Bringing the Magic of Musicals From Stage to Screen
Do you remember your first movie musical? Mine was probably The Sound of Music, a special occasion where my sister and I were allowed to stay up late to watch it on TV. Or it might have been Fiddler on the Roof. We played that album constantly, singing and acting out “Matchmaker” over and over again. The first movie musical I saw in the theatre, as a current release was Grease, and I was obsessed with it!
Film adaptations of musicals had their heyday in the 1960s and 70s, routinely sweeping up awards and becoming classics. Think My Fair Lady, Cabaret, Funny Girl, Oliver, West Side Story, and of course Fiddler, Grease, and The Sound of Music.
To be clear, by adaptations I am referring to films specifically based on a stage musical. That is different from musicals conceived for the screen, such as the classic MGM musicals of yore.
After the 70s, there was a significant lull in quality musical adaptations. Animated films took over the space of movie musicals. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Frozen, and The Lion King were huge hits for all ages and feature memorable original scores. All have since been adapted for the stage. (Stage adaptations of movies is big trend, and a whole other blog post!)
Musical adaptations were still being made but not as successfully, with some notable exceptions. Chicago (2003) based on the 1975 Bob Fosse musical (which was revived in 1996 and is still running on Broadway!), won an impressive six Oscars including Best Picture. Dreamgirls (2007) based on the 1981 Broadway hit, garnered praise and an Oscar for superstar Jennifer Hudson. But there have also been many, some notorious, flops (sorry Cats).
I wonder if creators try too hard to make the film different from the original stage show. My personal pet peeve is the casting of Hollywood actors who aren’t singers (Les Mis and Mamma Mia come to mind), rather than drawing from the vast pool of actors who sing beautifully. Of course, films also get flack for casting actors who originated the role and are no longer age appropriate, or don’t have box office draw. Art isn’t easy.
But the tide may be starting to turn for the movie musical! This past year saw the release of several celebrated musical adaptations that got it just right, including:
West Side Story – Coming to HBO Max and Disney+ on March 2nd!
Steven Spielberg’s new take on a classic is being showered with praise and nominations. I haven’t seen it yet, but will note it as good example of casting talented theatre performers and newcomers with no box office draw, to great success! Ariana DeBose, a tony nominated actress who you may also remember as “the bullet” in Hamilton, dazzles as Anita by all counts, and has the nominations and awards to prove it!
In The Heights – now available on HBO Max!
Based on the Tony winning show by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In The Heights gives us a colorful, raw view of friendship, heritage, and family in a Washington Heights neighborhood. It is a beautiful film about gentrification, individual and community identity, and the challenges of following your dreams. Not to mention the fabulous musical numbers!
tick, tick … BOOM! – Now available on Netflix!
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut brings us into the world of Jonathan Larson, who wrote the musical sensation Rent. We see the struggles of creating a musical, staying true to your vision, and being so consumed by your art that you alienate your loved ones. Andrew Garfield has been nominated for multiple awards for his portrayal of Larson, whose autobiographical musical of the same name is the basis of the film. This is a love letter to Broadway through and through, and to Larson who died tragically young.
Lin-Manuel is having a spectacular year, by the way. He also wrote the songs for the beloved animated musical Encanto!
Also released in 2021 were film versions of the West End’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Netflix), and the Broadway hit Dear Even Hansen (Amazon Prime). Coming soon to the screen are the highly anticipated Wicked and The Color Purple, among others.
We may well be in a new era of movie musical adaptations and I couldn’t be more eager, and hopeful!
For fun, here is a list of my Ten Favorite Stage to Screen Musicals (in chronological order):
The King and I (1956)
West Side Story (1961)
My Fair Lady (1964)
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
A Chorus Line (1986)
In the Heights (2021)
tick, tick…BOOM (2021)
Let me close by saying this: many film adaptations of Broadway musicals receive poor reviews, and often for good reason. But who cares? Film adaptations, good or bad, can be a gateway for you to fall in love with any musical.
Case in point: the 1986 film of A Chorus Line was (and is) universally panned, but you know what? It was my first introduction to the show, and as a teenager who dreamed of dancing on Broadway, I LOVED it! Still do.
So, as with all things theatre and art, I encourage you to find what you love, and love it with pride!
P.S. I’d love to hear your favorites!!