Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Next Movie Musicals

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Next Movie Musicals
Thanks to those lovely cassettes that the Motion Picture Academy sends to its nominators, I've had the opportunity to study in the privacy of my living room the two major live-action movie musicals released late last year, Evita and Everyone Says I Love You.
The Playbill cover for  Sweet Adeline  (see second item below).
The Playbill cover for Sweet Adeline (see second item below).

Thanks to those lovely cassettes that the Motion Picture Academy sends to its nominators, I've had the opportunity to study in the privacy of my living room the two major live-action movie musicals released late last year, Evita and Everyone Says I Love You.

I continue to find Alan Parker's Evita a beautiful looking and highly effective piece of film making. And when one considers the difficulties involved in transferring an all-sung, abstract song cycle without conventional scenes or character development from its celebrated but highly stylized stage incarnation to the far more realistic medium of the screen, Parker's achievement is all the more impressive. I believe that we were all fortunate that the movie was delayed for 15 years or so until just the right trio of leads fell into place, under the guidance of a director well suited to the material.

As for the Woody Allen film, although it received greater critical acclaim than Evita, I find it not only less pertinent to this column--it's not, after all, adapted from a stage musical, and features old songs not written for the property--but only a qualified success. No question, it's a blissful, beautifully played romantic high comedy, but as a musical, I find it an interesting attempt that doesn't quite come off. While the Allen-Goldie Hawn finale is dreamy, do the rest of the musical numbers really add much to the script, which would play well without them? And does the use of standards here differ all that much from Dennis Potter's (admittedly more ironic) use of them in Pennies From Heavenand The Singing Detective (even though Potter used period recordings to which the actors lip-synched, and Allen uses, with the exception of Drew Barrymore, the singing voices of his actors)?

Which brings us to a current hot topic: Does the fact that these two films appear to be reasonably successful mean that the live-action -- as opposed to animated -- film musical is back to stay? And more importantly to PBOL readers, which stage musicals might be next and might be best suited to film adaptation?

As for the first question, it's impossible to know just yet. While Evita appears to be on its way to financial success here and abroad, has spawned a best-selling soundtrack, and will have a long life on video, it has not been a blockbuster. But the fact that it's the first Broadway musical adaptation in many years to do well is encouraging. And it's always dangerous to hop on a bandwagon which may prove to be no more than a fluke. Remember that immediately after the success of the TV movie version of Gypsy starring Bette Midler, every network announced plans to produce other TV movies based on Broadway musicals. Then remember how those plans were quietly dropped once the next such project--ABC's Bye Bye Birdie starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams--proved a ratings failure.

It appears that the next stage musical to make the transition to screen will be Chicago, with Goldie Hawn and Madonna as Roxie and Velma, and John Travolta and Rosie O'Donnell likely for other leading roles. Chicago is an interesting choice for several reasons: While the piece is enjoying a wildly successful Broadway revival which is about to start touring the country, it's not well-known to the general public, so the title won't have the kind of cachet that Evita does, even for those who never saw the stage version. And the writing of the show presents problems, for, even though it's a book show and that book is mean and funny, Chicago was conceived as a "musical vaudeville," and is above all a series of numbers played directly to the audience. No doubt screen adapter Larry Gelbart has some concept up his sleeve that will allow the action to unfold on real locations while also managing to integrate the presentational, non-"real" numbers that are the show's chief calling card. I believe Chicago will be tricky to adapt, but it's an intriguing prospect, and should not be nearly as expensive to do as Evita or any number of other titles.

In light of the success of Evita, the most obvious titles now being discussed are, of course, the other major pop operas that took England and America by storm after Evita. In the late '80s, it looked like a film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera--well on its way to becoming the most successful stage musical of all time--was ready to go, with a screenplay written, Joel Schumacher announced to direct, and stage leads Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman set to star. Phantom is now in the active file again, and there's no question that it's a property with an enormous, built-in recognition factor and a natural for an elaborate screen spectacle.

But several questions occur to me: Would an expensive screen version ever have as much magic as Hal Prince's stage production, which creates wonderful moods and effects through lush stagecraft rather than a real underground river, a real Paris Opera House, etc.? A bigger problem may be the fact that the stage version shows no signs of decline; would Andrew Lloyd Webber want a film version competing with a stage show likely to remain on Broadway, in the West End, and elsewhere for the foreseeable future? True, Hello, Dolly!, A Chorus Line, and a few other shows were still playing on Broadway when their film versions opened, but I suspect that the stage Phantom could outlive us all.

