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date: 24 September 2020

‘And I’ll Sing Once More’: A Historical Overview of the Broadway Musical on the Silver Screen

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines some of the key trends in the history of the screen musical adaptation. Noting how Hollywood initially seemed like an exciting prospect for some of the leading Broadway writers of the 1920s and ’30s, the chapter examines the liberal nature of most of the early stage-to-screen musicals up to On the Town (1949). In those days, Hollywood frequently retained only the title and a song or two from the Broadway shows it bought the film rights to, much to the frustration of the original composers and lyricists. But in the 1950s, a new trend saw an increasing move from the reasonably faithful Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Kiss Me Kate (the title lost its comma in the film version of 1953) to the reverential adaptations of Oklahoma! (1955), West Side Story (1962), and My Fair Lady (1964). The mixed results of many of the other screen adaptations of the 1960s, including Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly!, led to the near-collapse of the genre, with only a few successful titles such as Cabaret (1972) and Grease (1978) appearing over the next thirty years. But the release of Chicago in 2002 led to an apparent renaissance that has seen one or more screen musicals made each year since, most of which have been movie adaptations of Broadway shows (e.g., Into the Woods, 2014).

Keywords: musicals, adaptation, Broadway, Hollywood, movies

The Stage-to-Screen Musical Up to On the Town (1949)

When sound came to Hollywood in the late 1920s, the Broadway musical was a firmly established genre. Composers and lyricists such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein II had created a community of writers who were exploiting and expanding the possibilities of American musical comedy. Works such as the Music Box Revues (Berlin, 1921–24), Lady, Be Good! (the Gershwins, 1924), Dearest Enemy (Rodgers and Hart, 1925), A Connecticut Yankee (Rodgers and Hart, 1927), No, No, Nanette (Youmans, 1925), Oh, Kay! (the Gershwins, 1926), and especially Show Boat (Kern and Hammerstein, 1927) confirmed the genre as a varied and flexible site of creativity and collective and personal expression.1

The creativity shown by the writers and production teams behind the Hollywood musical in the first few years of sound was at least equally as remarkable. The rise in sophistication and fluency from The Jazz Singer (1927)2 to Love Me Tonight (1932), to take just two of the important films of that period, was exponential: the former was a mostly silent film with a few songs where Al Jolson lip-synchs to playback, plus one short scene of dialogue with sound; the latter was a fully fledged Rodgers and Hart film musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald performing songs such as ‘Mimi,’ ‘Lover,’ and ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ The last song features a truly cinematic musical sequence where the melody passes from character to character, starting with Chevalier singing in his shop, going on to be picked up by a man in a taxi, a troop of soldiers, and (p. 14) gypsies in a wood, and ending with MacDonald on her balcony. The scale and design of the number shows a liberation from the restrictions of the musical stage, and it is no wonder that many of the leading Broadway composers and lyricists of the 1920s went to try their luck in Hollywood. Berlin was especially successful, writing three of the nine Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers RKO pictures—Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Carefree (1938)—and Kern contributed the hit Swing Time (1936) as well as an adaptation of Roberta (1935) with some new songs (see Chapter 2 of this volume for a more detailed discussion of this movie).3

However, it turned out that Berlin was unusual in enjoying equal success in Broadway and Hollywood. Love Me Tonight was Rodgers and Hart’s only noteworthy achievement on the West Coast; their return to New York brought about a remarkable series of stage musicals post-Hollywood (including On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey). Cole Porter’s only entry in the Astaire-Rogers canon, The Gay Divorcee, was a loose adaptation of his stage musical Gay Divorce, and his score was axed, apart from the hit ‘Night and Day.’ Although he did go on to write some successful film musicals later in the decade, arguably none had the quality of his stage output of the period, which included The New Yorkers (1930), Nymph Errant (1933), and Anything Goes (1934). The 1936 screen adaptation of Anything Goes again showed a disregard for his Broadway score, and only four of his songs were retained, though Geoffrey Block has shown that it did keep the original plot and even ‘a considerable portion of the original dialogue.’4 Kern was more fortunate with The Cat and the Fiddle (1934) and in particular the excellent 1936 screen adaptation of Show Boat, where he and Hammerstein were given the scope to reframe the material imaginatively for a new medium. The results are wholly successful. Indeed, Kern scholar Stephen Banfield concludes: ‘Shortened to less than two hours, the score, including three new songs (plus two more that were cut and are lost), and the new, tighter, closer-to-the-novel screenplay provided by Hammerstein together offer the most satisfying, balanced, and compelling version of Show Boat as drama achieved up to the present day. In almost every way it is superior to the stage version and its variants.’5

But, in general, the musical comedy did not fare well in screen adaptations in the early years. Arguably, because the form had not yet achieved much of a ‘work identity’ on the stage—a sense of a substantial, revivable text that could rewardingly be performed again—the idea of making such musicals ‘permanent’ in the form of a film document went against the grain of the transience of the stage versions. No wonder Show Boat was the only Broadway musical of the period to receive an outstanding screen adaptation at this point: practically all other musical comedies from that time have been significantly rewritten if they have ever been commercially revived, and this is anticipated in the liberal 1930 and 1940 adaptations of No, No, Nanette and the 1936 Anything Goes (the first and last of these have new songs by other writers).

