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Part 3 – The Play’s the Thing… but the Movie Musical…

NOTE: This piece was begun in April, 2020, and recently rediscovered by me (which tells you a lot about my mental state mid-pandemic). A lot has happened between then and now obviously, but I figured I should end this three-part commentary as originally planned. I promise, more timely commentary soon.

I love the origin story of Singing in the Rain, which AFI and others have dubbed the greatest movie musical. According to the introduction to the published script (found in an obscure corner of my university library when I was an undergrad) the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and their respective spouses, were renting a house in the Hollywood Hills which had once belonged to a silent screen star whose career had tanked. MGM producer Arthur Freed called them into his office. He handed them a great wad of songs he had written in the earliest days of the talkies, and told them to go away and write a movie script which would use them. As they struggled to come up with something, they realized that they were literally living in their inspiration: the house, whose original owner’s career came to an abrupt end in 1929, when films suddenly had sound.

Of course, that is the story of a musical created for motion pictures. However, Comden and Green were specifically brought to Hollywood by Freed to adapt their highly successful Broadway musical, “On the Town” for the movies. Much, much later they would work in New York to adapt the film of Singing in the Rain for the stage, too. The connection between stage and film, particularly when it comes to the American musical, has seen some wild cross-over successes, and some stunning flops. Once again, a lot depends on understanding the difference between what can be done cinematically that won’t work in a live performance, and vice-versa. Beyond that, some issues arise from an understanding, or lack thereof, of the actual construction dissimilarities between a show with an intermission in the middle and the continuous flow of a movie. (Note: a few classics, like Man of La Mancha, and a number of more recent stage musicals are designed without an intermission. Obviously, the issue above doesn’t apply in those cases.)

I first became aware of this as a teenager reading the notes on the back of the record album (you know, an LP) of the filmed West Side Story. (I was a student involved with a high school stage production at the time.). Along with discussing how the piece was set and cast, it talked about what was needed to create a movie rather than what had been so successful on the stage. It was quite simple, really. A standard musical has two acts, and there must therefore be two arcs to the story: one to bring the audience to an admittedly anticipatory stopping place for intermission, and one which ramps things up again in the second act to lead one to the denouement. In a film, even if an “intermission” is injected in early big-theater showings, it won’t appear after the initial run of the film, so the storyline is to remain linear – one curve ramping up and then down for the end of the piece. This demands some rewrites of the stage script, or at least some repositioning of songs to keep the arc more constant.

There are also physical practicalities. I remember a discussion I had with award-winning choreographer Rikki Lugo as she was prepping a stage production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The one thing that the film was known for was its lengthy, macho dance sequence wherein the brothers show off, pick brides they want, and then run off with them. Rikki pointed out that the sequence was possible on film because there were so many cuts: no dancer had to do that entire thing without stopping. On stage replicating that sequence exactly was essentially impossible. It couldn’t be that energetic for as long as that sequence lasts without putting dancers at risk through sheer exhaustion, so her task was to make it look just as macho with more breaks for breathing.

I have already touched on the essential difference between a production of any kind put on stage, where an audience has no trouble “seeing” settings which are not there, and the more literal landscape of film. The cinematic version of Man of La Mancha, whose Broadway staging was so engrossing, was done in (and it truly was awful), by realism as much as anything else. I devoutly believe that nobody will ever produce the brilliant Come From Away for film in any other way than filming the stage production, as was done for Our Town in the early days of television. It has virtually no set at all, a small cast creating dozens of characters, and an onstage band which is also part of the action. Moving that to film in a realistic way would lose the charm and energy which has made the show a stunning, universal hit.

Even Hamilton succeeded on Disney+ because it was a film of the stage production. This was heartening, actually, as so many of my friends who had been unable to see it live, and many who had, were both satisfied, even thrilled, with what they saw. Still, one of my favorite tributes to that show came from my daughter with the B.A. in technical theatre, who upon seeing it during its first run in Los Angeles kept texting me during intermission about how awesome the set was – something not fully appreciated in a camera shot.

There is an important point to make at the end of this 3-part commentary: It is, and always will be, important to see live theatrical productions and cinematic ones as two separate entities. If one is moving from film to stage, or from stage to film, keeping in mind what is possible, what made it effective in its own genre, and what made the original something worth repeating are essential. Attempts to film musicals in television studios, harking back to the early days of TV as much as to their stage beginnings, has had rather uneven results for a number of reasons, including casting, but also because they sometimes end up being neither fish nor fowl.

When it is possible to get back to live performance on stage in front of a physically present audience, and when it is easier to film a work than it currently appears to be (remember Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson fighting COVID-19 during filming in Australia), this will matter. Both will struggle to return to the place they once held in American culture, and each must remember how to rest on what they do best. Here’s hoping that happens soon.

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