By Alan Hurst
Broadway has always been a major source of inspiration for film musicals. In the thirties Hollywood lured the great composers of the day to write film scores: Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter among others. Broadway performers – including Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Alice Faye, Gene Kelly – were tempted to try their hand at film and film musicals with varying degrees of success.
However, the most consistent inspiration has been the Broadway musical itself. From the early thirties right through today, Hollywood has brought dozens of Broadway musicals to the big screen. Some worked, some didn’t, some proved to be ground-breaking and some proved to be complete failures. But the pool of inspiration has remained even if it has slowed down.
Over the last 80 plus years, these are probably the best stage to screen musical adaptations and each can stand on their own as classics:
SHOW BOAT (1936)
After successes with Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), director James Whale showed his versatility with this adaptation of the 1920s Broadway musical. The story revolves around life on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat which travels the Mississippi. Set in the late 1880s up to the 1920s, it touches on some major issues for a musical of that era – race, alcoholism, abandonment. While the 1951 MGM version emphasised the music and production numbers, Whale’s version achieves a nice balance between the drama and the music and follows the plot of the stage production more closely. The score includes such standards as “Make Believe”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Ol’ Man River” – the latter beautifully sung by Paul Robeson. Heading the cast are Irene Dunne and the legendary Helen Morgan.
CABIN IN THE SKY (1943)
Vincente Minnelli’s first musical feature is an interesting fable about a gambler who dies in a fight and arrives in purgatory, but he’s allowed to go back to earth and is given six months to prove he deserves to end up in heaven. This was a somewhat daring film at the time as it featured an all-black cast which meant that there would be challenges for MGM in terms of distribution in some states. But the film proved to be a money maker and it featured a supremely talented cast that included Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the sublime Ethel Waters as his wife, plus Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong. Vincente Minnelli showed tremendous skill with the all facets of the production, particularly in the stylized look and feel of the film and some wonderful musical numbers.
ON THE TOWN (1949)
Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, this is an energetic adaptation of a good Broadway show about three sailors on 24-hour leave in Manhattan. The Broadway version had one of the best scores of the 1940s, but not all of those songs made it into the film. What is there is terrific – particularly the iconic “New York, New York” which was filmed in various locations around Manhattan. Gene Kelly leads a very able cast that also includes Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munshin and Betty Garret. Because MGM relented and let Kelly and Donen film on location for some of the musical numbers, there’s a real energy here that lifts the film.
20th Century Fox released four adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits in a row – Oklahoma! (1955), The King and I (1956), Carousel (1956) and South Pacific (1958). I think this is the best of the quartet. Director Fred Zinnemann took advantage of the big screen with the on-location shooting that captures some stunning scenery and dancing, but doesn’t lose the intimacy of the story. Oklahoma! is about a young man and woman falling in love against a backdrop of fighting between farmers and cowmen. The musical represents one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best scores and it’s delivered by a top notch cast that includes Shirley Jones, Gordon McRae, Eddie Albert, Rod Steiger and Gloria Grahame.
WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
Probably the most acclaimed film musical of the sixties, this is an excellent adaptation of a ground-breaking musical that shocked Broadway in 1957. Definitely not a traditional musical comedy, it’s an updating of Romeo and Juliet but, instead of waring families, it’s the story of two gangs in late fifties New York battling for territory. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are the main lovers, but it’s Rita Moreno and George Chakiris who are the standouts in the cast (both won supporting Oscars that year). Yet ask anyone who has seen West Side Story and the real stars are Jerome Robbins’ choreography and the pulsating Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score. These all come together under Robert Wise’s assured direction.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
The movie that some people love to hate and other just love. Count me among the latter. Director Robert Wise did a terrific job breathing life into what was, on stage, a popular but very saccharine, artificial musical. But it had a terrific score and Wise knew what was he was doing by heading straight to Salzburg for filming – no other musical has benefitted from location shooting the way this one does. It helps ground the film. So does Julie Andrews in the lead – one of the most perfect pairings of actor and role in film history. There is no one who could have done what Andrews did with the role of the governess. Based on a true story, but with a great deal of poetic license, The Sound of Music received a mixed reaction from critics, but it caught on with audiences and by the end of its first year in release was the most financially successful film of all time.