The other strand of stage-to-screen musical films in this period derived from the operetta genre. The popularity of singers such as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy (a frequent pairing) came with a series of adaptations of the popular operettas (or operetta-ish musical comedies) of the previous two decades, including The Cat (p. 15) and the Fiddle (1934), The Merry Widow (1934), Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose-Marie (1936), Maytime (1937), The Firefly (1937), Sweethearts (1938), New Moon (1940), and Bitter Sweet (1940). A number of these diverged significantly from the originals, often ditching most of the songs and/or the plots, but there was arguably a stronger tradition of creating film adaptations of operetta in this period than of other popular musical genres.

It is especially striking that the Rodgers and Hart musicals fared so badly on screen, given their commercial success on the stage as well as some degree of durability. The 1939 film of On Your Toes is a case in point: all the singing is jettisoned and only the ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet’ remains from the Broadway version. Bosley Crowther’s review of Universal’s screen adaptation of The Boys from Syracuse (1940) summarizes the lack of imagination in the treatment of Rodgers and Hart’s score:

Disappointing, too, is the casual fashion in which the producers have tossed away the lively musical score which Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote for the original. In passing, as it were, they have dropped in here and there a chorus or so from “Sing for Your Supper,” “Falling in Love With Love,” “He and She” and a bit more from “This Can’t Be Love.” They have also introduced “Who Are You?” and “The Greeks Have No Word for It”—tuneful numbers, but modestly presented. More music and gay cavorting would have helped a lot.6

Similarly, only two of Rodgers and Hart’s songs from Babes in Arms (the title song and ‘Where or When’) are sung in the 1939 Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney film of the same name. The Gershwins were likewise badly represented by the film adaptations of Lady, Be Good! (with Eleanor Powell, 1941) and Strike Up the Band (another Garland-Rooney film, 1940), in which little other than the title songs were carried over from the stage musicals. Nor was a single song from Cole Porter’s Mexican Hayride used in the Abbott-Costello film of the same name (1948), and only four were retained from his stage score for the film Panama Hattie (1942).

Indeed, the 1940s was arguably an even weaker decade for the stage-to-screen Broadway adaptation. That may partly be because some of the major musicals of the 1930s never made it to the silver screen: the Gershwins’ long-running and Pulitzer Prize–winning Of Thee I Sing (1931), for example, did not enjoy the permanence of a film adaptation. Equally, the earlier problems with very loose adaptations continued. Kurt Weill was a new ‘victim’ of the process, for instance: while Ginger Rogers’ performance in the movie version of Lady in the Dark (1944) has some merit, most of the score is cut (including, most significantly, ‘My Ship,’ as Block notes).7 Scarcely better was the film version of One Touch of Venus (1948), which (unlike Lady) did not interpolate music by other composers but still does little to exploit Weill’s richly inventive songs. Vernon Duke’s score for Cabin in the Sky was similarly badly represented by Vincente Minnelli’s movie adaptation for MGM in 1943; for example, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were commissioned to add a new song, ‘Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.’8

The best films of the period continued to be screen originals such as The Wizard of Oz (1939),9 Meet Me in St Louis (1944), and Easter Parade (1948). But in 1949, producer Arthur (p. 16) Freed managed to oversee the creation of the first satisfying Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation in colour: On the Town (1949). While fans of the Broadway show will lament the disappearance of most of Leonard Bernstein’s stylish Broadway score, the film is a landmark for its cinematic flair and its freedom from ‘staginess.’ By using extensive location filming, Gene Kelly was able to be shown truly going ‘on the town’ with his costars Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin; yet the retention of a stylized dance element (led by Vera-Ellen) meant the film kept something of the stage musical’s artiness. There was no compensation for the deletion of Bernstein’s exquisite ballad ‘Some Other Time’ and one might query the addition of numbers such as ‘Prehistoric Man’ and the commercial ‘You’re Awful,’ but the opening-out of the stage material into a breathtaking cityscape was a significant achievement of which Freed was proud. Indeed, rather than being casual about the changes that had been made, he was aware that they were bold and necessary:

“Why adaptation?” somebody invariably asks. “I thought the play was perfect. Why did you change it all around in the movie?” Undoubtedly the producer saw the stage show himself, and the chances are he also thought it was practically perfect—as a play. But if he has learned anything at all about his own business, he knows that a play and a motion picture are two separate and widely different things. A movie is a story told by a camera, an entertainment medium much more realistic than those from which it often borrows its basic material. It’s harder work and takes a little more courage to reject an obvious, literal translation—and not to have too much reverence for the story’s original form—although the producer must also be careful that he doesn’t “improve” it into a failure.10

After On the Town: The Age of the Broadway-Hollywood Adaptation

Arthur Freed knew that Broadway had much to offer the Hollywood musical in terms of artistic progress, and it is no coincidence that many of the key figures in his unit, including Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, Alan Jay Lerner, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, started out in New York. Nor is it surprising that Freed, and later other producers at MGM, started to buy up the screen rights to successful Broadway musicals of the day: Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon (1954), and Wright and Forrest’s Kismet (1955) as well as new adaptations of Kern’s Show Boat (1951) and Roberta (retitled Lovely to Look At, 1953) showed a definite shift in artistic direction. Freed was also one of the key producers (though by no means the only one) of what we would today term ‘juke-box musicals’ using the back catalogues of successful songwriters. This had a hint of adaptation too, since it meant taking material written for one purpose and changing it to work in a new context: Singin’ (p. 17) in the Rain (1952, Freed and Brown), An American in Paris (1951, Gershwin), The Band Wagon (1953, Dietz and Schwartz), and Easter Parade (1948, Berlin) are some of the most important examples. Biopics of Broadway composers’ and lyricists’ lives also afforded the opportunity for elements of adaptation, such as the Show Boat sequence in the Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).

But what started to change in the 1950s, and would continue through the 1960s, was a greater (if by no means total) sense of fidelity to the stage versions, at least to preserve a sense of what the Broadway originals were about. Perhaps now that stage musicals had started to evolve more of a work identity, and musicals had started to run longer and tour further (making them more culturally present even before the movie versions), there was more of a motivation to adapt them more thoughtfully. Rodgers and Hammerstein, for example, decided to oversee the movie adaptation of Oklahoma! (1955) themselves, extending the kind of authorial control they had enjoyed as publishers and later producers of their own work on the stage. Thus, most of the script, score, and even the ballet made it to the screen adaptation, allowing for some cinematic opening-out by the director, Fred Zinnemann (the scene where the horses bolt has an almost Hitchcockian flair). Rodgers and Hammerstein also produced the screen South Pacific (1958) but left Fox to produce Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956), and The Sound of Music (1965) without the same sort of intervention. Nevertheless, this group of films provides a reasonably faithful series of adaptations of Broadway musicals that seemed to beg to be crystallized into a more permanent form than was possible in the transient stage musical.

That sense of documenting the Broadway show can also be seen in the similarly (relatively) faithful pairs of screen adaptations of Irving Berlin’s and Adler and Ross’s hit musicals of the period. Ethel Merman was not allowed to repeat her stage success in the screen Annie Get Your Gun (Betty Hutton took her place) but she did make a lively appearance in the surprisingly engaging 1953 adaptation of Call Me Madam. Both films preserved most of the stage scores and left the plots untampered with. Similarly reverential were the Warner Bros. adaptations of The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958),11 the former a star vehicle for the studio’s top female singing actress, Doris Day. Apart from Day, and Tab Hunter replacing Stephen Douglass in Damn Yankees, the original Broadway principals were invited to repeat their stage portrayals in the movie versions, and the shows’ Broadway director George Abbott was hired to helm both pictures alongside Stanley Donen (who codirected many of Gene Kelly’s major musicals). By this point, a new culture of adaptation had emerged, and the liberal films of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Pal Joey (1957) were exceptions rather than the rule.

In many ways, the Samuel Goldwyn-Joseph Mankiewicz movie Guys and Dolls (1955) was to set the tone for a number of the stage-to-screen adaptations of the following decade and a half. Much remains from the Broadway production, including most of the score (with a few unfortunate changes),12 Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, designer Oliver Smith, and choreographer Michael Kidd. But the film’s budget seems to have swamped the charm and character out of much of the film—for example, through the (p. 18) hiring of two Hollywood actors of limited vocal ability, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, who could not do Frank Loesser’s songs full justice. It had long been common for actors in film musicals to be dubbed if they could not sing well, but the idea of allowing average or even poor singers to perform their own vocals was a peculiar development. The seeds were sown for later examples of the same phenomenon, including Vanessa Redgrave’s labored performance in Camelot (1967), Sophia Loren’s problematic casting as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha (1972), Audrey Hepburn’s weak rendition of ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ in Funny Face (1957), and Omar Sharif’s strained vocals in Funny Girl (1968).

