* Once again, this column takes inspiration from the buzz around the Walt Disney Pictures' forthcoming film adaption of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony-winning 1987 musical Into The Woods. When a two-minute teaser trailer was recently released, there was uproar among Broadway fans. Some of the chatter was ridiculous — no one sang in the teaser, and Sondheim wasn't credited. Of course, there is singing in the movie (that's been widely reported from the beginning of production), and of course Stephen Sondheim will be properly credited. The teaser trailer was clearly and successfully created to sell this picture to a wide audience. Isn't that what we all want? Don't these hysterical defenders of Sondheim want his work to reach as many people as possible? There was also some (slightly) more serious concern about the trailer. Does the lack of singing (even in this short teaser) indicate a shift in focus away from the original stage musical? To put it bluntly, I hope so.
There certainly is cause for concern with any film adaptation of Broadway show. The two mediums are immensely different — even more so than we sometimes think. What works on stage may very likely not work on film. Some people believe this to be an absolute and for decades musical theatre was virtually forgotten as a source for screen development. Happily for us believers, this has shifted. Since the success of "Chicago" (like "Into The Woods," directed by Rob Marshall), Hollywood has rekindled its love affair with Broadway and given us such first-rate movie musicals as "Dreamgirls," "Hairspray" and "Sweeney Todd." But there have also been clunkers like "Nine" and "The Producers."
This is not an easy task. What I hope for the "Into The Woods" adaptation is that it does find a new way to tell this story and sing these songs, a cinematic vocabulary to translate this inspired piece of theatre (seminal for generations of Broadway-lovers) to immortality on celluloid. There will be changes. On the bright side, we still have the professionally shot video of the stellar original Broadway cast. In this case, we have almost nothing to lose. As the old literary adage (sometimes attributed to Allen Ginsberg, William Faulkner and others) says, "Kill your darlings." We may have to lose some of our favorite bits from Into the Woods. That's part of the process. I'll amend it for this situation to, "kill your darlings, keep your cast albums."
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Songs Cut from Movie Musical Adaptations.
Ain't no complaints from me about Bill Condon's multi-award-winning 2006 movie adaptation of Dreamgirls. Among the changes made for this adaptation, the character of Deena was beefed up, shifting the focus presumably to give Beyonce more of a leading role, but it was dramaturgically defensible as it streamlined the arc of the story for the movie. With added material for Deena and the bulk of the Effie material retained, some of Lorrell's part had to be sacrificed, including the groovy rant, "Ain't No Party." At least the original Lorrell, Loretta Devine, can rest assured that it remains indisputably her song.
Vincente Minnelli's 1960 adaption of Broadway's 1956 hit, Bells Are Ringing, represents the end of an era of Hollywood musicals, as the last movie produced by Arthur Freed (head of MGM's legendary "Freed Unit"), the man behind such big hits as "An American in Paris," "Meet Me In St. Louis" and "Singin' in the Rain." While the film was not a box-office success, it is a delightful treasure in preserving Judy Holliday's indelible performance. A hilarious high point of Holliday's stage performance, "Is It A Crime?" was unfortunately cut from the final released, but it was filmed and is included today as a bonus feature.
Another "hilarious high point" cut from the feature film version of a Broadway musical hit has to be Hairpsray's "The Big Dollhouse." A rousing Act Two opener if there ever was one, this is a perfect example of an onstage crowd-pleaser that is the first to go when the movie is made. Movie narratives often follow a three-act structure that audiences may not even recognize, but Broadway shows are split down the middle with an intermission. In the case of "The Big Dollhouse," an elegant excision was possible. It wouldn't have been the same without Jackie Hoffman's deranged diesel prison matron.
The third in my trifecta of favorite Broadway comedy songs that got the axe in the transition from stage to screen is the A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum showstopper, "I'm Calm." Of course, almost all the songs from the show were cut when the nearly non-musical movie was made. And we can be glad that the inimitable character actor Jack Gilford at least got to recreate his performance as Hysterium (even without "I'm Calm"). Actually, with so few songs, Gilford's musical presence maintained its weight due to his reprise of "Lovely" being one of the few numbers to stay in place. Honorable mention also goes to "That Dirty Old Man" and "Impossible," more funny Sondheim songs missed in this "Funny Thing."
Another Act One finale to be lose in the journey from Broadway to Hollywood is "My Own Best Friend." Audiences of the Academy Award-winning movie sadly never got to see the Kander and Ebb goose-bumper. (Is that a word? It should be — at least for Kander and Ebb!) It may be karma for carving Chita Rivera out of the duet to create another solo for Liza Minnelli when she briefly stepped in for an ailing Gwen Verdon in the original production. At least a verion of that solo is preserved in Liza's performance of the song in her Liza's At The Palace show on DVD (look out for her priceless "Come on, Roxie. Come on!" ad lib right before the final note). Of course, nothing can beat the Verdon-Rivera orginal, but for special kicks, give a listen to Ute Lemper and Ruthie Henshall's London revival cast recording. They bring a certain pop high-belter quality that's quite enjoyable for something different.
This song marks one more Chita Rivera song to miss in the movie version of a Broaday show — basically if you don't use the multi-talented Chita, you've gotta make some adjustments. No one but Rivera could have opened "Bye Bye Birdie" with the relatively unexciting "An English Teacher." Of course, unexciting is a word unknown to Chita Rivera, and fans of her stage or cast album performances will miss the number on screen.
It's hard to quibble with director Tim Burton's choice to leave out "Kiss Me" from his film version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd. The song is so operatic that it would likely have stuck out awkwardly in the context of Burton's version, which made all the songs less performative. Still, aficionados will suffer the lack of this ravishing duet for Anthony and Johanna, which ranks as one of Sondheim's most soaring melodies.
I would never presume to argue with the genius Bob Fosse's decisions in creating the film version of Cabaret. Major sweeping changes were made from stage to screen, resulting in one of the most satisfying movie musicals ever. While I miss songs from the Broadway production like "So What," "It Couldn't Please Me More (The Pineapple Song)," "Meeskite" and "What Would You Do?" the character who sang them were essentially eliminated. The cutting of Sally Bowle's introductory number, "Don't Tell Mama," however, stings. On the bright side, the song that replaced it, "Mein Herr," is arguably even better, but couldn't they have shot both? I'd be happy to have it only on special features. Maybe every movie musical cast should also do a concert of the original score just for fans. Or at least, Liza Minnelli should.
Barbra Streisand shot to stardom as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and it's only natural that the movie version would want to include an actual Fanny Brice number or two in the midst of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's stage score. So, luckily, we get to have Barbra versions of "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy with Somebody Else)" and "My Man" (the later of which Barbra famously sang at her closing curtain call in Funny Girl on Broadway). But did we have to lose "The Music That Makes Me Dance"? For many fans, this is the best song in the score. Consequently, while every woman I know (and most of the men) sing this song, there is no full video of Barbra singing it. Thankfully, there are several with Liza.
This one's a no-brainer. It's about Broadway and New York. The movie sought to be more universal and replaced "N.Y.C." with "Let's Go To The Movies." I get it. But is there a more feel-good New York anthem in Broadway history? This song makes me more happy even than "New York, New York" from On The Town. We did get the passable television version with an exciting cameo by original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as the "star to be" (the role thrillingly created by the late, great Laurie Beechman). I know it's asking a lot, but maybe if I wish hard enough, Liza Minnelli will do this song, too.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, begins performances Sept. 4 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)