With Broadway’s surplus of shows based on popular movies, original Hollywood musicals like Frozen, The Greatest Showman, and La La Land, and the slew of musical adaptations and remakes in the works, public interest in the movie musical seems to have been reinvigorated. Spielberg is giving West Side Story another go (with a Latina lead this time, what a twist!), Pasek and Paul have been successful enough with the masses to pave the way for a Dear Evan Hansen adaptation, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical following the lives of unsettling feline cultists is finally getting the film treatment after more than thirty years. But amidst all the hype for the pending adaptations of Broadway’s recent smash hits,there are a fair amount of older or lesser-known shows that could translate brilliantly to cinema and as far as we know, aren’t being considered (at least not as heavily).
I racked my brain trying to get this list to a nice round five items, but once I decided to restrict the candidates to shows that I’ve actually seen, Mack & Mabel and Rags were out, and I just couldn’t crack another one. So I settled for just four that I could write enough about to explain why they would make potentially brilliant films. They may not all have reached the box office numbers of Lion King or Hamilton, but I’d like to make a case for them now, and also make a note of what I would change in adapting each one.
1. La Cage Aux Folles
Why it would work: Though the original French play by Jean Poiret has already been adapted to film twice (in France under its original title and in the US as The Birdcage), Jerry Herman’s score fits in perfectly with the cabaret-style environment and further enhances the characters’ progression. The book by Harvey Fierstein maintains a balance between the show’s farcical premise and the sincerity in the characters’ relationships, and all too accurately represents the feeling of frustration when someone is denied their chance to live openly and authentically. Even though Georges and Albin have given their son everything, there’s no avoiding the fact that they’re just different enough to invite scorn from a closed-minded public that’s bound to affect even them and their loved ones to an extent. Jean-Michel is shown throughout the musical to be somewhat conflicted about what he’s asking of them, and with the right acting and direction, his character could be adapted to become a bit more complex, and the family’s dynamic and history could be fleshed out more in ways that wouldn’t be as practical onstage.
With the original play published in 1973 and the musical premiering in 1983, the story sits teetering between the birth of the gay liberation movement and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Thus its sympathetic and affirming representation of gay men and gender non-conforming people is especially significant in the history of both musical theatre and the LGBT+ community at large. And with that era becoming a subject of cinematic attention recently with Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and the ABC miniseries When We Rise, a slightly more lighthearted story in line with those projects’ messages would be a welcome entry into the catalog of modern queer entertainment.
On the technical side of things, the titular drag club could be brought to life beautifully on film with a coordinated use of lighting, color, and camera angles — sort of in the style of the 1972 adaptation of Cabaret, only the performances are more integrated into the plot. Somewhere there’s the right mix between styles similar to Rob Marshall, Bob Fosse, and Bill Condon that would serve the environment and emotion to perfection. That and the several upbeat production numbers would harken back to the golden age of the movie musical while exploring more modern themes.
The close-up is a major factor in what doomed Frank Oz’s original cut of Little Shop of Horrors, as test audiences actually ended up getting too invested in the characters so when the campy B-movie “everybody dies” ending came around, they couldn’t accept it. But a story like La Cage would easily use that to its benefit, elevating the show beyond a farcical comedy. The best places for it would naturally be in the most pivotal moments: “I Am What I Am,” as Albin performs his broken heart out after a cruel reminder of how the outside world perceives him, and “Look Over There” and its reprise, when Georges chews out his son for forgetting everything Albin did for him while his mother stayed largely absent and later when Jean-Michel finally takes Georges’ words to heart and apologizes to Albin in the face of his homophobic future in-laws.
Cut/Condense: “Masculinity.” The plot point surrounding the song goes absolutely nowhere, and it’s obvious that it was only inserted into the show because it was in the original source material and they needed to pad the runtime a bit more. The scene between “We Are What We Are” and “A Little More Mascara” could also be removed, as it would be much more streamlined to use the latter number to introduce Albin rather than have an unrelated scene of him talking to Georges in their kitchen and complaining about his cooking and housework going unappreciated. “A Little More Mascara” and the accompanying scene of him getting ready to go out for his drag performance already does the trick establishing Albin’s personality and dynamic with Georges, and shifts right into the grandeur of the club from a quieter and more intimate dressing room.
Why it would work: In his first Broadway-staged production, Jason Robert Brown pulled off one of the most beautiful dramatic scores in modern theatre, and Alfred Uhry’s book is arguably one of the most impressive true-story dramatizations in its use of even the smallest historical details incorporated into the musical narrative format. You thought the cakewalk at the end of act one was simply an artistic portrayal of the people celebrating Leo Frank’s conviction? The bells tolling between each juror’s declaration of his guilt? Not according to Harry Golden’s book on the case written a good thirty years before Parade was even conceived.
