Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Musicals That Weren't

I've read recently that Bill Condon is dickering with the idea of filming "Gypsy" - yet again - and that Fox has tentative plans to remake "Carousel" with Hugh Jackman in the role he played in a one-night-only concert reading at Carnegie Hall a couple of years ago.

My question: Why? There's nothing wrong with the original film versions of these musicals and, in the case of "Gypsy," there's also a version that was made for television.

I mean, wouldn't it be a better idea to tackle material that's never been filmed?

This thought occurs to me every time ace producers/musical specialists Craig Zadan and Nail Meron unveil another one of their TV remakes - "Gypsy" which, with Bette Midler in the lead role sounded good on paper but proved otherwise in performance; a watered-down version of "Annie," and most depressing of all, "The Music Man," with the grotesquely miscast Matthew Broderick and the highly resistible Kristen Chenoweth.

I hasten to note that I admire Zadan and Meron and appreciate their efforts, especially the wonders they worked with their big-screen adapations of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Chicago" (2002) and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "Hairspray" (2007) but frankly, their TV work has always left me feeling vaguely disappointed.

Anyway, at least, we've had a couple new ones in the past year - the recent films of "Mamma Mia!" (with Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried perfectly cast as Donna and Sophie, mother and daughter) and Tim Burton's take on Stephen Sondheim's majestic "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

But why not be truly adventrous and film something worthwhile that's been neglected for several decades? Say, five decades.

Why not be a true supporter of the musical theater and committ some once-legendary shows to celluloid?
I'm thinking specifically of two superior shows by composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello" and the endlessly enchanting "She Loves Me"; John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Zorba" and "70 - Girls - 70"; Frank Loesser's masterwork, "The Most Happy Fella," and his underrated "Greenwillow," and Robert Merrill's hugely popular hit "Take Me Along," which caused quite the stir in its day, thanks to star Jackie Gleason's triumphant return to Broadway.

Prior to his death, Bobby Darin had talked about buying "Fiorello" as a starring film vehicle for himself, and Tony Perkins, who starred in the Loesser show on Broadway, wanted to film "Greenwillow" with Jane Fonda (his "Tall Story" co-star) as his leading lady.

And, saddest of all, "She Loves Me" was once the dream project of Blake Edwards who hoped to film it at MGM with Julie Andrews in the Barbara Cook role, but MGM's long-time instability was starting up at the time.

Talk about missed opportunities.

Meanwhile. producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the original film star, Anthony Quinn, encoring in the title role, that they even took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the Alan Bates role.

It never happened, natch. And neither did the others.

Film them already!

(Artwork: Original poster art for stage productions of "Fiorello," "Take Me Along" and "The Most Happy Fella.")


Anonymous said...

Hugh Jackman played Billy Bigelow in "Carousel" at Carnegie Hall in NYC, not in London, and got rave reviews. His production company is also a co-producer of the proposed movie.

joe baltake said...

Done. Thanks for the heads up. It was "Oklahoma!" that Jackman did in London.

Kevin Deany said...

Joe: Long time lurker, first time poster.

My pick for best unfilmed musical is the wonderful David Shire/Richard Maltby show "Baby". It has everything you could want in a show and would reach all age demographics. It's got comedy, heart, drama and sentiment in equal measures. A wonderful score too. It wouldn't be that expensive to film either, requiring neither extensive sets or costumes. Cast it right and watch the money come rolling in like a tidal wave.

Jason Reese said...

I've always longed to see movies of "She Loves Me" and "Fiorello." But I never knew that they almost happened. I hope they still do.

Andy Spletzer said...

I would go see "The Most Happy Fella" based on its title alone. It's only too bad that studios believe people will only go see that which they have seen before (and it's only too bad that, too often, they're right).

jbryant said...

I've always wanted to see a more faithful version of Pal Joey.

joe baltake said...


You and me both. In his youth, Travolta might have been able to pull it off, given that it was originally (and largely) a dancing role.

Daryl Chin said...

One of the problems with adaptations of some of this material is that the old contracts for some of these musicals are ironclad: you can't change a word! But not a comma! And yet a lot of people forget that the musicals that were hits (or misses) had out-of-town tryouts, and a lot of time, the original conceptions had to be revised. (Big example: "Rose's Turn" in GYPSY was supposed to be a solo dance number... and Jerome Robbins was the original director. But no one, i repeat, no one, could get Ethel Merman to move her damn feet!) So (often) what we've gotten in one of these big musicals is a compromise. But once it's done, it's as if it's set in stone, and no one can make a move to change it. (Big examples: the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, which have titanium-clad contracts and if you dare to deviate, instant lawsuit!)

