Saturday, August 12, 2017

not a major motion picture!

Once upon a time, in a place now far, far away, the major movie studios would aggressively bid for the rights to a best-selling book or a hit Broadway play, hauling out the ubiquitous and over-heated advertising slogan, "Now a major motion picture!," for the finished product.

But with the advent of CGI, the Marvel/D.C. Comics franchises and saturation booking, Hollywood no longer cares about the prestige of filming a play or book. Strike that. If it's a book pitched to Young Adult readers or a crime thriller, it's chances of becoming a movie are actually very good.

But Broadway plays and musicals are another matter. Quick!  Name the last major movie you saw that was based on a Broadway play. Time's up! I could remember only David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole," Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" (né "God of Carnage") and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and none of these is very recent. More to the point, although all three were very good, not one was much of a success on screen.

Broadway musicals have it much worse, given that Hollywood has been willfully ignoring them for several decades now. The last great run of filmed stage musicals came between 1955 and 1965.  These were movies based on must-see shows that flourished in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s, arguably the peak of the "musical comedy" form.

"The Pajama Game," "Carousel," "Damn Yankees," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Oklahoma!," "Li'l Abner," "Flower Drum Song," "Pal Joey," "South Pacific," "Hit the Deck," "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie,""Porgy and Bess,"  "Funny Face," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "Can-Can" and "My Fair Lady" all made it to the screen during the aforementioned ten-year span. And, of course, there were "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music." Neither one could accurately be called a "musical comedy" - both are way too serious in intent - but, in tandem with "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady," they are representative of what is inarguably the richest period for stage-to-film transferals.

At one time, the "film version" of a stage musical was a validation of the show in question, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the "bastardization" of one of their own by crass Hollywood. Now they can complain - and with good reason - about the studios' utter lack of interest. In other works, with theater people, "(You're damned it you do and you're damned if you don't."

And I'm sure exacerbating matters is the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, never making it to the screen and, thereby, also inciting the Broadway community. Case in point: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, films of their musicals were all major releases but, hey, where are "Allegro," "Pipe Dream" and "Me and Juliet"?  Seems that not all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were worth filming.

During the period when "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Bye Bye Birdie" were all Broadway hits, there were titles that were equally successful, popular with both critics and theatergoers but that are now forgotten, largely because there was no drive to commit the to film. In recent years, there have been rumors of remakes of "Carousel" (with Hugh Jackman), "Gypsy" (with Barbra Streisand in charge), "My Fair Lady" (with an Emma Thompson rewrite) and even "Oliver!" But why rehash material that's been done, while worthy shows from the distant past continue to be ignored?

Like these:
"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the current Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival.

There's something of a crazy folk legend attached to the show:  Broadway musicals were so hot in the late '50s that Gleason wanted to be in one - and he was perfectly cast here as Uncle Sid, an incorrigible charmer. But, once the show opened, Gleason got bored with it and started calling in sick. He also wanted to annoy the combative Merrick.

But Merrick didn't bite.  He didn't care because he had apparently taken out an insurance policy, so he got paid every time Gleason didn't work. This never made any sense to me - it could have been a P.R. stunt - but it was rich fodder for the gossip columns at the time (think Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell).

Once Gleason got wind of this, presto! He was back on the job with regularity.

Bob Merrill's hummable title song was extremely popular (again, much like the song "Hello, Dolly!") but the pick of the score for me is the haunting "Staying Young" and Pigeon's soulful rendition of it. This is one show should have been a movie.It's a natural.

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid.

"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.

And then there's the marvelous "Fiorello," which was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbot (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). It won the Pulitzer but was never filmed.  It opened the same year as "Gypsy" and was just as popular - and yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.

And yet is was never filmed. 

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

The show was a personal hit for Bosley who quickly moved on to do films ("The World of Henry Orient," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Divorce American Style") and, of course, television ("Happy Days").

There have been occasional revivals of "Fiorello" since its Broadway opening, most notably one for the Reprise! productions in 1999 that starred Tony Danza, which had a limited run but which Danza took to the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles for a longer engagement.

Also, it was rumored that prior to his death in 1973, singer Bobby Darin expressed a desire to produce and star in a film version of "Fiorello," that it was a dream project for him. And he would have been great in the role.

But ... it was never filmed.

There have been other Broadway musicals that, although not filmed, came very close to being movies. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the star of the original non-musical film, Anthony Quinn, that they took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the role Alan Bates played on film.

The idea ended with that Variety ad.

And getting back to David Merrick, in the early 1970s, he decided to expand his horizons and produce movies.  His first was Sidney Lumet's 1972 film version of the Robert Marasco play "Child's Play" that he had produced on Broadway two years earlier.  The stars were James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges (in the roles created on stage by Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard). His next planned film was of another one of his stage hits, the Burt Bacarach-Hal David musical, "Promises, Promises," with a Neil Simon script based on Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Merrick wanted a potentially well-cast Bridges for the role played on stage by Jerry Orbach (by way of Jack Lemmon), but decided to "temporarily" place "Promises, Promises" aside for something way bigger - the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of "The Great Gatsby."  Merrick produced two more films, both with Burt Reynolds" - "Semi-Tough" and "Rough Cut" - but never returned to "Promises, Promises" and Beau Bridges.

