Friday, November 28, 2014

reversal of fortune - from screen to stage?

The cast of Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman."  Why hasn't any one adapted this natural into a stage musical?

The immediate previous essay comments on Broadway's current penchant of adapting popular movies, mostly recent ones, into lavish stage musicals.  Not a bad idea, except that most of the choices have been slightly wacky.  "Rocky"?  "The Bridges of Madison County"?  Oy.

Not every Broadway musical derived from a successful film makes sense.  Not every past movie lends itself to singing and dancing the way a "Hairspray" or a "Kinky Boots" does.  Not every old film is as natural a musical as "The Producers."

The new musical version of Andrew Bergman's 1992 movie, "Honeymoon in Vegas," which begins previews in two weeks and opens January 15, is one of those rarities that makes complete sense.  Bergman himself did the adaptation and he's come up with a delightfully wonderful show, an old-fashioned musical comedy, along the lines of "Bye Bye Birdie."  The New York Times' Ben Brantley said as much in his rave review when the show premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey in October, 2013. A natural musical.

Anyway, here are my picks for ten films that would make terrific musicals.

I think. 

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" - This 1993 masterwork, directed by Henry Selick under the eye of auteur Tim Burton, contains one of the screen's best original song scores - a symphonic blend of the elegant and the eccentric by Danny Elfman.  Disney has been so astute and so aggressive in refashioning its animations into surefire stage musicals that it's quite curious that the studio has managed to overlook this one.

"True Stories" - The talented David Byrne made his directorial debut in 1986 with this inventive new-style musical, which he co-wrote with playwright Beth Henley and Henley's then-boyfriend, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and then seemingly retired.  Too bad because he had an original vision.  This film bristles with idiosyncrasies and terrific songs and its eclectic cast - John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, Annie McEnroe and Byrne himself - operates in an apt alternative space.

"Elmer Gantry" - Sinclair Lewis' novel was already the basis of a powerful and hugely entertaining movie - filmed in 1960 by Richard Brooks - as well as a stage musical.  Yes, as mentioned in the previous essay, it was staged in 1970 with the late Robert Shaw in the title role and Rita Moreno as Sister Sharon, directed by choreographer Onna White.  The rest of the creative team was lesser known  (book by Peter Bellwood; music and lyrics by Stanley Lebowsky and Fred Tobias, respectively) and the show closed after only one performance. Ouch.  But there's still potential for a great musical here, particularly if cast with someone as dynamic as Burt Lancaster, who brought a musical lilt to his showstopping performance in the film.  One problem: The subject of lay preachers was the basis of the recent flop, "Leap of Faith," also based on a film.

"My Sister Eileen" - Richard Quine's highly regarded 1955 musical version of Ruth McKenney's perennially popular stories about life and a career in New York/Greenwich Village of several decades ago already comes with a great script by Quine and Blake Edwards and a nimble song score by Leo Rubin and Jule Styne.  It would be ill-advised to update the material.  "My Sister Eileen" is comfortably ensconced in the past and should remain a period piece. And keep the Bob Fosse choreography.

"The Landlord" - Hal Ashby's 1970 seriocomedy, based on the book by Kristin Hunter, remains one of the best films about race relations, alternately comic and tragic.  It has just the right number of characters for an intimate stage musical and already comes with a selection of evocative songs that Al Kooper wrote as background for the film.  I could see Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Williams taking on the Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands roles, Harriet Harris doing Lee Grant's bit and Jeremy Jordan in for Beau Bridges. Bill Gunn's movie script should adapt well.

"A Face in the Crowd" - Budd Schulberg's cautionary (and prescient) fable about corrupting power, directed in 1957 by Elia Kazan, is a natural for a stage musical, given that its lead character, the hillbilly Lonesome Rhodes, ingratiates himself with the public with his twangy singing. True, Andy Griffin is indelible in the film but country superstar Blake Shelton could easily fit Griffin's boots. He could be a knockout  if anyone is inspired to turn the material into a full-scale musical.