The show also has a solid grasp of tension and a deep understanding of the factors that complicated the Leo Frank case. For all the people in Atlanta who used Mary Phagan’s murder to push an antisemitic and racist agenda, boost their own reputations, or get a brief moment of fame for their testimony or comments in the papers, there were also a fair amount of people who only wanted some kind of catharsis for their grief, including kids and teenagers who later regretted the part that they were pushed into playing in the trial. The victim and defendant scarcely knew each other, but they were both ordinary people until they were caught up in a horrific event, and those around them ultimately failed to bring justice to either of them. That, added to the themes regarding how people tend to stay caught up in the past longer than is justified, makes the story all too timely. The events took place over a century ago, but while we lament their outcome today, we still haven’t evolved past the societal shames that led to it — prejudice, miscarriages of justice, and manipulative and sensationalist media. It was a court of public opinion that decided Frank’s fate, and his story could act as a cautionary tale to modern audiences to be wary of manipulative news coverage and the ideas we hold about anyone who seems not to belong around us.
Multiple songs in Parade lend themselves to montage and fantasy sequences, as people give wildly exaggerated testimonies against Frank based around stereotypical and dramatic ideas of his character more in line with the “dishonored damsel” melodramas of silent cinema than any of the actual circumstances surrounding the murder. Some songs from the trial scene call to mind the show-biz style of Chicago, and the chaos that transpired after Frank’s sentence was commuted could be visualized with the same graveness and foreboding conveyed musically in “Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes.”
The show already includes a good number of figures involved in the case, but naturally some who were unnecessary to cast in a stage production were cut or turned into a composite character to keep the plot flowing. That said, at least a few more could be included in a film adaptation, if only in brief cuts to show just how involved the case was throughout the entire city, and even beyond. Some smaller details could be restored to this version, such as how the Phagan/Coleman family learned of Mary’s death and the plan carried out by the lynch mob to kidnap Frank from his new prison location. If the script strikes just the right balance of realism and creative interpretation, Parade could be a great instance of a serious musical being entertaining enough to keep viewers invested while keeping from turning into a docudrama with songs sprinkled in.
Cut/Condense: “The Picture Show” and “Do It Alone.” The former is a cute number and properly establishes Mary Phagan as an average teenager, and the latter is a good show of strength from Lucile Frank as she tries to do more to prove her husband’s innocence, but neither one gives us anything that couldn’t be accomplished through a dialogue exchange. “Do It Alone” in particular would boil down to Lucile standing around and singing, which can easily work onstage, but is much harder to pull off in a movie (“Part of Your World” was nearly cut from The Little Mermaid for this very reason).
3. Tuck Everlasting
Why it would work: Claudia Shear’s and Tim Federle’s book cleverly expands on the themes from Natalie Babbitt’s novel and tightens the plot while sticking to largely the same story. Winnie has more of a personal investment in the prospect of immortality having recently lost her father (which also provides the reason for her being cooped up and wanting to get out), a sequence is added just before the finale showing all of the major events of her life after she and the Tucks part ways, and it can be inferred that Jesse Tuck isn’t actually in love with her — a difficult plot point to pull off given their age difference — and just wants the companionship he’s been missing since he and his brother became estranged. Each member of the titular family has a distinct but nuanced perspective on their invincibility and eternal youth, and they’re all immensely likable for all their faults and dysfunction.
We’re already emotionally invested in Winnie’s fate by virtue of her being a central character, but the fact that we get to actually see her life play out in this version, and get a sense of the influence that each Tuck has had on her, adds even more to the bittersweet factor that the ending has always hinged on. And with a sweeping score to match, waterworks are pretty much guaranteed.
The most obvious reason is that several songs from the show incorporate flashback and montage, and suggest fantastical imagery. As it is, the show’s set design did a wonderful job accenting the storybook/fairytale elements, but film would allow for more sweeping landscapes and captivating angles to emphasize the sense of spectacle and high energy. Though there are ways for a stage show to reflect different characters’ perspectives through music, dialogue, and set design, the audience can ultimately only see what’s there in front of them, and a cinematic shift would serve this story even better in that regard. Jesse especially warrants a visualization of his sense of adventure; the show makes a point to reference his habit of performing wild stunts to take advantage of his inability to be injured, and this could be far more easily shown through special/practical effects on camera to build up to the moment his recklessness catches up to him and exposes his secret. Other major plot points are conveyed in fairly short scenes that could be easily expanded without hindering the flow of the story, namely establishing that Winnie’s father has died and the scene where the Tucks return to the town decades later and discover her grave. Though the show is fairly quick to tell the audience that Winnie’s father is dead, getting hints of it before or during her first solo number “Good Girl Winnie Foster” could make it feel more organic. The end of the stage show doesn’t totally convey how much the town of Treegap is supposed to have changed at this point, and there’s no lead-up to the family learning of Winnie’s fate, though it’s no less heartbreaking on the cast album alone.