To some degree, of course, there had been a parallel trend of casting actors of limited singing ability in stage musicals too, most obviously Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1956), Yul Brynner (The King and I, 1951), Richard Burton (Camelot, 1960), and later Katharine Hepburn (Coco, 1969) and Lauren Bacall (Applause, 1970), but at least these scores were written to accommodate their abilities. It went against the grain to cast a nonsinger such as Redgrave in a role written for a legitimate soprano such as Julie Andrews. Also important to this context is the fact that all three of the big Broadway-Hollywood adaptations of the 1960s contained significant dubbing because of the casting of a nonsinging star. In the case of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964), it became controversial news when her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon;13 Nixon also dubbed Natalie Wood in the movie version of West Side Story (1961) and Bill Lee dubbed Christopher Plummer’s performance in The Sound of Music (1965).

Such a disconnect between what we hear and what we see in film musicals is a problem of the genre, regardless of whether they are adaptations of stage productions or not; after all, even adept singers can be weak at lip-synching to their own prerecordings (most notably Barbra Streisand). But in cases where the stage roles are designed to showcase vocal ability, such as Eliza, Guenevere, or Maria (West Side), it undermines the experience for the audience when the movie version presents an under-par performance. Perhaps that is why a film such as The Sound of Music seems more satisfying, given Andrews’s particularly strong singing at that point in her career; the same goes for Barbra Streisand’s 1960s musical films. But in general, that decade brought about the downfall of the screen musical because studios no longer seemed to know how to make musicals well, partly as a result of no longer having the production staff on permanent contract, following the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s. The culture that allowed films such as An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) to be made with such finesse had passed. In its place, producers now either made stage-to-screen adaptations that used Broadway stars in their original roles (e.g., Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie, Robert Preston in The Music Man, and Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing) but which seem insufficiently cinematic to be truly great films, or lost a sense of what made the stage originals successful (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Finian’s Rainbow, Sweet Charity, Man of La Mancha, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Paint Your Wagon).

(p. 19) Decline: The 1970s to the 1990s

Just as The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story had been vastly more successful than the other screen adaptations of the 1960s, Cabaret and Grease fared significantly better than the other musical films of the 1970s. Of note, the screen versions of both musicals do not faithfully represent the Broadway incarnations, especially so far as the scores go. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) is especially different from the stage Cabaret (1966), as Ethan Mordden notes:

Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) also defied the tablets, reconstructing the show’s storyline to accord with its sources, Christopher Isherwood’s so-called Berlin stories … and John Van Druten’s play drawn from them, I Am a Camera (1951). The new narration, bringing in characters that weren’t in the stage musical, might have called for new numbers, but in fact Fosse banned all character songs, limiting the musical program to “real life” performance spots—the cabaret acts, 78s heard on a gramophone, and a group singalong, in an outdoor café, of a Nazi anthem. …

Fosse’s Cabaret was almost a musical by other means. As so often … it was more a movie than a movie musical, relying heavily on cinematic techniques such as cross-cutting. On stage, Cabaret varied story scenes with the commentative cabaret numbers, first one and then the other. The Hollywood Cabaret interjects the scenes into the numbers and vice versa, letting the action flow along in a single molecule, like a pane of glass.14

By retaining Joel Grey from the Broadway production and adding a major singing star in Liza Minnelli to play Sally, Fosse guaranteed that the film would still feel like a musical. Yet, as Mordden implies, he also focused on making a good film rather than a faithful adaptation, and by making all the songs diegetic he cleverly ensured that the presence of song would not feel awkward at a time when audiences were ambivalent about the genre.

Randal Kleiser’s movie Grease, on the other hand, flagrantly announces that it is a musical throughout, but gets away with it because of the genre of the music concerned. In fact, song becomes even more important and present in the screen version, partly because of the casting of major talents Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and partly because of the addition of new material (four new songs). For example, Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees) was commissioned to write a new title song, which is heard over the opening titles in a recording by Frankie Valli. This number quite inappropriately introduces the language of disco into a film about the 1950s, but it also establishes the fabric of the movie as being centred around different genres of popular music, including the most contemporary ones, thus reaching out to its audience more assertively. The use of the songs in the film as a whole is also varied in old-school Hollywood style: some are diegetic and some are traditional book numbers and staged as such (e.g., ‘Sandra Dee’). That is not, however, to take away from Kleiser’s (p. 20) achievement: the cutting and scope of a number such as ‘Summer Nights’ shows a flair at staging a conventional book number with the scale of the cinema rather than being tied down by the song’s theatrical roots.