People forget that part of the "great" MGM musicals had to do with the fact that MGM had a backlog of musical material, or were willing to buy up old material, so that the original songs from the musical revue THE BANDWAGON were used as the armature for the new book and added numbers conceived by Comden and Green for Fred Astaire. In other words: they took the songs and invented something fresh and contemporary. But no one thinks to do that. There are many ways of making a musical, but to stick to the old routines and come up with something like the movies made from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals has been detrimental to any sort of invention, lightness, wit which might actually make some of these musicals work now.

That said, there are many wonderful musicals that have been forgotten, FIORELLO is an example, so is THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. LUTE SONG hasn't been done, and then there are those musicals which were destroyed in the movie versions because songs were removed (which you had to do when the movie stars someone like Ava Gardner, who couldn't sing): i'm thinking of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS. Another is LADY IN THE DARK. You might want to revamp the books (the dated Freudianism of LADY IN THE DARK is rather painful) but damn the Kurt Weill songs are good!

And, yes, PAL JOEY as originally conceived (and there is a source, the acerbic John O'Hara novel, which would be dynamite even without the terrific Rogers and Hart songs) would make a great movie.

joe baltake said...


You're right about the originators of stage musicals being rigid when it comes to the screen adaptations of said musicals. Case in point: Authur Laurents has been holding a grudge against the 1962 film of "Gypsy" (which is highly faithful to his show) for more than 40 - count 'em - 40 years because the scenarist Leonard Spielgass dared to make a few minor alterations (all improvements, in my opinion).

I've always found it odd that shows that are a success on stage often fizzle on screen, in spite of their fidelity to the original piece. Maybe that's because the camera simply magnifies flaws that were always there but unseen or undetected on stage.

Laurents' "West Side Story" is a good example. The 1961 film is so deadly largely because it adheres so closely to Laurents' arch book, which is the weakest thing about the stage production.

Re Rodgers and Hammerstein, it seems to me that a lot of liberties (not all of them good) were taken with the film of "The Sound of Music," which remains the team's most successful film musical. The stage version is much tougher and less cloying. Better.
And I've read that Richard Rodgers cooperated completely with the dumbing down of his property.

jbryant said...

daryl: agreed about the O'Hara novel of Pal Joey. It would make a good film in its own right (even without those brilliant Rodgers & Hart songs).

Even though I didn't like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, isn't its approach somewhat comparable to what you're talking about re the MGM musicals?

Daryl Chin said...

THE SOUND OF MUSIC was done while Richard Rodgers was still alive, and at that point, he was very nervous: Oscar Hammerstein had died, and Rodgers needed some reassurance that their work would be popular again.

William Wyler was the original choice to direct THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and he wanted to return the material to the historical context, making a movie about an aristocratic family's reponse to the rise of the Nazis. There was a lot of archival documentary footage that Wyler wanted to use... Rodgers freaked out, and Wyler was out.

Ernest Lehman and Robert Wise were brought in, but they agreed to the family-musical approach that Rodgers wanted. (One thing about Robert Wise: he was a pro, and he was amenable. If the bosses want THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSON cut, hey, cut it! If Richard Rodgers wants a family musical, ok!) But Rodgers was there to approve all the changes, and also to write new material for Julie Andrews.

But this whole idea of family entertainment: i'm just watching HAIL SID CAESAR! THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY on Showtime, and Howard Morris explains that the Caesar Comedy Hour was knocked off the air by Lawrence Welk! And Morris says, "Are you surprised? I'm surprised! We were doing satire, and we got knocked off by a return to vaudeville. An accordion player!"

So this dumbing down idea isn't new, and (unfortunately) there's always the evidence that the public really wants the lowest common denominator. But THE SOUND OF MUSIC's sugar-coating proved to be so popular that it spawned the hideous "family entertainments" that helped to bankrupt the studio system (cf. DOCTOR DOLITTLE, WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CAMELOT).

Becky said...

How about a film of "Promises, Promises"? Perhaps starring Steve Carrel and Zooey Deschanel? That would be great.

jbryant said...

I can hear the studio head now when "Promises, Promises" is pitched: "Do you think this story could work without the songs?"

wwolfe said...

I'd like to see a movie of Randy Newman's "Faust." It wasn't a hit, but the songs were good, and I'd say the story suits the mood of the moment.