"Raise the Red Lantern"- Yimou Zhang's splashy 1991 melodrama about the pecking order and rivalries among the four wives of a wealthy lord in 1920s China is so fascinating and so accessible because one could read the material as being about office politics in the workplace.  With virtually an all-female cast, this would make a great Stephen Sondheim musical and not atypical at all for the legendary composer who tackled similarly difficult subjects in "Pacific Overtures" and "Passion."

"One-Trick Pony" - Paul Simon's music never ages and the fabulous songs he wrote for Robert M. Young's 1980 film (for which Simon also wrote the screenplay) would sound wonderful sung live - on a New York stage.  Simon is now too old to recreate his autobiographical role on Broadway, but his story about a singer trying to navigate the details of a tour while putting out an album remains as contemporary as ever.

"Waiting for Guffman" - This one could be the next "The Producers."  Christopher Guest's tale of an awful centennial show - being done by an amateur cast (including a dentist and a couple who work as real-estate agents) from Blaine, Missouri and under the direction of a clueless "off-off-off-off-off-Broadway" character named Corky St. Clair - is ready-made for the Broadway stage. And the songs, of course, are appropriate idiotic.  It remains a mystery why Guest hasn't done this himself.

"Mike's Murder" - James Bridges' ill-fated and misunderestood 1984 film is about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the memory of a one-night stand after the guy is murdered.  Bridges, who also wrote the script, originally told his story backwards and used a song score by Joe Jackson in lieu of the usual instrumentals.  When the film failed in previews, it was re-edited and made chronological and the Jackson songs were scrapped for a John Barry score. During the film's delay,  A&M Records released Jackson's soundtrack in 1983, a solid year before the film's release, and it became something of a sensation.  And with good reason.  It's terrific.  The story, with Jackson's marvelous songs, would make a fine small musical.

So there you have it.  My nominations.  What are yours?  Any Ideas?



Sheila said...

How about the two Jacques Demy musicals - "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochfort"? Translated,of course.

joe baltake said...

I have a vague recollection of "Umbrellas" being done on stage many years back. Maybe I'mwrong.

Alex said...

"It Should Happen to You"!

joe baltake said...

Back in the 1970s, Columbia sold the rights to both "It Should Happen to You" and "Georgy Girl" to Broadway producers to do as musicals. Only "Georgy Girl" made it to the stage - as "Georgy" - and quickly closed. Nothing came of "It Should Happen to You" but it's a good idea. When he heard of this, Jack Lemmon told me that he could just envision a group of chorus boys singing, "Gladys Glover! Gladys Glover!"

Laurence Klavan said...

The Kneehigh Company of England--which successfully brought "Brief Encounter" to the stage a while back--did a stage version of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" in London in 2011. It was no "Brief Encounter."

joe baltake said...

Thanks for verifying, Laurence.

Tanya Jepson said...

I always thought that "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell" would make a great musical.

joe baltake said...

Good idea, Tanya. But, if you think about it, it's already been done. The plot of "Mamma Mia!" is very close to "Mrs. Campbell."

wwolfe said...

Anyone who's seen the very funny "The Tall Guy," featuring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson at their respective bests, fondly recalls the made-up musical version of "The Elephant Man" which served as the focus of the movie's plot. Wonderfully re-titled "Elephant!," it featured classic numbers such as "I'm Packin' My Trunk" and "Somewhere in Heaven (There's an Angel with Big Ears)." I would gladly pay to see this show on Broadway.

JAMES COBB said...

MY SISTER EILEEN was a nice film. But I am surprised no one pointed out that it was already a stage musical ---WONDERFUL TOWN. This was a broadway hit starring Rosalind Russell with a score by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Comden and Greene which appeared before the MY SISTER EILEEN movie was made. It was revived successfully about a decade ago in New York.

joe baltake said...

James! No intent to diminish "Wonderful Town." I love it. But it's been done on stage. "My Sister Eileen" is an original screen musical that, I thin, deserves a staging on Broadway. It has a terrific score, equal to Bernstein's. -J