Ten Favorite Musicals (adapted from the stage)Jul 3, 2000 (Updated Jul 5, 2000) Write an essay on this topic.
Hollywood does not have a good track record with musicals, and that's not a surprise. In live performance, performers have a much more direct relationship with the audience than in more realistic types of theater. Because that relationship doesn't carry over to film, what works on the stage often looks awfully dumb on the screen.
In this list, I'm focusing on movies that were successfully adapted from stage musicals. A later list will focus on original movie musicals.
10. The Sound of Music (1965)
And the groans start already. Perky nun leaves the convent to teach adorable children to sing, wear curtains, and get away from the Nazis. Yes, it's sappy, but who am I to argue with the twin spectacles of all that scenery and Julie Andrews in her prime? Almost everyone agrees that Ernest Lehman's screenplay improved on the original book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Whether the new songs ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good") are also improvements on the Rodgers and Hammerstein score is more a matter of debate.
9. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
A Jewish milkman in a Russian village is forced into the twentieth century by his independent daughters and increasing religious oppression. On stage, Jerome Robbins' production was gorgeously stylized, inspired by the art of Marc Chagall. Norman Jewison's film retains Robbins' choreography but opts for a much more realistic style. It works, even though I wish fewer scenes were filmed with that Golden Glow. What I like best about the movie is the beauty of Rosalind Harris, Michelle March, and Neva Small, the actresses who play Tevye's daughters.
8. Bells Are Ringing (1960)
A woman uses her job at an answering service to help people, fall in love, and get in trouble with the law. Without its star, this would be a minor but amusing topical comedy. With Judy Holliday working under the sensitive direction of Vincente Minnelli, it's an endlessly amusing classic. Holliday sings and dances winsomely and, since she takes on different persona with each of her customers, she gets to play a number of comic characters. Dean Martin does some fine work here and gets to sing two great new Jule Styne songs added for the film.
7. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Boy meets plant, boy feeds icky people to plant, plant tries to take over world. It's regrettable that the original ending, much more faithful to the stage play and the original Roger Corman film was not kept (and that the DVD which featured the original ending had to be recalled for legal reasons.) Still, this Frank Oz film has a wonderful style all its own, with the playfully sinister trio and the marvelously animated plant. Best of all, Ellen Greene got to recreate her definitive, vulnerably vulgar Audrey.
6. The Music Man (1962)
Smalltime swindler revitalizes small town. Another definitive performance, this time Robert Preston's fast-talking, warmhearted Harold Hill. The other major draws here are Ron Howard's adorable, lisping Winthrop and Onna White's stylish choreography. I wish River City seemed more like a small town and less like a gargantuan version of Disneyland's Main Street, USA, but otherwise the film is a loving and apt adaptiation.
5. Kiss Me, Kate (1953)
Divorced performers doing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew squabble onstage and off. Someday I will get to see this movie in 3D- it's the only major musical filmed that (and I can't be the only guy who has been fascinated by the prospect of a three-dimensional Kathryn Grayson bursting out of the screen.) Ann Miller and her over-qualified trio of suitors (Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, and the spectacular Tommy Rall) are the most enjoyable members of the cast. The Cole Porter score is well served, and the whole production has a vitality missing from many other screen adaptations of Broadway musicals.
4. 1776 (1972)
The movie that makes you worry whether or not they will actually sign the Declaration of Independence. As the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams, William Daniels gave one of the most energetic and charismatic performances in any movie musical. Some cuts made in the film for political reasons (most notably "Cool, Considerate Men," a song critiquing mindless conservatism) were restored for the laser disc. This movie makes you think about the American revolution in unexpected ways- the songs are fine, but what makes it special is the way Peter Stone's screenplay makes familiar history spring to life.
3. Show Boat (1936)
Edna Ferber's epic story of love, racism, and survival. Directed by James Whale, this film makes the most of its legendary cast, which includes Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Hattie McDaniel, and Irene Dunne. Even if it weren't such a satisfying movie, it would the list for historic value. It's a little harder to see this one than the 1951 version, but it's worth seeking out.
2. The King and I (1956)
An English schoolteacher is hired to educate Siam's royal family and forms a unique, mutually respectful relationship with the king. Of course, Yul Brynner's recreation of the stage role that made him a star is the biggest draw here, but the sumptuous design adds immeasurably to the grandeur of the film. Deborah Kerr is so lovely and gives such a wonderfully acted performance that for once even I can't complain about the fact that she was dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon. My two favorite things about the movie are Kerr's dress in the "Shall We Dance?" sequence and Jerome Robbins' exquisite "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet.
1. Cabaret (1972)
English writer has fling with American actress as the Nazis rise to power in Berlin. Bob Fosse brilliantly reconceived Hal Prince's landmark musical, and came up with a startling film that nearly equals the original. Liza Minnelli won a well-deserved Oscar for her dazzling Sally Bowles, singing, dancing, and acting extraordinarily well. Oscars also went to Fosse and Joel Grey, recreating his Broadway performance as the amoral, androgynous Emcee. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a sweetly sung patriotic song that builds into an ugly Nazi anthem, is worth the price of a rental on its own.
Oliver and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are the movies that came closest to making my list. I would include Oklahoma! and Carousel if I could count only the Agnes De Mille dances and forget the rest of the movies. South Pacific might be on the list if the bizarre color filters didn't hurt it so much.
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