Another musical with a Neil Simon script, "They're Playing Our Song" (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager), was also momentarily considered for the movies - with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (more good casting) in the roles played by Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein.

Again, it never happened.


Much more compelling was Twentieth Century-Fox's plans to film Stephen Sondheim's iconic "Follies" with a dream cast - Doris Day in the role created on stage by Alexis Smith and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Finally, there's the case of "She Loves Me," another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).
"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria."

Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made.

Again, never made.

But in 2016, the Roundabout Theater Company staged an excellent revival starring the fabulous Laura Benanti and which, according to Wikipedia, was presented via BroadwayHD live stream on June 30, 2016, marking the first time a Broadway show had ever been broadcast live. The same performance was screened in movie theaters on December 1, 2016.

Notes in Passing: Recently, there have been shows that finally made it to the screen after a long delay (and long after fans had given up hope) - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Into the Woods" and "Les Misérables."  And there are four that became movies in a more timely manner - "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Rent," although the latter two tanked on screen big time which seems odd, given that each had a huge, loyal Broadway fan base. Which didn't turn out for either one.  Go figure.

In his posted response, Kevin Deany reminded me of the stage musical version of "La Cage aux Folles," jogging my memory.  The late Allan Carr ("Grease") had wanted to film it with Jack Lemmon in the role of Albin and Frank Sinatra as Renato.  When Frank decided to stay retired from acting, Tony Curtis's name was mentioned as a possible co-star with Lemmon.

Another missed opportunity.

As for the future of stage musicals on screen, Universal already owns the rights to the popular "Wicked" and Trey Parker and Matt Stone plan to produce their own film version of their hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

And is there any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" will be filmed?

* * * * * 
~images / from top~ 
~Poster art for "Mister Roberts" and "Gypsy"

~Poster art for "Take Me Along" and Jackie Gleason in a scene from the production

~Poster art for "The Most Happy Fella" and Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan in a scene from the productiion

 ~Poster art for "Fiorello" and Tom Bosley as the title character, and Tony Danza, and Bobby Darin, both with "Fiorello" connections

 ~Beau Bridges, on the set of "The Landlord," was considered for a planned film version of "Promises, Promises"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"

 ~Time magazine cover of Alexis Smith in "Follies"

 ~Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a scene from the original production of "She Loves Me" and the cover art for the cast album of the show

 ~Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews; they never got to film "She Loves Me"

 ~Laura Benanti in the 2016 revival of "She Loves Me"
 ~photography: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times 2016 ©


Toby said...

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.

Charlotte said...

Toby beat me to it. I second everything he says.

Alex said...

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

joe baltake said...

Alex- 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.

Sheila said...

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.

Jason Reese said...

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

Kevin Deany said...

I've always wondered why Jerry Herman's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES never made it to the big screen. Yes, I know the non-musical THE BIRDCAGE has the same story, but that shouldn't be a problem for an industry that gave us two movies with the words Spider Man Two in the titles.

And yes, another vote for Maltby and Shire's marvelous BABY.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Thanks for referencing a title that I forgot. Many, many years ago (decades!), Jack Lemmon told me that both he and Frank Sinatra had been approached by Allan Carr to star in a film version of "La Cage Aux Folles," with Jack as Albin and Frank as Renato. This was back in the '80s, long before "The Birdcage." -J

Kenneth Warne said...

I agree with Sheila 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.

Becky said...

How about another film attempt for "Promises, Promises"? Perhaps starring Steve Carrel and Zooey Deschanel? That would be great.

Brian Lucas said...

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

dick d. said...

Great usual, Joe

Alex said...

Joe- I remember reading about the possible teaming of Lemmon and Sinatra for "La Cage aux Folles." I recall that Frank finally decided to call it quits in regard to films after making "The First Deadly Sin." Then, Tony Curtis was mentioned as a possible co-star with Jack.

joe baltake said...

That's right, Alex. I also remember Curtis stepping in, -J

Andrea 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).

Walt said...

The posters of movies like ' Mr Roberts ' were so much more creative to look at....

Kiki said...

This is a great column, Joe, and it brought back a lot of memories. I have the Mabel Mercer recording of "(I'm) Staying Young" which I play whenever I want a good cry.
The franchise movies have eclipsed so much creativity. Or maybe the audience has gotten so stupid they don't mind seeing the same thing again and again or like it because it's "familiar." That's how Trump got in - people were already used to him.

joe baltake said...

Kiki! I love your Trump analogy in reference to (American) people instinctively gravitating to the familiar. Having reviewed movies for three decades, I witnessed how audiences went from having opened minds and a desire to experience the new (in the 1970s) to only wanting/seeing a movie that's so familiar, repetitious and redundant that it's as if they've already see it (the current state). (American) audiences don't really like or appreciate surprises. It scares them. And, yes, this neurotic quality expressed itself first-hand in the past election. They've seen Trump do "his thing" for the past 20 or so years - its a known quality no surprises!) - and this somehow comforted them. I hope they're all happy at last. -J

v.h. said...

