When a movie is turned into a stage musical, it’s a huge gamble that can pay off handsomely, or sting the nostrils for years to come. I’ve been lucky enough to miss most of the misses, but I have seen all of the hits, so here are my Top 10/Worst 10. (Xanadu belongs near the top, but since it is almost a parody of the film, I didn’t include it on my list.)
1) Hairspray: Hairspray is a smart, funny and infectiously entertaining show that reinvented its 1988 John Waters inspiration. Likewise, the film version of the stage version of the film (confused yet?) was a new creation altogether, and all three succeed in proving that sometimes the Hefty Hideaway girl can get the guy!
2) The Producers: It may be heresy to say, but I can’t watch the original Mel Brooks film, what with Gene Wilder’s shrieking and Zero Mostel’s bellowing. But the musical? Brilliant! Brooks’ canny eye about what works on stage combined with his love of old-fashioned musicals made this one of the funniest and most entertaining nights I’ve had at the theater.
3) The Lion King: If you’re going to remake an animated movie about a lion cub with daddy issues (and big-time “uncle issues”), it helps to infuse the show with gorgeous ethnically diverse and respectful imagery that celebrates the beauty and wildlife of Africa. Like The Producers, I don’t particularly enjoy the film inspiration, but on stage only one word suffices: Wow!
4) Beauty and the Beast: Disney’s first screen-to-stage translation was a smart, eye-popping spectacle that kept all of the great Alan Menken/Howard Ashman music that made the movie feel like a Broadway musical in the first place, but added stage magic that enchanted audiences and was more responsible than any other show for inspiring a generation of children to love the theater. The dishware sang “Be Our Guest” and I was more than happy to oblige.
5) La Cage aux Folles: Okay, so it was a stage play before a film, but Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s ode to non-traditional families and “being who you are” definitely followed the film plot-wise, but burst forth with everything that is wonderful about Broadway musicals. "The Best of Times" indeed.
6) Reefer Madness: So maybe it isn’t wise to try and turn Citizen Kane into a musical comedy (“Rosebud!”), but why not try and turn something terrible into something great? Reefer Madness takes the awful 1930’s Scare Film about the dangers of the demon weed and makes it sublimely hilarious. This time, the humor’s intentional!
7) Little Shop of Horrors: This selection could land anywhere on the list, but it replaces The Full Monty only because I enjoy the rest of the shows personally, regardless of their pedigree or lack of critical approval. This was the show that proved that films should be musicals, and that schlocky films about man-eating plants named Audrey II are a better source material than beloved classics (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Thin Man, High Society, et al).
8) Victor/Victoria: I know, I know! What’s this doing on the list? Simply put, I found the show a hoot to watch and would go see it again. Adding songs that were so delicious/awful as “Paris Makes Me Horny” (“It’s not like Californie…”) and “Louis Says” added to the thrill of seeing Julie Andrews in her last big musical performance. The pro-GLBT message of the show certainly didn’t hurt either! Thoroughly Modern Millie won the Tony (over Urinetown no less ... and without "Tap-Tap-Tapioca"!), but V/V is the Julie show I prefer.
9) Catch Me If You Can: It’s too early to know how the show will evolve prior to its Broadway debut, but in Seattle it was a cool, cool night at the theater. A stellar cast including super-hot Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz and Tom Wopat really helped reinvent the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, and once again Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and Terrence McNally prove that they know what works on stage.
10) Cry-Baby: This is the most unfairly-maligned musical of recent history, and I truly think it’s because its ironic name (also the title character's) is fun for people to put down. Was the show as naughty and campy as its John Waters inspiration? No. Still, when Cry-Baby was on fire (Alli Mauzey’s incredible “Screw Loose”, the license plate jailhouse stomp of “A Little Upset”, and many other entertaining musical moments), Cry-Baby was exactly the show I wanted it to be, and I had a blast.
Of course, just because you can make a musical out of a movie doesn’t mean you should, and these are my worst ten musical mistakes, and the reasons I think so.
10) Big: Remembering this show, which underwent huge rewrites prior to touring and is now considered a great show for schools to perform, I was reminded how much I enjoyed much of it. However, the bland Daniel Jenkins in the lead, and the dreaded “Happy Birthday Josh! Birthday Josh!” nightmare scenes will haunt me until I find a Zoltar Speaks machine to wipe out the memory.
9) Young Frankenstein: Lightning doesn’t strike twice, especially when the producers of Young Frankenstein exhibited the same hubris of their title character. Huge ticket prices, a cavernous theater and a lackluster score of unmemorable songs did not bring the film to life, even with a stellar cast that included Sutton Foster, Megan Mullally and Roger Bart.
8) Tarzan: Josh Strickland’s amazing body notwithstanding, nothing in this amplified theme park show justified its existence, proving that Phil Collins is no Elton John, much less a Menken or Ashman. The biggest stumble with Tarzan (and The Little Mermaid) was their need to be blockbusters that blanched out any risk-taking.
7) The Wedding Singer: The hallmark of poor film to stage adaptations is losing what made the film special, which in this case meant Drew Barrymore and the usually unbearable Adam Sandler. The completely unmemorable score and book make the show little more than a non-audience participatory Awesome 80s Prom.
6) High School Musical: This is what I call “Rice Cake Theater”, a show with absolutely no flavor or value intended simply to cash in on the goodwill generated by its small screen original. Still, it gets kids interested in live theater, although in this case, it could just as easily be HSM on Ice.
5) Footloose: Take an 80’s movie without much going for it except its soundtrack, regurgitate it on stage with little or no originality and you’re ready to "cut loose, footloose". Believe me, when you watch it, you’ll think somebody cut loose.
4) Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy: Apparently, if one John Travolta movie musical was successful (Grease), everything he did must be aching for the musical treatment. How else can you explain stage versions of Saturday Night Fever and its lesser cousin, Urban Cowboy? Fortunately, neither show inflicted itself on audiences very long.
3) Dance of the Vampires: On first glance, a stage version of Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Hunters might not be an automatic flop. To really put it over the top, you need terrible music, an awful book and a cast (including a hammy Michael Crawford as Count Giovanni Von Krolock) unable to overcome either one.
2) Singin’ in the Rain: I can’t tell you if this show is always as god-awful as the production I saw, but it definitely begs the question: “Why?! For Pete’s sake, why??!” It’s virtually impossible to cast leads as charismatic as Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, nor is the title song ever going to match Kelly’s splish-splashing high-kicking delivery. “All wet” is an understatement.
1) Carrie: What part of this infamous catastrophe was worse? The malt shop scene where the kids dressed like leather bar habitués ? Lyrics like “It's a simple little gig, you help me kill a pig”? The death of Margaret White transported from Carrie’s grubby house in the film to some surreal “Stairway to Heaven”? The answer is “All of the above”. Carrie was quite simply the perfect storm of misguided musicals, which lives on in the hearts and minds of those few lucky or unlucky enough to witness it.
Click here for Chris' best and worst from screen to stage, and feel free to weigh in with your reactions and/or your personal picks in the comments section below!
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.