There was a time in American cultural history when transferring musicals from the Broadway stage to the silver screen was simply a foregone conclusion. Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, Gypsy, Oliver!, Godspell and Hair are just a smattering of examples. But by the mid-1980s, this practice seemed outdated and impossible. Theater (which is officially pronounced dead every few seasons or so) was churning out less and less original musical works at the time (save for the work of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and the occasional hit by Maury Yeston, or the team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) and instead began relying heavily on the art of the revival, most often shored up by the inclusion of a big-name star or two to guarantee decent attendance. And the simple truth is, at a time when the cinematic climate was more heavily focused on action thrillers and making stars out of the likes of Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, people just weren’t interested in going to their neighborhood multiplex to watch a bunch of happy people singing happy songs and having happy times. The studios, therefore, largely turned their backs on Broadway, and the art of the musical film was all but forgotten.
Then, in 1988, a group of people got the idea to transform Carrie, the 1976 blockbuster horror film based on the book by Stephen King, into a Broadway musical. This was a unique idea; transferring musicals to film had been a long-established principle once upon a time, but transferring a non-musical film to the stage and adding music and lyrics? However, in the age of rampant Yuppie-dom and constantly changing cultural trends, it seemed a novel notion. And with the inclusion of Betty Buckley (who was not only Broadway’s biggest musical star at the time for her turn as Grizabella in Cats, but had so vividly portrayed the treacherous gym teacher Miss Collins in the film) as Carrie’s mother Margaret White (played on screen by actress Piper Laurie in an Oscar-nominated turn), it seemed that a sure-fire hit was in the making. And though the show retains legendary status as one of the most resounding and expensive musical flops in Broadway history, it nonetheless opened the door for a veritable flood of film-to-Broadway musical transfers with varying degrees of success. Among these were My Favorite Year, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Red Shoes, Footloose, The Goodbye Girl and Saturday Night Fever. Additionally, for the next fifteen years, nary a musical was transferred from Broadway to Hollywood, nor were any original musical works produced on film, but for an occasional independent effort.
In 2002, things seemed to change virtually overnight. Chicago, which had been running as a mega-hit revival on Broadway since 1996, was announced as a movie starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellwegger and Queen Latifah. Though the film had its detractors, it was a qualified smash and won over forty awards, including six Oscars. Broadway musicals-to-film was suddenly big business again, and since that time has seen the development and production of Dreamgirls, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd and Nine among others.
A film of Wicked is said to be in the planning stages. And in the most unheard-of turn of events, Hairspray went from a non-musical film to a Broadway musical to a film of the musical version. At the same time, non-musical films continue to be developed for the stage, a most recent example being Sister Act. Plus, Sony recently announced plans to re-invent no less than five non-musical movies into Broadway musical productions, with Tootsie being the first and headed for Broadway as early as late 2013 once a creative team is selected.
This, therefore, begs the question: is bringing Broadway musicals to the big screen truly a step forward? All evidence would suggest so; Dreamgirls netted an Oscar for American Idol reject Jennifer Hudson plus another win and six nominations. Similarly, Nine received four nominations and Phantom garnered three. But what does this say about today’s generation? Why, suddenly, are we as a culture so seemingly desirous, if not downright thirsty, for an infusion of musicals at the cinema?
Some might argue that it’s because we’ve been “Smash-ified” and “Glee-ized” by the success of those two television programs; however, others will say that both shows have brought on the bastardization of the Broadway musical for the masses. On the other hand, pundits loudly decried Disney’s initial hold on Broadway back in 1992 with its production of Beauty and the Beast, as a means of making the Broadway musical experience something it should never become, and yet, the success of such productions as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang loudly and proudly speaks for itself.
Whatever the answer, most will wait with baited breath for the next big thing. It might be a Broadway musical on film, or a non-musical transferred to Broadway as a glittering spectacle. In any case, it is sure to both delight and excite.
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