The second half 2021 will be a busy time stage for movie-music-goers. There are critically acclaim In the Heights and Dear Evan Hansen. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is also highly anticipated.
These films led to reflection on one sub-genre of film history that is quite unusual the musical stage-to screen adaptation. Filming a stage show, such as the recently shot films Hamilton and Come from Away, or simply to build larger stage sets in a movie studio (there are many examples from Guys and Dolls and The Producers), is not to truly adapt a musical to film.
Instead, adaptors should instead use the tools that are unique to film to reinterpret the musical in this other medium. Here are some tips and tricks to help you navigate the trials of adaptation.
Do Use Real Stage Locations Creatively
Film musicals often shot in locations. However, putting the unrealistic elements of song and dance in real places can backfire on the film and create uncanny valleys. The best way to use locations is in a very realistic manner.
In the Heights is a recent success. The film shot in Washington Heights, Manhattan by Jon Chu and his team. It is a documentary that focuses on the importance of music-making.
When the Sun Goes Down is a song where Benny and Nina sing naturalistically from a fire escape. Then, hydraulics, greenscreen and magic hour, lighting are use to create a gravity-defying dance on the roofs and walls of the apartment building.
Do not ghettoize all musical numbers to create a barren, artistically scaffolded paradise. Contrary to the earlier guideline regarding using real locations as musical numbers, some movie musicals go too far the opposite way.
Rob Marshall’s musicals Chicago and Nine both use the same method to hedge their bets. The dialogue scenes take place in real locations (in Chicago and Rome respectively) while the musical numbers are set in their inner fantasies. This allows for the dancers to be place within pleasingly design studio settings.
Bridge The Gap Between Music
The filmmakers are free from having to bridge the gap between music and speech, but the narrative innovations in both shows are streamline on the screen. This makes filmgoing less enjoyable.
Cabaret is the exception to the rule. In Cabaret director Bob Fosse took all the book songs out and only kept those that were performed in the cabaret.
The film’s innovative intercutting and montages allow the cabaret songs to permeate the entire film’s texture, making it one of the most musical of all musicals.
DO correct problems that arise from the dramatic unfolding the source material Show Boat was the first musical stage to try a truly epic form. It covered twenty years of story time and different locations along the Mississippi River.
Oscar Hammerstein II
Stage mechanics were not up to the task of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern in 1927. The musical was brilliant and innovative, but it suffered from excessive length and a poorly written second act. These issues were fixed by the production team in the 1936 film version. Film’s technologies of montage and dissolve and cross-cutting allowed for a more effective unfolding time and place.
The 1965 film version of The Sound of Music also fixes problems in its stage version. Another epic musical, the stage version feels cramped and stifled.
It can breathe on film and songs are move around to better reflect their meaning. Maria is cheer up by Mother Abbess singing My Favorite Things on stage before she leaves the convent. A musical that doesn’t work on stage should not be adapt for film.
Poor Alan Jay Lerner. Lerner tried to film three musicals that he had not been able to adapt on film after the incredible success of My Fair Lady.
Camelot enjoyed a successful run on Broadway due to its star actors (Julie Andrews and Richard Burton), and its Oliver Smith production designs. It also had some excellent songs and an unconvincing storyline. It was a stale behemoth on the screen due to its lack of singer stars (Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave), and unconvincing plot revisions by Joshua Logan.
Paint Your Wagon Stage
Lerner attempted Paint Your Wagon again in 1969. It was based on an earlier stage musical that was only moderately successful and had a few hits (notably They Call the Wind Maria). Jean Seberg, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin were the only singers in the show. The plot revisions were unconvincing and the direction was dull. Joshua Logan was yet another inert behemoth.
The third time was not the charm with On a Clear Day you Can See Forever. The stars of this film were Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand, and the other singers. Their talents were unfortunately hidden by a poorly written screenplay. This film could have used more music, and unlike the two previous films.
This has helped me realize that stage-to screen adaptations of successful plays are rare. There are two Annies for every Cabaret, and one Man of La Mancha for every Man of La Mancha. Spielberg’s West Side Story is his first musical in his long career. Musical-lovers all over the world are hopeful that he will do justice to this classic musical. I hope only that there is no scaffolding on 1950s Manhattan’s fire escapes!