You write good stuff, Baltakesky.

Mitchell Melford said...

Yes, 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, those Kurt Weill songs are good!

David Scott Chadwick said...

Dumbing down idea is not new, and (unfortunately) there's always the evidence that the public really wants the lowest common denominator. THE SOUND OF MUSIC's sugar-coating, for example, 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).

joe baltake said...

David- I've been amused that the words "classic" and "iconic" have been intoned by TCM in its recent promotions of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." It's a fairly awful movie that was dismissed in its day (by both critics and the public) and it hasn't improved by a long shot. -J

andy s. said...

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.

Vienna said...

Would love to see Kander and Ebb's "Kiss of the Spider Woman", but who could replace Chita Rivera.

mike schlesinger said...

BroadwayHD has been recording and presenting popular Broadway shows of late. It's probably the best we can hope for at this point, as "the kids" won't go to musicals unless they're animated, and old people's money ain't wanted anymore.

joe baltake said...

Mike- A couple decades ago, I went to a preview in San Francisco of Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" and even that audience behaved as if the movie musical was an alien form. I know that it's easy to hold lack of audience interest responsible for the demise of the musical, but I blame the studios, which gave up on the form. Modern filmmakers have no interest in doing musicals and the studios fell in line, conditioning moviegoers, in turn, to not want them. Anyway, that's my take.

Paul Margulies said...

As a resident of Europe and a watcher of the British TCM, I suppose I can be somewhat thankful that there is no "commentary" interstitials.On the other hand, there are commercial breaks. Watching Exodus takes longer than the original "book" took to be published.

Gary Meyer said...

I assume you were referring to Marasco's CHILD'S PLAY directed by Sidney Lumet but it got left out of your text.

RENT and THE PRODUCERS (musical) flopped because they were flat and lifeless, like A CHORUS LINE. Mayne some shows just need an audience to interact with the actors. I have seen the same show and cast be very different on separate performances.

Recent plays to film? How about FENCES, INTO THE WOODS, JERSEY BOYS, THE NORMAL HEART (TV) and those "live musicals" on TV?

Rumor is SUNSET BOULEVARD with Glenn Close will come to the screen---I hope not. The musical was bad enough. And no doubt HELLO DOLLY with Bette will be proposed. On this list of projects in the works are another GYPSY with Streisand and Spielberg directing a Tony Kushner script for WEST SIDE STORY. I will happily take the original filmed versions.

The theatre to cinema screens are getting very good. I saw FALSETTOS last night. Beautifully directed for their screen but with the live audience. This is becoming a great way to experience some shows. Friends rave about ANGELS IN AMERICA currently coming from National Theater in London to cinemas. And the lovely SHE LOVES ME which I saw on Broadway and on BroadwayHD will be on PBS October 20 with FALSETTOS to follow.

The reverse of movies into stage plays is to accomplish to accomplish. Saw the pre-Broadway ROMAN HOLIDAY wit Cole Porter songs. Disaster. We liked the Berkeley Rep production (with a few reservations) of an original musical of AMELIE but by the time it got to Broadway with casting changes it could not survive. Recently saw their original production of Mira Nair's MONSOON WEDDING stage musical also headed for Broadway. It needs some work but audiences loved it and the show might succeed.

We often speculate on what would be the most unimaginable musical adaptations. Fun parlor game. How about the complete Quentin Tarantino canon? Or Jerry Lewis' unseen THE DAY THE CLOWN DIED now that he can't stop it.

And please---no MOOSE MURDERS on film.

joe baltake said...

Gary- You're right! I forgot the title of the Robert Marasco play. It's "Child's Play," as you say, and it's been fixed.

mike schlesinger said...

I think MOOSE MURDERS could be fine with a major overhaul by a great script doctor.

Unknown said...

Just want to make another filming recommendation for an non-filmed musical: The show Carnival from the 60's. Just saw Lili on TCM last night, and the plot cries out for a bunch of songs, besides Hi Lili, Hi Lo. Carnival, adapted from the film, had a great original score, terrific performers (including the late Jerry Orbach), and was a whole lot of fun.

joe baltake said...

Great selection, Howard. I remember seeing that show during its tryout at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia. It was Gower Champion's second Broadway musical, following "Bye, Bye Birdie." Anna Maria Alberghetti was the star, playing Lili, and aside from Orbach, Kaye Ballard and James Mitchell also co-starred.

I'm surprised that MGM didn't snap up its film rights, given its history with "Lili," but by that time, MGM was going through the first of its weird periods, and wasn't into making movie musicals anymore. I'm also surprised that the studio didn't give the Broadway producers permission to use the song, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo." But the composers, Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart came up with a good replacement, "Love Makes the World Go 'Round."

"Lili" was a childhood favorite of mine, inspiring my obsession with puppets. It is definitely an odd, one-song musical, with a couple dream dances tossed in. I guess that it's not a musical at all but a charming little drama with music.