In any case, it's likely that Phantom will make it to the screen at some point. And of course Les Miserables is another strong bet, particularly in light of the fact that the stage production was in no way hurt by the world-wide television transmission of the anniversary concert which, while not a transcription of the full theatre staging, had the performers in costume and acting throughout. Of course, Les Miz, with its revolutionaries at the barricades, might be a more expensive proposition than Evita or Phantom. But I think another internationally successful pop opera, Miss Saigon, might be even more effective as a film for, while it has never been as popular on stage as Phantom or Les Miz, it does deal (as does Evita) with a reasonably contemporary story and more down-to-earth characters than most of the other pop operas. And its subject matter--the mess America made in Vietnam just a few decades ago, and the aftermath that continues today--might prove more pertinent than that of the other imported hits.

Several major musical titles--Cats, Starlight Express, even The King and I and Carnival--have been announced for animated transfer. Surely Cats could not work as a live-action film, but even as a cartoon, it might need an injection of additional narrative to satisfy audiences used to the recent series of animated musicals from Disney. As for King and I as an animated film, I don't get it, but time will tell if it ever happens.

Two Sondheim titles--Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd--both of which have already been seen and commercially released on video in their stage productions, have been announced as forthcoming films for several years now; neither appears to be happening at the moment. Falsettos was also supposed to be a film for awhile, but was ultimately dropped.

Rent has been sold to the movies, and I believe could be the basis for a very exciting film opera if the right director (Martin Scorsese has been mentioned and might be the one) handles it. Of course, Rent is just at the beginning of its international stage life, so a film may be some years in the future (although hopefully not too long away for at least some of the original cast to repeat their roles). I think Blood Brothers might make a gritty, location-shot, modestly budgeted British film. Some have suggested City of Angels, but I think the material might prove too sophisticated for mass appeal, and a property that capitalizes throughout on the differences between "real" life and screen life would lose much of its effect when actually placed on screen.

I'll end with the musical that I would most like to see make it to the screen soon, the 1981 hit Dreamgirls. True, the magic that Michael Bennett created on a stage mostly bare but for several computerized towers and some other glitzy accoutrements would be lost on screen. But Dreamgirls is a very emotional piece about a family breaking up and coming back together, and also offers a chance to depict an entire era of American pop music history as background to its central story. As written, the stage text presents certain difficulties, especially its use of recitative in an almost-but-not-quite through-sung show; it's likely that some of the more operatic sequences (which include some of the most interesting material in the show) might have to be modified in a film that would feature much dialogue. And while Whitney Houston has been mentioned for the Diana Ross like Deena role, there's no question that the best role is the one created by Jennifer Holliday, Effie, and Houston is far too beautiful to play it.

And of course all of the above ignores the fact that another screen version of a stage musical--not a Broadway one, but the longest-running one ever--has been in the can for about two years. It remains to be seen at this writing when--or if--the film version of The Fantasticks will see the light of day.

The tenth entry in City Center's "Encores!" series of musicals in concert represented a change of pace: The 1929 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II Sweet Adeline was unlike anything the series has presented before, and was in fact much closer to the brand of show presented in recent years at Weill Recital Hall/Carnegie Hall or in the early '80s by the New Amsterdam Theatre Company at Town Hall. In fact, the latter company presented Adeline in 1985, with Judy Kaye in the title role. Unlike earlier "Encores!" shows, most of which could have been the basis for a full-scale Broadway revival (with their Chicagoconcert becoming just that), Adeline is the kind of quaint museum piece that could never be commercially revived on Broadway. And even in its original form, it was primarily a vehicle for a unique, fascinating, and darkly poignant singing star, Helen Morgan.

At "Encores!," Adeline's narrative was sometimes less than gripping, but musically, it was most pleasurable. The score contains one stunning, complex number--"Some Girl Is On Your Mind," for the three leading men, Adeline and the male ensemble--plus standards like "Why Was I Born?" and "Don't Ever Leave Me," and lesser known gems like "Here Am I." (All four of those numbers can be heard, with Kaye supported by the likes of Rebecca Luker, Davis Gaines, and Brent Barrett, on John McGlinn's Broadway Showstoppers CD on Angel.) There were impressive vocal turns by Patti Cohenour (absent from New York since taking over the lead in the Broadway Phantom of the Opera, and lately occupied by Livent's Phantom tour and Toronto Show Boat), Stephen Bogardus, and Hugh Panaro, and sharp character work from Patrick Breen, Kristi Lynes, Stephen Goldstein, and Myra Carter, the latter filling in on short notice for an indisposed Nancy Marchand. Dorothy Loudon brought out every trick in her considerable arsenal and made the eleven o'clock "Indestructible Kate" a rouser after early success with "My Husband's First Wife."

