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The Conversion Rate of Movie : Musical

April 4, 2011

The Film and Musical Theatre Arts are peculiar cousins. I readily admit my own interpretation of the conversion rate from one to the other is skewed. When a movie is made into a musical I often think, Well, how interesting. I wonder how they’re going to do that.  But when the transfer goes the other way I can only think, I hope they don’t screw it up.

As a writer, there are a number of issues in adapting a film including rights (which are impossible to get), preconceived notions (which are impossible to get rid of), and finally, the actual endeavor of translating from one medium to another. Daunting.

Last week, I saw the musical La Cage aux Folles for the first time. I had seen The Birdcage and the original French film is in my Netflix queue, though I haven’t watched it yet. (Sidenote on what came first, second, etc.: La Cage aux Folles the play by Jean Poiret (1973), La Cage aux Folles the French film (1978), La Cage aux Folles the musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and music & lyrics by Jerry Herman (1983), and The Birdcage the American adaptation written by Elaine May (1996).) Though the production was fantastic (the Cagelles are redonkulous and Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber steal my heart and hide it some place in Harvey’s bustier), I couldn’t help but think that the story and many of Fierstein’s jokes in the book were better served in the 1996 film. This story is a farce and when you inject music into a farce, it only slows things down instead of constantly gaining momentum towards the inevitable crash.

Conversely, the 2002 adaptation of Hairspray from film to stage was tremendously successful. Watching the original 1998 John Waters film, I can actually feel my ear begging for more musical numbers. The songs are predominantly uptempo and when they aren’t, they’re hilarious ballads, just quirky enough to see John Waters and yet just polished enough to be Broadway.  The one hiccup is Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been”, but I think we all forgive its transgression from the style of the show because it’s such an awesome song.

I’m not often thrilled by a stage to film adaptation of a musical. (For the sake of keeping this post under a 100 page count, I’m talking about adaptations of contemporary musicals, not Golden Age.) I was satisfied by the 2007 Hairspray and the 2005 Rent, but definitely not thrilled. And I was actually angry by the 2004 Phantom of the Opera which committed the exact felony I always fear with stage to film transfers:  the musical was literally picked up off the stage and set down on film.  People, there needs to be some translation here!  There is much we accept sitting in a theater that we won’t accept on film.  The 2002 film adaptation of Chicago is definitely this teacher’s pet.  On stage, it’s totally fine for someone’s defense attorney to enter with several girls brandishing feathers while he sings and taps.  On screen, it looks force and ham-handed.  So, the film adaptation puts the number in the imagination of Roxy Hart.  Um, hi, brilliant.

Film and theatre are equally valid mediums for musicals, but they need to be handled as, coming back to our analogy from the start, two cousins.  They both were born with blond hair, but Cousin Suzy likes to cut hers in a bob that frames her face just right and Cousin Sandy likes to wear hers long and curly like Bernadette Peters (because I strive to mention Bernadette whenever possible).  Find the right cut for your cousin, the right translation for your musical.  And I’ll try to relax my prejudices!

photo credit


One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 9:26 am

    Saw “Catch Me If You Can” last night and was thinking about this post 🙂

    I thought they did a great job of telling the same story in a really effective way for film, then telling the same story in a very different and equally effective way as a musical.

    Would love for you to see it and share what you think! Let me know if you do.

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