Grease earned nearly $9 million at the box office in its opening weekend15 and has taken something in the region of $190 million in total, ranking second only to the Beauty and the Beast live film (i.e., the 2017 remake of the cartoon) in the box office history of film musicals since 1974.16 It was nominated for only one Academy Award (for the new song ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’) and did not win either that or any of the Golden Globes for which it was nominated. Cabaret, on the other hand, was an extraordinary critical success, earning eight Academy Awards, even if it earned only a more modest (if still impressive) $40 million or so over time.17 But these movies were unusual in a new post-1970 era when the musical was simply not a major Hollywood genre any more. Audiences wanted Star Wars (1977), not The Little Prince (1974, Lerner and Loewe’s late-career movie musical flop).

Even the faithful, successful screen adaptation of the failsafe Fiddler on the Roof (directed by Norman Jewison in 1971) seems a little tired and drawn-out in comparison to its dynamic stage precedent. But at least Fiddler does not look particularly dated as a movie. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Mame (1974), A Little Night Music (1977), The Wiz (1978), Annie (1982), and A Chorus Line (1985) all suffer in different ways from technological and stylistic weaknesses as well as issues with the performers. Mame, for example, was dogged by limp direction and poor casting: Lucille Ball was unable to do any justice at all to the songs that Angela Lansbury had sung to such triumph in the Broadway production, and neither Gene Saks (director) nor Onna White (choreography) managed to transcend the two-dimensional feel of a stage musical (most notably in the flat, unimaginative staging of the title song).18 In A Little Night Music, only the ‘Glamorous Life’ and ‘Weekend in the Country’ sequences truly do justice to the cinematic medium; star casting in The Wiz (Michael Jackson, Diana Ross) did not help to show off the work in a remotely flattering light; an inappropriate choice of director (Richard Attenborough) turned what was then the most successful Broadway musical of all time, A Chorus Line, into a Hollywood flop; and so on.

There are several reasons the musical ceased to be a mainstream genre for Hollywood. Because filmmaking had become so expensive and there were no opportunities for writers simply to be on contract and enjoy the flexibility of being able to create what they wanted, the conditions for writing screen originals had completely disappeared. There could be no Singin’ in the Rain or Gigi for the 1980s because the system that had nurtured the creation of those films had long gone. At the same time, and more relevantly to this chapter, the nature of the Broadway musical had changed considerably. Most of the Golden Age classics had long been adapted into films or were no longer viable as such, and the newer shows posed various challenges. The critical and commercial response to A Little Night Music must have cast some doubt on the viability of Sondheim’s musicals on the screen: although the stage productions of Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods were preserved on film for the small screen, there were no movie adaptations of Sondheim’s musicals between Night Music (1977) and Sweeney (p. 21) Todd (2007) (excluding the TV version of Gypsy, 1993). That America’s most important Broadway songwriter’s works were not made into films, presumably because they were not seen as commercially viable or straightforward to make, helps to explain why there were so few adaptations in the 1980s and ’90s.

There were problems with other leading writers’ works, too. Kleban and Hamlisch wrote nothing together after A Chorus Line, whose film version was a flop, so there was nothing more to come from them. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, whose Little Shop of Horrors was turned into a relatively respectable film in 1986, went to work for Disney, producing animated musicals such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, which therefore put them out of the Broadway arena. The Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh blockbusters, such as Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Miss Saigon, tended to run such a long time and then tour nationally and internationally, that it took years before film versions became commercially desirable (bearing in mind that film adaptations tend to compete with stage versions). Thus Evita, which opened on Broadway in 1979 following its London production, became a film only in 1996, with Phantom and Les Misérables following in the new millennium.

Another problem of these Mackintosh shows is that they focused on spectacle on stage—for example, in the form of the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon. The transfer to film—a more realistic medium—therefore requires even more scale, and therefore a higher cost. On the other hand, Cats and Starlight Express are highly theatrical concept musicals without traditional narratives, which means they would require a high level of ingenuity to achieve success on the big screen. The varied forms of nostalgia represented by other successful Broadway musicals of the 1970–99 period such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978), La Cage aux Folles (1983), Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), and Crazy for You (1992), to name but five, closed down another potential avenue for stage-to-screen musicals: this kind of stagey, ‘fondly looking back’ musical lacks obvious cinematic promise and is mostly aimed at audiences who are already passionate about musicals rather than a general film-going audience. Finally, the arrival of Disney on Broadway in the 1990s continued a trend arguably established by 42nd Street (1980), whereby Hollywood would now supply Broadway with material rather than the other way around.