A worthy venture for "Encores!," even if one had the feeling that some of the audience was waiting for the next "Encores!" show, Promises, Promises. And I've heard some nifty potential casting for Promises in support of already-announced star Martin Short: As Fran Kubelik, Judy Kuhn (who was months ago first on my list of suitable choices for the role in my TheaterWeek column); for Sheldrake, Peter Gallagher or Alec Baldwin; and for Marge MacDougall, Christine Baranski. We'll know momentarily if these glittering names have been secured.

a) You can expect the well-received Old Globe Theatre production of Pride's Crossing, Tina Howe's play in which Cherry Jones plays a 90-year-old woman, to become a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Mitzi Newhouse next season. Jack O'Brien is the director.

b) Strange as it sounds, Donna Murphy's next gig is likely to be playing Nancy in Oliver! opposite the Fagin of F. Murray Abraham at the North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts.

c) Big will actually get its national tour next season, with Susan Stroman revising her choreography, a new director at the helm, and Rex Smith the possible star.

d) Don't be surprised if we soon see Elaine Stritch playing Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop.

Last year, Jay Records became the U.S. counterpart of the long running English label TER, and every month or two Jay issues a batch of titles mixing new releases and older items from the TER catalogue. Especially noteworthy is the label's series of first-ever, double-CD recordings of classics like Guys and Dolls and Annie Get Your Gun (the latter in the Lincoln Center revival version that is the show's standard performing version). Jay's most recent group of releases consists of previously available recordings: the cast albums of three off-Broadway musicals of the '80s--Olympus on My Mind, Goblin Market, and 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down--along with a British studio cast recording of A Little Night Music.

The Night Music is a pleasing set, preserving the reduced orchestration and a few of the cast members of a 1989 Chichester/West End revival. Sian Phillips, who can be heard as Madame Armfeldt on last year's National Theatre revival cast recording of Night Music, sings Desiree here. Sondheim collectors will wish to possess it, but it's not a must if you have all three cast recordings (Broadway, original London, National Theatre).

3 Guys, the 1985 off-Broadway musical about stand-up comics, features among its three cast members the rising Scott Bakula. With music by Michael Rupert and book and lyrics by Jerry Colker, the score is offbeat and intriguing, although it peaks with Bakula's opening number, "Promise of Greatness."

The Olympus set features a mixed cast made up of New York originals and replacements, plus Joyce DeWitt from a stock production. The Grant Sturiale-Barry Harman score is pleasant, Martin Vidnovic is very strong, and playing his son is the now better-known Jason Graae. Groups in search of something small, silly, and tuneful might wish to investigate this 1986 take on the Amphitryon legend.

Many adored Goblin Market when it premiered at the Vineyard Theater in 1985. I found its conception--a Christina Rosetti poem as the basis for an allegorical tale of Victorian sisters returning to their childhood nursery to confront the "goblins" of adulthood--and staging by Andre Ernotte extremely haunting. But Goblin Market was also rather precious, and while much of Polly Pen's music is lovely, it's not always interesting enough to sustain the fragile narrative. Terri Klausner and Ann Morrison are ideal as the sisters.

What stage musical was briefly announced for a screen adaptation to reunite Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke shortly after their Mary Poppins success?
Answer to last week's quiz: Mata Hari closed at the National Theatre, Washington, D.C., in 1967.

FJL asks:
You mentioned in your column that the new Jim Steinman/Roman Polanski vampire musical is based on Polanski's movie The Fearless Vampire Killers, which was also known as Dance of the Vampires (the title of the new musical). Variety reported [keyword "entertainment news", click on Theater, scroll down to 1/29/97] that Polanski's musical will -- notwithstanding its title -- be based on the Anne Rice Interview With the Vampire. Sorry for being a "pain in the neck," but which vampire source is actually providing the lifeblood of the new musical?
KM: My European sources seldom fail me, and I was correct about the source material -- Polanski is directing the musical based on his own film. Variety ran a correction after my item appeared here.

David Low of Manhattan asks: Does Whoopi Goldberg have an understudy for Forum? Since they've rewritten the part for a woman, I assume the understudy is a woman.
KM: Whoopi's standby in Forum is Bob Amaral, the same performer who has been standing by since the revival opened. If Whoopi is out, the company will presumably revert to the original text of this revival, without the changes made to accommodate Whoopi; all of the principals currently appearing with her--including the new Hysterium, Ross Lehman--also played the show with Nathan Lane.

Lee Fritz of Minneapolis asks: On Liz Callaway's CD The Story Goes On: On and Off Broadway, her first selection is a song by Cy Coleman/Barbara Fried called "You There in the Back Row." The notes say that it is from a show called 13 Days To Broadway. I have looked everywhere and can find no information on this musical. I really enjoyed the song and hope that you may have some information.
KM: In 1979, Coleman and Fried wrote the score for Home Again, Home Again, a musical that closed out of town. A few years later, they worked on a musical called 13 Days To Broadway, a backstage show based on their experiences with the earlier musical that recycled a number of the Home Again songs. 13 Days was announced season after season in the mid-'80s, but was never produced.

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