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Hollywood and Broadway Share, and Trade, a Lot

July 20, 2008

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 20–Mamma Mia, there she goes again.

“Mamma Mia!” — which began life as a most unlikely hit Broadway musical — has been given yet another life as a high-spirited musical movie.

The comedic, infectiously high-spirited and ABBA-fueled musical is likely to join a growing list of Broadway musicals that have made the successful stage-to-screen translation since the movie version of “Chicago” debuted in 2002.

It’s hardly new or innovative.

Hollywood began happily extending the life and audience for musicals almost as soon as sound became a workable tool for filmmakers.

“The Jazz Singer,” the first all-talking movie featured Al Jolson singing in 1927.

Two years later, in 1929, Warner Bros. released its first all-talking and singing operetta, a film version of the Broadway musical “The Desert Song,” which had opened in 1927.

The following year, another successful Broadway musical, “Sunny,” which had its stage debut in 1925, turned up as a screen adaptation.

Perhaps the most enduring of those early stage-to-screen adaptations came in 1936 when the 1927 Broadway musical “Showboat” came to the screen with three additional songs.

Since then, Hollywood and Broadway have inspired and cross-fed each other.

A plethora of big classic Broadway musicals such as “Oklahoma,”"Carousel,”"West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” have gone on to second lives in films.

A smaller number of musicals have made the reverse journey beginning on film, then turning up on Broadway.

“42nd Street,” the ultimate backstage musical and Broadway love story began as a 1933 Warner Bros. film. It wasn’t until 1980 that producer David Merrick brought it to Broadway with Jerry Orbach as the driven producer-director Julian Marsh and Wanda Richert as the innocent ingenue Peggy Sawyer.

Merrick also brought “State Fair” to Broadway, though the musical proved less popular there: it lasted only 110 performances despite its Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The two film versions, one in 1962 starring Pat Boone, Bobby Darin and Ann-Margret, and the earlier 1945 version with Gene Crain, Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine, have proved much more enduring.

A more recent example is the 1967 song-filled film “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that turned up on Broadway in 2004, but with a radically different score of songs.

There are also any number of musicals that started life as movies without a song score, but were adapted into musicals.

Mel Brook’s 1967 film “The Producers” is the one that most often springs to mind.

But there’s an abundance of other examples such as “Applause” which opened on Broadway in 1970 with Lauren Bacall in the lead. The musical was adapted from the iconic backstage Broadway film “All About Eve.”

Similarly, “Little Shop of Horrors” began life as a minor 1960 Roger Corman sci-fi film about killer plants. In 1982, it began a five-year run Off-Broadway as an immensely popular musical comedy with a succession of ever larger killer plants and a score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

In 1986, it returned to its Hollywood roots when the musical became a film starring Rick Moranis. In 2003, it finally made its Broadway debut

Traditionally, the filming of a musical was delayed until the Broadway and subsequent touring productions had closed. The trick was to wait until the live versions had exhausted their commercial potential, but soon enough after their Broadway runs while there was still a buzz about them.

In more recent years, musicals have transferred to film much faster.

At the moment five musicals still in their intial Broadway runs — “Rent,”"The Phantom of the Opera,”"Chicago,”"Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia!” — can be seen both as films and live Broadway musicals.

A decade of musicals reborn as films

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

Film stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter starred as the revenge-bent barber and the enterprising pastry shop owner who recycled his victims. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury played those roles when the Stephen Sondheim musical began on Broadway in 1979. It was revived Off-Broadway in 1989 and on Broadway in 2005. The 2005 revival, which featured Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, closed in 2006. The original Broadway production and the film are available on DVD.

“Hairspray” (2007)

It began life in 1988 as a John Waters film about a plus-sized teen realizing her dreams and outwitting segregationists in 1962 Baltimore. Its dance-party TV show setting had lots of music, but it wasn’t a musical. In 2002, Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman turned it into a musical about the power of dreams and big hair. It starred Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein as the plump teen and her supportive, loving mother, the roles Divine and Rikki Lake originated on screen. John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky played the mother/daughter duo when the musical went back to film. The show is still playing on Broadway. Both film versions are available on DVD.

“Dreamgirls” (2006)

The musical had productions on Broadway in 1981,1987 and 2001 before it finally moved to film. Beonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy star in the tale of the triumphs, trials and personal relationships of The Dreams, a 1960s girl group who rise from their Detroit beginnings to stardom where they learn some unpleasant life lessons. Bill Condon, who also translated the musical “Chicago” to the screen, directed and wrote the screenplay adaptation of “Dreamgirls.” The 2001 Broadway production was a special one-night revival. The movie is available on DVD.

“The Producers” (2005)

The musical was an adaptation of a 1968 non-musical film, which its creator Mel Brooks translated into a 2001 Broadway blockbuster musical, then back again into a film of the musical. Zero Mostel originally played the unsuccessful Broadway producer Max Bialystock. Nathan Lane assumed the role for the musical versions. Leo Bloom, the mousy accountant who inspires Max to turn guaranteed flops into moneymaking scams was played by Gene Wilder in the original movie and by Matthew Broderick in the musical versions. The Broadway production closed in 2007. Both musical and non-musical film versions are available on DVD.

“Rent” (2005)

Jonathan Larson translated Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” into a contemporary rock opera about aspiring young artists living on the New York’s East Village. It played first Off-Broadway and then on Broadway in 1991. Screenwriter and Pittsburgh native Stephen Chbosky and director Chris Columbus and some of the musical’s original cast members moved the musical to the silver screen. The show is still playing on Broadway. The movie is available on DVD.

“The Phantom of the Opera” (2004)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opulent, epic musical had been playing on Broadway for 16 years before Webber and screenwriter/director Joel Schumacher turned it into a film. It’s the story of a demented and disfigured man who lurks in the shadows of a Paris opera house. He becomes obsessed with Christine, a young dancer and singer whom he kidnaps and attempts to turn into an opera star. Girard Butler and Emmy Rossum played The Phantom and Christine in the movie. Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman were the first to play them when Cameron Mackintosh opened the Broadway production in 1988. The show is still playing on Broadway. The movie is available on DVD.

“Chicago” (2002)

Translating the 1996 revival of this Kander and Ebb musical to the silver screen may well be what re-ignited the recent popularity of musicals as movies. Former Squirrel Hill resident Rob Marshall spun the dark and cynical story, the razzle, dazzle theatricality and Bob Fosse’s stylish moves from Walter Bobbie and Anne Reinking’s stage production. When “Chicago” debuted on Broadway in 1977, Chita Rivera, Gwenn Verdon and Jerry Orbach played the two murderesses and the pragmatic lawyer who was willing — for a price — to spin any tale to win their freedom. Bebe Neuwirth, Anne Reinking and James Naughton played those roles when the 1996 revival debuted on Broadway. The movie version was filmed, not with musical theater performers, but a trio film actors — Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zelwegger and Richard Gere. The 1996 revival continues to play on Broadway. The movie is available on DVD.

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