In the wake of the recent Broadway closings of the cinema-inspired musicals The Little Mermaid (from all reports an artistic debacle) and 9 to 5 (unspectacular but enjoyable), Neil and I here at Movie Dearest thought we would put our film- and theatre-loving brains together and identify what we consider the best and worst stage musicals adapted from movies. There have been many over the years, and they seem to be hitting the Great White Way with increasing frequency; Minsky's (which had a promising LA tryout run earlier this year), The First Wives Club and Blazing Saddles, among others, are reportedly still to come.
I certainly haven't seen every musical based on or inspired by a movie, and in fairness am not considering those I haven't seen. But here in my opinion are the greatest and least of those I have seen to date either on Broadway, on tour or via a local production ...
A Little Night Music: Not only the finest musical adapted from a film (Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) I've ever seen, but my favorite musical period. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler add alternately beautiful and witty music, lyrics and dialogue to already-superior source material, and not only don't diminish it but expand on its themes and characters. This is how these things should be done.
Little Shop of Horrors: Low-budget movie producer Roger Corman was probably more surprised than anyone to see his cheesy 1960 sci-fi spoof become a major success on stage beginning in 1982. Indeed, the original off-Broadway saga of a boy and girl brought together by a malevolent, man-eating plant from outer space was such a smash it became a big budget, big screen movie in 1986. Both showcase a great score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and the fabulous Ellen Greene as Audrey I.
Hairspray and Cry-Baby: The films of cult filmmaker John Waters seemed unlikely candidates for mainstream musicalization, but the Tony Award-winning Hairspray is one of the most appealing in the genre. I found Cry-Baby, which had a too-short run on Broadway and — criminally — hasn't received a cast recording to date, to be even funnier and more in keeping with Waters' off-color sensibilities from its opening "Anti-Polio Picnic" number on! Could Serial Mom be next?
Kiss of the Spider Woman: While its primary source is Manuel Puig's novel, the Oscar-winning 1985 film is really this musical's main point of reference for most. Between that and the cinematic fantasies of gay window dresser Molina, it is a movie-inspired piece through and through. Kander & Ebb's score is one of their best, and seeing the fabulous Chita Rivera in the title role will always be one of my fondest Broadway memories.
The Phantom of the Opera: Similarly, most people aren't as familiar with Gaston Leroux's 19th century romantic-horror tale as they are with its many film versions starring everyone from Lon Chaney to Claude Rains to (gulp) Robert Englund. Andrew Lloyd Webber mined them all to spectacular musical and visual effect, with a strong assist from master director Harold Prince and the original stage Phantom, Michael Crawford.
Passion: Sondheim's second adaptation of a movie, in this case Ettore Scola's fairly obscure Passione d'Amore. Despite winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Actress (Donna Murphy), Score and Book, Passion has, in my experience, many more critics than fans. I was completely taken, however, by its intelligent rumination on the definition of love. I highly recommend the DVDavailable of the original Broadway production to those who have never seen it.
The Lion King: Out of the seemingly endless string of Disney animated films translated to Broadway (Pinocchio is still to come), this remains not only Disney's best stage production but one of the most inspired pieces of theatre of our modern era. Julie Taymor's cultural sensitivity and skill with puppets elevate this kid-oriented "Hamlet on the Savannah" to near-operatic heights.
The Producers: The only musical comedy to leave me gasping for breath from laughing so hard. Mel Brooks' 1968 movie, which simultaneously spoofed the Broadway biz and the Third Reich, was funny on its own and won an Oscar for its screenplay. It can't hold a candle to the stage version, though, thanks to Susan Stroman's clever direction and choreography and the hysterical original cast headlined by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who also star in the fine 2005 film of the musical.
A Man of No Importance: Probably the least seen of any of my picks, greatest or least, this is an intimate gem based on an equally little-seen 1994 film. The movie stars Albert Finney as a repressed Irish bus driver in love with his young, male assistant as well as the works of Oscar Wilde. The musical's lovely score is by the Tony-winning pair Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on This Island, Ragtime), and playwright Terrence McNally authored the sweet, sensitive book. If you can't find a production of it, stage one!
Reefer Madness: A delightfully campy take on one of the worst movies ever made, a 1930's propaganda piece about the evils of marijuana. The stage version is great, and not just because Jesus has a supporting role! Even better is the made-for-Showtime 2006 movie adaptationstarring gay faves Christian Campbell, Alan Cumming and the hilarious Ana Gasteyer.
I'm grateful I could only come up with five, and none of them is awful. Not having seen the reviled-at-the-time Carrie (not yet, anyway; Neil tells me he's found most of it online), these are the most unsuccessful musicals based on a movie that I could recall seeing:
Sunset Boulevard: Lloyd Webber's score is very good, but it's hard to draw an audience to a story with no likeable characters. I saw Petula Clark play Norma Desmond on tour. Her voice and performance were good, but physically she was hardly the larger-than-life character Norma needs to be. Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley were all better received in the role.
Footloose: The first real bubble-gum movie to become a bubble-gum stage production. I remember Walter Bobbie's staging and the energetic choreography to be quite good ... but that's all I remember apart from the songs previously made famous by the more enjoyable movie.
Monty Python's Spamalot: Again, not so much bad as overrated. I just recently saw this tuner inspired by the absurdist cult favorite Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time during its Los Angeles premiere and, while I enjoyed much of it, I still can't believe it won the 2005 Tony for Best Musical over the superior, haunting The Light in the Piazza.
Victor/Victoria: The splendid 1982 film arrived on Broadway nearly 15 years later. By that point, Julie Andrews was more than a little long-in-the-tooth and no longer in the best vocal condition to resurrect her Oscar-nominated performance. Leslie Bricusse padded his score for the film with one very good song — "Louis Says" — and one not very good song, "Paris Makes Me Horny." The latter was performed on Broadway by Rachel York, who will soon be starring as the immortal Cruella DeVille in a stage musical version of 101 Dalmatians (!).
Grand Hotel: Often referred to by pundits as "Grim Hotel," this musical adaptation of the star-studded 1932 Best Picture Oscar winner features depressing characters and a thoroughly forgettable score. A touching, Tony-winning performance by the late Michael Jeter as a terminally ill man was the Broadway production's one bright spot.
Tune in tomorrow for Neil's 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!
Article by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.