a laughingstock as the rumor mill swirls about his sexuality now that he is no longer able to portray female characters. Meanwhile, Maria attempts to build her craft and become a great stage performer. Together, the pair help each other find contentment with their destined roles in the world of theatre.
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) Judi Dench earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of the real-life Laura Henderson, who opened London’s Windmill Theatre in 1931, a mildly successful playhouse in the West End. When another theatre starts stealing cabaret material, however, Mrs. Henderson breaks from the norm by adding topless girls to her show. As World War II breaks out, the underground theatre becomes a safe haven for soldiers and Londoners alike. The film, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Martin Sherman, also stars Will Young, Kelly Reilley, and Bob Hoskins. A stage adaptation of the film opened on the West End in 2016.
The Producers (2005) The movie adaptation of the most Tony Award-winning show in the history of Broadway reunited stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick onscreen. The Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan musical, directed by Susan Stroman, chronicles the adventures of washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom as they scheme to get rich quick by creating the biggest flop in the history of the Great White Way. Uma Thurman played Ulla, the aspiring performer from Sweden who ends up being the pair’s receptionist-secretary and eventual star.
High School Musical (2006) The movie that launched the careers of Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, and Zac Efron careers is a modern and loose adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. It follows high schoolers from rival cliques as they audition for the annual musical. The Disney Channel Original film is written by Peter Barsocchini and directed by Kenny Ortega. High School Musical was so successful, it served as the first installment of an eventual trilogy and has now spawned a meta television adaptation, set to premiere November 12 on Disney+.
Me and Orson Welles (2008) Following High School Musical, Zac Efron starred in Me and Orson Wells opposite Christian McKay as the famed auteur. The film follows Welles’ mounting of Julius Caesar on Broadway with Efron playing a high school student offered the part of Lucius. Claire Danes, along with Olivier winners Kelly Reilley and Janie Dee, also stars. Directed by Richard Linklater, the film has a screenplay by Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr., based on Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) The late Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in Charlie Kaufman’s film about a fictional director, Caden Cotard, who is perhaps a little too dedicated to the ambitious theatrical piece he’s working on. As reality and fiction start to blend, Cotard starts to live in a world that may not really exist. The movie also stars recent Emmy winner Michelle Williams, Tony winner Dianne Wiest, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Venus in Fur (2013) Based on David Ives’ play, Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation of this two-hander stars Emmanuelle Seigner as Vanda and Mathieu Amalric as Thomas. Venus in Fur follows an actor as she tries to convince a director why she’s perfect for the role while auditioning inside an empty theatre. The play and film are inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century novella of the same name.
Birdman (2014) Written and directed by Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu, this fantastical look at the life of a faded action star who is trying to transition to career in the theatre won the Oscar for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, who attempts a triple-feat of starring, writing, and directing a Broadway play. The only problem is that Riggan’s most famous character, superhero Birdman, keeps getting in the way of new success. The film co-stars Edward Norton as a volatile method actor and Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) Oscar winner Juliette Binoche stars in this behind-the-scenes drama as Maria, who made a star turn 20 years ago in the fictional play Maloja Snake portraying the young ingenue with an older female lover. When Maria returns to play the older woman two decades later, she finds herself constantly at odds with her younger co-star, played by Chloe Grace-Moretz. On top of that, Maria struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. The film is written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
Don’t Think Twice (2016) Written and directed by The New One’s Mike Birbiglia, the movie follows The Commune, an improv group in New York City whose dynamic shifts as they each try to make it big on a TV sketch series, some with more success than others. Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, and Birbiglia himself star in this comedy set in the Off-Off-Broadway downtown theatres of New York City.