Renaissance in the New Millennium

Although Evita enjoyed significant success, including the Academy Award for Best Song (‘You Must Love Me’), it did nothing to solve the obstacles to a resumption of the musical film genre outlined above. But the new millennium saw the release of two movies that seemed to turn things around. First, in 2001 came Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, a highly self-reflexive, postmodern musical whose only obvious forebear (if one existed) was Singin’ in the Rain. Like the latter, Moulin Rouge! provided a critique of the genre (p. 22) while also embracing and celebrating it. A patchwork score of new and old songs, hyper-stylized visuals and staging, anachronism, obvious references to classic musicals (e.g., The Sound of Music): Luhrmann used these and many other techniques to achieve an unusual, if not wholly persuasive, movie musical for the new century. Interestingly, he also repeated something that was noted above in relation to Guys and Dolls: casting leading actors with (at best) average singing voices, in this case Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The ability to act mattered more than the singing; meanwhile, the singing was recorded live on set in an attempt to address the age-old issues of lip-synching in film musicals.

Moulin Rouge! is obviously sui generis and the preponderance of contemporary popular music in the soundtrack meant that it had little to do with Broadway. Yet its worldwide success did mean that the film musical had proven recent commercial potential, thus contributing towards the dawn of a new era when most years since 2001 have seen the release of at least one musical on film. The other transformational release was Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (2002), which became the first musical to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards since Oliver! in 1968. On the stage, Chicago has had an unusual history: the original Broadway production (1975) was only solidly (not overwhelmingly) successful at 936 performances, but the popularity of a brief staging by City Center’s Encores! in 1996 led to a full Broadway revival later the same year and it has run continuously since then (more than twenty-one years as of this writing), making it the longest-running American musical in history. No wonder Zadan/Meron Productions decided to pursue a movie version.

It is intriguing that a Broadway figure, Rob Marshall, was chosen to direct the film, because so many major movie musicals during the past half-century have been directed by film directors, Hollywood people (e.g., Robert Wise). Yet Marshall’s obvious understanding of Bob Fosse’s original concept for the show, where the story is told through a series of vaudeville numbers that were based on real-life vaudeville acts from the 1920s (the decade of the story’s setting), is a large reason the film worked. Marshall also follows Fosse’s screen treatment of Cabaret in keeping most of the musical numbers in either a real or imaginary (i.e., in Roxie’s head) theatrical space, rather than having characters breaking into song in too many places without reason. However, Marshall still cast three leads from the world of film rather than theatre, just as Luhrmann had done a year earlier: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere. (Zeta-Jones and Gere had both appeared in musicals on the stage but only for a brief period much earlier in their career, and neither could reasonably be described as being a strong singer.)

This approach to casting has been at the heart of most of the successful Broadway-Hollywood adaptations since Chicago. For example, Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd (2007), cast Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall in some of the leading roles, leaving Sondheim’s most vocally operatic Broadway score to a group of actors without much singing experience or ability. For Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables (2012), Hollywood actors with some musical theatre experience (Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway) were cast alongside several with no obvious vocal ability (Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried): a daring (p. 23) move for a sung-through musical that mostly requires highly trained voices on the stage. The return of John Travolta (of Grease) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2) to a movie musical with the screen Hairspray (2007), after many years of nonsinging roles, was obviously as much to do with their status in Hollywood as their ability to sing. More recently, Marshall’s latest film of a Broadway musical, Into the Woods (2014), features a cast primarily made up of singing actors rather than strong singers, including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, and Johnny Depp.

Of this last group of films, the most convincing is arguably Into the Woods, where Marshall came back after his disappointing screen adaptation of Nine (2009) to liberate the stage version of Sondheim’s 1987 show without losing its essence. Two numbers in particular prove that he has a strong grasp of how the film musical works. First, the lengthy opening number (‘Prologue: Into the Woods’) cuts fluently between the different characters to introduce their dilemmas. The camera tells their stories alternately before physically showing them going ‘into the woods’ to achieve catharsis. Over eighty years after a song (and the soundtrack) unified different characters in different places in Love Me Tonight’s ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ (which, incidentally, also ends in a pastoral setting), Marshall was still using the same technique to tell a story through song in Into the Woods. Mordden has noted how this sequence goes beyond what could be achieved on the stage in this number, where the action seems rather static.19

The film’s other particularly strong moment is ‘Your Fault,’ when the surviving characters confront and blame each other about their dangerous situation now the Giant is seeking retribution. Rather than simply pointing the camera at the scene and allowing the actors to sing, Marshall creates a much more claustrophobic effect by using the camera in a series of tighter close-ups, almost pinning them down as they are each blamed for the disruption. To have dialogue in song is highly operatic, which is extremely challenging to make convincing on film. Marshall’s solution is boldly cinematic: he treats the song as a dialogue scene rather than a performance. This is even more effective when the number segues into the Witch’s hyper-operatic ‘Last Midnight,’ which really is a performance: the chaotic, intense interaction of ‘Your Fault’ gives way to display in ‘Last Midnight.’

