Adapting a musical, Broadway or otherwise, to film is a tricky business. Musicals have their own specific magic that can sometimes feel inextricably tied to the stage, and their inherent theatricality can, if not handled correctly, come off as unbearably camp on the big screen. On Friday, we got chills after watching the new international trailer for Les Misérables, and, especially after Anne Hathaway’s performance on SNL last night we are registering our feelings as squarely hopeful that the film will knock us out. Though Hollywood has had many failures in this area (Phantom of the Opera, Nine), some of their adaptations have been completely brilliant, in some cases even overtaking the original productions. After the jump, we’ve put together a list of some of the best ever stage-to-screen musicals — both to warm you up for Les Mis and just maybe to give a little inspiration to the producers and directors of the upcoming film remakes of Jersey Boys and Into the Woods. Make it work, you guys.
My Fair Lady
The original 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady, based of course on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, was an unprecedented hit, setting the then-record for the longest running musical in history, and heralded by The New York Times , albeit with the advantage of hindsight, as “the perfect expression of the perfect musical.” However, it was the 1964 film, starring the indomitable Audrey Hepburn, which cemented the story in the culture’s imagination, winning eight Academy Awards and being pretty much the most delightful thing ever. Not to alarm/over-excite you, but there may be even yet another remake in the works, starring Colin Firth and Carey Mulligan. So far, so good, but those are some big shoes to fill.
The sizzling, satirical musical opened in 1975 to mixed reviews, but gained some serious steam through its original run and subsequent revivals. The 2002 film maintained the inherent theatricality — after all, this is a stage show about criminally insane stage performers — while using the conventions of film (parallel montages, focused detail shots) to its advantage. The result was a universally acclaimed film that took home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the first musical in over thirty years to take home the top prize.
Little Shop of Horrors
The original 1982 musical version of Little Shop was itself based on a film, the 1960 non-musical horror-farce The Little Shop of Horrors, but the 1986 film was based on the musical. Still with us? Okay. The most recent film version is perfectly campy, though Audrey has the most annoying voice ever dreamt up in the history of mankind, but it makes one very Hollywood change to the plot of the musical: Seymour and Audrey win in the end. In the musical, just about everyone dies, and then the puppet plant heads straight for the audience, on its way to dominate America. Director Frank Oz really wanted to keep the original ending, though, and in fact shot about 23 minutes of it. Test audiences, however, hated it. “We had to cut that ending and make it a happy ending, or a satisfying ending,” Oz said. “We didn’t want to, but we understood they couldn’t release it with that kind of a reaction.” Still, we count the film a success — with Steve Martin as a maniac dentist, Rick Moranis as hapless plant-loving Seymour, and a masochistic Bill Murray, how could we not?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
It’s hard to argue with the importance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After all, it is the longest running film of all time, having been pretty much continuously in theaters since 1975. As far as staging and cinematography are concerned, it’s pretty much just a traditional musical shot on film, but it’s such a wonderful one that it doesn’t really matter — everyone needs this production within arm’s reach. This December, a new production of the original musical will begin a year-long run in the UK, and we highly recommend you check it out if you can. We’re pricing out plane tickets ourselves. After all, you can never get enough absolute pleasure.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Some of you may disagree with this one, but we thought Sondheim’s 1979 Tony Award-winning musical was wonderfully reanimated by Tim Burton in 2007. Sure, Johnny Depp can’t really sing, but to our ears he sells it anyway, stuffing his thin voice with good acting. The art direction was a perfect interpretation of Sondheim’s intention, all desaturated colors and grim angles, and then there’s Alan Rickman — well, he can do no wrong. Lots of things were cut, and as purists we often hate that, but we totally got it this time — this is a difficult, bloody story, and it’s more upsetting on film, where you see all the slicing, than on stage. And for this tale, the more upsetting, the better.
Fiddler on the Roof
The original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler was a wild success, winning nine Tony Awards and setting the then-record for longest-running musical. The film, happily, is quite faithful to the original show, and was a hit in its own right, scooping up a fat handful of Academy Awards nominations and winning three. Sometimes you have to know when to just film a musical straight.
West Side Story
Well, obviously. The original Broadway version of West Side Story was well certainly received, but it was the film that really blew everyone away, taking home ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture) from eleven nominations, making it the most Academy-decorated musical film of all time. Not too shabby.
Pauline Kael, the New Yorker theater critic in the ’70s and ’80s, notoriously hated the original musical version of Oliver!, claiming in a review that she had actually walked out on it. However, she loved the somewhat gloomier 1968 British film adaptation (not strictly Hollywood, we know, but consider it a blanket term) — and so did everyone else. It won six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and has the uncertain distinction of being the only G-rated film to win Best Picture.
The Sound of Music
Oh, Rodgers and Hammerstein, you never steer us wrong. That is, you only steer us to the land of chocolate and sunny hilltops. The film was faithfully adapted from the gentle original 1959 musical, and Mary Martin’s role expertly taken up by Julie Andrews, the only person who could have been reasonably expected to do it as well. The 1965 film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and also supplanted Gone With the Wind as the then-highest grossing film of all time.
Why, it’s greased lightning! In its original 1971 incarnation, Grease (originally titled Grease Lightning) was a rough play-with-music staged in Chicago — until producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox saw the show and convinced the writers to turn it into a Broadway musical, maintaining enough of the original grit and social satire to keep it edgy, but enough pop and ’50s rock bombast to keep everyone enthralled. The rest, as they say, is history: the musical was a hit, and the 1978 film has become an American classic. Grease 2, we should point out, has not.