FUNNY GIRL (1968)
This is another instance where a musical is made better by its transfer to film. It tells the true story of comedienne and singer Fanny Brice and her marriage to gambler Nicky Arnstein. On Broadway, Barbra Streisand shot to stardom in the role and we should be forever grateful that she was able to repeat that performance on film. It’s one of the most spectacular debuts in film history and won her the Oscar (in a tie with Katharine Hepburn). Streisand is the whole show and director William Wyler acknowledges that by keeping her front and centre, and eliminating characters from the Broadway version and ensuring that all the songs are sung by, to or about Streisand’s character. The film is also a visual treat – beautifully capturing the show business milieu of the early part of the last century. My one quibble with the film is the casting of Omar Sharif as Fanny’s husband – he’s charming, but there isn’t a lot of charisma there. Frank Sinatra was one name mentioned for the role, but it wasn’t to be. Streisand and Sinatra singing in the same film would have been a dream.
This is the big one – the single best adaptation from stage to screen in movie history. Director Bob Fosse doesn’t just open up the musical he totally rethinks everything from the original Broadway production. He’s moved all the musical action to the Kit Kat Club stage where the heroine (Liza Minnelli) performs. Consequently each number becomes a stronger commentary on the time (early 1930s in Nazi Germany) and the lives of the main characters. Stunningly photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, Cabaret was a major hit at the time and is now recognized as one of three or four all-time best musicals. Bob Fosse won the Oscar for best director that year and I think the win was a much for what he did as a director as for his achievements here as a choreographer. He’s also working with a great Kander and Ebb score and he has the perfect Sally in Liza Minnelli. Liza never found a better part to showcase her talents. Also good are Joel Grey as the Emcee and Michael York as a young writer.
This was Milos Foreman’s first film after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), critically acclaimed at the time but not a big hit. Based on the breakthrough 1967 Broadway musical that broke all the rules, I think Hair was hurt at the time because a musical about the sixties counter-culture seemed about 10 years too late. But it wasn’t and this is another movie where the passage of time has been kind. Foreman captures the era perfectly and the story is much more focused than the Broadway version. Treat Williams leads the cast of relative unknowns. They’re all great and do a wonderful job with the wide-ranging score. Standouts include a very young Nell Carter and a stunning opening production number of “Aquarius”.
Timing is everything in the story of the evolution of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago”. It opened on Broadway in the mid-seventies in the same season as A Chorus Line. It got decent reviews and had a healthy run, but got lost under the juggernaut of A Chorus Line. There was talk of a movie at the time with Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn and possibly Frank Sinatra (a dream cast) but it never happened. Fast forward to the mid-nineties and the now forgotten musical is given new life in a concert performance in New York that quickly transfers to Broadway – where it has now been running for 20 plus years. Hollywood showed interest again and in 2002 Rob Marshall’s film version was released to strong reviews and major box office receipts. Like Cabaret (1972) before it, the songs become on-stage performances or interior dream sequences and the result is a kinetic but very entertaining film that breathed new life into the film musical. Renee Zellweger, despite some musical limitations, is very good as Roxie, the murderess who wants to be a star, Catherine Zeta-Jones is a dazzling and tough Vera, and Richard Gere surprised a lot of people with his slyly musical lawyer. It won Best Picture that year – not everyone’s favorite choice – but still a nice reward for the best musical adaptation in a long time.
Ironically, it’s now Hollywood that is giving Broadway inspiration. Over the last decade or so Broadway producers have been mining film hits from the last 30 years to turn them into Broadway musicals. The results are usually generic and uninspired – but by using a recognizable title these shows are opening to a built-in audience willing to shill out their dollars for a proven commodity. And that’s why musicals of Pretty Woman and Mean Girls will be heading to a stage near you.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.