It is ironic that Susan Stroman’s movie of The Producers, which she had directed on Broadway, almost completely fails to achieve a cinematic aesthetic because the stage musical was, of course, originally based on Mel Brooks’s movie of the same name. Brooks was behind the stage version too, but with the exception of the opened-out ‘We Can Do It,’ featuring a sequence in Central Park, the film belongs to the same kind of approach as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees: it feels like the Broadway production has mostly been put on the screen, complete with its original stage stars (Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick), plus a couple of token Hollywood names (Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell) for commercial reasons. Rather like A Chorus Line, The Producers was a smash on the stage and a commercial flop on film.

Of course, commercial success does not necessarily reflect quality: the remake of Annie (2014) is far from impressive but it thrived at the box office, partly thanks to its pandering to a family audience over the holiday season. Joel Schumacher’s film version (p. 24) of The Phantom of the Opera (2004) lacks the impact of the stage production and does not boast stars of any gravitas (the rumoured casting of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones came to nothing; they were replaced by Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum), but it was a smash success in terms of ticket sales. Dreamgirls (2006) was another commercial hit,20 despite transferring little drama to the screen: much of the film comes across like a series of static music videos without narrative or character development. At the other end of the spectrum, Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys movie is so determined to achieve a cinematic feel that it is filmed in a dark, almost noirish style with little importance given to staging the songs excitingly; it was perhaps unfairly criticized in the press but it only truly establishes a sense of genre in the closing sequence (which reads like an homage to the finale of the film version of The Music Man). Much more conventional is the film version of The Last Five Years, which even has a Broadway performer (Jeremy Jordan) rather than a Hollywood name in one of the only two roles. The movie trips up a little by fighting against part of the concept of the stage show: on the stage, the two actors appear in the same scene, and interact, only once, but the film version has both physically present at various points throughout (yet not singing). This undermines part of the postmodernity of the piece (i.e., the soliloquy style of the songs), even though the film as a whole is respectful.21

Conclusion

This survey has deliberately avoided discussion of the television musical, and specifically television adaptations of Broadway musicals, because it is a huge topic that to some extent runs in parallel to the Hollywood adaptation. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that in the two periods when Hollywood was at its most engaged with the Broadway musical, television versions of stage shows were also common. First, the 1950s and 1960s saw some truly excellent, if usually truncated, versions of Broadway classics, including a TV Bloomer Girl (1956) that reproduced Agnes de Mille’s original Broadway choreography; two versions of Kiss Me, Kate (1958 and 1964), the first with original Broadway stars Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, and Lisa Kirk, the second with Morison and Howard Keel (star of the 1953 MGM screen version); a series involving Broadway favourite Robert Goulet in adaptations of Brigadoon (1966), Carousel (1967), and, again, Kiss Me, Kate (1968); a 1954 Anything Goes with original Broadway star Ethel Merman and movie star Frank Sinatra; TV adaptations of Annie Get Your Gun featuring its original Broadway (Ethel Merman, 1967) and National Tour stars (Mary Martin, 1957); two TV versions of Once upon a Mattress (1964 and 1972) featuring Carol Burnett in her Broadway role; valuable adaptations of Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy (1955) and A Connecticut Yankee (1955); and a Kismet (1967) with José Ferrer. The concept fizzled out in the 1970s, with only occasional interruptions such as Lauren Bacall’s appearance in Applause (1973), in which she had starred on Broadway, and a charming BBC adaptation of She Loves Me (1978). In the ensuing years, there were attempts to revive (p. 25) the TV Broadway adaptation, such as Bette Midler’s appearance in Gypsy (1993), Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Broderick in The Music Man (2003), new versions of Bye Bye Birdie (1995) and Annie (1999), and a third version of Once upon a Mattress (2005, this time with Burnett in the role of the Queen), but only Gypsy achieved much quality.