But the element of the musical that most jumped out at me as screaming for a film adaptation is “The Story of Winnie Foster,” the ballet sequence that shows Winnie growing up, starting a family, and eventually dying. The scene is the most emotionally affecting in the entire show, and it’s done entirely without dialogue, culminating in a symbolic and peaceful death scene reminiscent of the original film version of Finding Neverland. This use of visual storytelling is what every good movie strives for, no matter how dramatic or deep it’s meant to be. To reinterpret the sequence through the proper camera work, color, and editing while at least partially incorporating the dance element would not only be doable, but may potentially put the film over the top to make it feel like a truly definitive screen adaptation of the novel.
Cut/Condense: “Hugo’s First Case” and “You Can’t Trust a Man.” Kind of obvious choices given their relative insignificance to the plot, but they can be easily kept in as simple dialogue exchanges without stopping the story in its tracks to extend the show’s runtime.
Why it would work: Don Bluth’s Anastasia is one of only a handful of films to be improved upon in transition from stage to screen, and one of an even smaller pool of animated films that would actually be serviced by a live-action remake. While still largely fictionalized, the musical is more grounded in reality than the animated film, and more nuanced in its discussion of the Romanov legacy and the Russian Revolution. While the animated film purports that Grigori Rasputin placed a curse on the last Tsar and his family that caused the Revolution, the musical takes all magic and fantasy elements out of the equation while still maintaining a sense of mystery and wonderment. It takes the best elements of the Bluth film and the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman, but trims the fat from the story while adding a layer of complexity that at least begins to acknowledge the deep faults of the Romanov dynasty.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have effectively mastered the grand, sweeping musical score. Songs like “Journey to the Past,” “Close the Door,” and “Stay, I Pray You” bring out the dramatic and emotional strengths of the story, and numbers like “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key,” and “Land of Yesterday” could be used to show off the gorgeous locations the plot calls for while keeping up the energy. The final confrontation between the heroine and the Leninist officer toward the end of the musical is one of the most climactic moments in recent musical theatre, and a film could make use of flashback and fantasy to show the inner conflict and grief the two characters have been experiencing since youth.
A new film version of Anastasia could be a visual marvel, bringing to life the haunting fantasy of “Once Upon a December” (also done brilliantly in the Bluth film), the almost chilling dream Anya experiences in which the ghosts of the deceased Romanovs speak to her, and gorgeous locations such as the abandoned palaces, the Neva Club, and the cityscapes of St. Petersburg and Paris. Other songs in the score would allow for flashback sequences, some of which would require a sense of mystery or incompleteness as Anya struggles with her memory. It could also bring back the visual motif from the animated film of the necklace that unlocks Anya’s music box, making the latter object more of a through-line in the story again.
Given the new information that’s come to light regarding the Romanovs and their execution since the 1990s, the script could be fleshed out with a deeper conversation about the causes of the Revolution. The stage show at least makes some reference to the Romanovs’ immense privilege as their people suffered — by no fault of the children, but at times by the Tsar’s own command — and another adaptation could take it one step further by including a proper verbal indictment of Nicholas II and the atrocities that occurred under his rule while still condemning the family’s violent execution.
I find it painfully ironic that one of Don Bluth’s most beloved films is about a Jewish family forced to flee Russia because of the horrors inflicted on their people, and a decade later he made a movie that suggested the Russian Revolution was caused solely by a magical “spark of unhappiness.”
Cut/Condense: “In My Dreams,” “We’ll Go From There,” and “Countess and the Common Man.” The first is a beautiful song that displays Anya’s painful experiences between the loss of her family and memory and the start of the main action, but it stops the story to deliver exposition and would be extremely difficult to make work on film. Besides, she has three other major solo numbers in the show — she can stand to lose just one.
“We’ll Go From There” is cute, but all it does is restate the central characters’ motivations; the melody could remain as underscore for a scene showing the progression of their journey from Russia to Paris, but the lyrics do little to nothing to move the story forward. Similarly, “Countess and the Common Man” is a funny song that boasts a classic waltz-like style, but the relationship between Vlad and Lily is just not important enough to the plot to justify keeping in the detour from the main characters and conflict.
I would also cut out the character of Count Leopold, an extremely inconsequential figure in the show who is after the Dowager Empress’ inheritance, but ultimately adds nothing to the story and is wholly unnecessary.
The movie musical could be in something of a renaissance period at the moment, and a lot of shows with strong stories to tell are rightfully being brought into development. Even as I was in the middle of writing this piece, the news broke that Ryan Murphy is producing a film adaptation of The Prom (which nearly made it onto an earlier draft of this list before I disqualified shows I haven’t seen) for Netflix. Shows like that one and In the Heights are diverse and could potentially bring Hollywood musicals into a truly modern era, and I’m glad they’re getting a shot at a wider audience. That said, even if they weren’t all broadly recognizable smash hits, the shows discussed above are some of the best that the stage has had to offer in recent years, and they deserve that same chance.
Originally published at http://miseensense.wordpress.com on June 27, 2019.