More recently, however, the television stage-to-screen adaptation has become something of a cultural event once more. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who were behind the movie Chicago, decided to experiment with the idea in 2013 with a live TV version of The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood, who had won American Idol in 2005. Over 38 million viewers watched at least a portion of the broadcast, which achieved the largest nonsports audience since the finale of Frasier in 2004.22 Regardless of the mixed critical reception, Zadan and Meron have gone on to produce an annual musical for NBC, with titles including Peter Pan (2014, 9.21 million viewers), The Wiz23 (2015, 11.5 million viewers), Hairspray (2016, 9.05 million viewers), and Jesus Christ Superstar (2018, 9.4 million viewers).24 Fox, NBC’s rival, also produced Grease: Live25 in 2016, which was watched by 12.18 million viewers, and A Christmas Story Live! in December 2017, which in the words of TheWrap.com ‘delivered a lump of coal to Fox,’ with only 4.52 million viewers.26

A few blips aside, TV shows such as Glee (2009–15) and Smash (2012–13) and movies such as Enchanted (2007) and especially La La Land (2017) prove that the musical is once more a significant genre on the screen, and stage-to-screen adaptations are at the heart of its future. Disney, for example, has instigated a series of screen adaptations of its stage productions, with plans to follow up the recent Beauty and the Beast (2017) with Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019), and The Little Mermaid;27 all of these originated as animated films, of course, thus mirroring the journey of The Producers from screen to stage and back again. Playbill.com also lists 13, American Idiot, Bare, Beautiful, Cats, Come from Away, Finding Neverland, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, In the Heights, Jekyll & Hyde, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Little Shop of Horrors, Lysistrata Jones, Matilda, Miss Saigon, Oliver!, Pippin, South Pacific, Spring Awakening, Sunset Boulevard, West Side Story, and Wicked as being in development for screen treatments28—an extraordinarily long list for a genre that many presumed dead at one point, even if it seems likely that many of them will never make it to the screen. As Ethan Mordden puts it, ‘musicals are back,’ and as long as a hit such as Into the Woods or Chicago comes along every couple of years, the Broadway musical will sing on the screen once more.

Notes:

(1.) Amongst the extensive research on these early Broadway composers, important volumes include Stephen Banfield, Jerome Kern (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Jeffrey Magee, Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Dominic Symonds’ We’ll Have Manhattan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Larry Starr, Gershwin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

(3.) Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (New York: Vintage Books, 1972) remains a useful overview of the team’s output. For a deeper assessment of Top Hat based on archival research, see Peter William Evans, Top Hat (London: Wiley, 2010).

(6.) Bosley Crowther, ‘The Screen: “The Boys from Syracuse,” A Musical Spoof of Ancient Greece and Things, at the Paramount,’ New York Times, 1 August 1940, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B06EFDF133EE432A25752C0A96E9C946193D6CF, accessed 12 March 2018.

(7.) Block, Enchanted Evenings, 186.

(8.) Hugh Fordin addresses the making of Cabin in the Sky in MGM’s Greatest Musicals (New York: Da Capo, 1996).

(10.) Hugh Fordin, MGM’s Greatest Musicals (New York: Da Capo, 1996), 270.

(11.) This movie also affords the opportunity to see original star Gwen Verdon and her choreographer husband, the legendary Bob Fosse, in the number ‘Who’s Got the Pain.’

(12.) Geoffrey Block reviews the modifications to the score, including the three new numbers, in Enchanted Evenings, 322–323.

(13.) See, for example, Stephen Cole, ‘Marni Nixon Remembered,’ Variety, 25 July 2016, http://variety.com/2016/film/columns/marni-nixon-dead-collaborator-natalie-wood-1201822636/. accessed 15 March 2018. Nixon is also notable for her dubbing of Deborah Kerr in The King and I.

(17.) See http://www.worldwideboxoffice.com/movie.cgi?title=Cabaret&year=1972 for a suggested figure, accessed 15 March 2018.

(18.) Mordden, who thinks ‘the moment is quite thrilling,’ notes that the film reproduces the Broadway staging of this number. See Mordden, When Broadway Went to Hollywood, 218.

(19.) See Mordden, When Broadway Went to Hollywood, 227–228. Mordden notes: ‘It’s wonderful actually to see all the magic.’

(20.) http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=daily&id=dreamgirls.htm cites gross domestic income of over $100 million, accessed 17 March 2018.

(21.) See, for example, Peter Debruge’s enthusiastic review for Variety: https://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/toronto-film-review-the-last-5-years-1201300169/, accessed 27 July 2018.

(23.) This adaptation was especially well received, e.g., https://tv.avclub.com/nbc-finally-gets-it-right-with-the-wiz-live-1798185904, accessed 27 July 2018.

(25.) The Hollywood Reporter viewed this project positively: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/grease-live-tv-review-860952, accessed 27 July 2018.

(27.) Rob Marshall has been announced at the director of the latter production; see Variety at http://variety.com/2017/film/news/little-mermaid-reboot-disney-rob-marshall-1202632266/, accessed 18 March 2018.