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Theatre into Film: What is Hollywood’s Recent Obsession with Musical Adaptations?

Nora Dominick ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Anna Kendrick in Into The Woods. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Disney.
Anna Kendrick in Into The Woods. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Disney.

From recent films like Les Miserables and Jersey Boys to the upcoming film Into the Woods, Hollywood has an extreme fascination with musicals. In recent years, the film industry has noticed that audiences love musicals (something Broadway fans have known for years). Major production companies are taking hit Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals and turning them into blockbuster movies. So, what is their fascination with musicals? And will the trend continue? Emertainment Monthly explores the recent explosion of the movie musical.

In the last few years, Hollywood has begun to see the true potential for movie musicals. More specifically, they have begun to turn hit Broadway musicals into movies. Although this trend has boomed in recent years, musical adaptations as a genre have existed for quite some time. In order to truly understand the current phenomenon, you first must look at their evolution.

One of the first adaptations of a musical to hit the big screen was the 1936 film Anything Goes based on the stage musical of the same name, with a book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and songs by Cole Porter. The film starred movie legends Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. The film did extremely well and was an instant classic.

The main issue with the movie adaptation? Crosby ended up gutting most of the original music by Porter and adding in four original songs. Even in the 1930s, fans of the original stage musical were in an uproar. Although one of the added songs became a hit for Crosby, the musical wasn’t the same without the original music. Since then, most movie musicals keep as much of the original music as possible; however, they still add in original song here or there.

After the success of Anything Goes, 1950s Hollywood began to run with the idea of adapting musicals into movies. In 1956, 20th Century Fox turned Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic stage musical, The King and I into a Hollywood film, starring Deborah Kerr as Anna and Yul Brynner as The King of Siam. The movie was a major hit and earned the studio close to $20 million. The film went onto win five Academy Awards including Best Leading Actor and Best Music Scoring, also taking home the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.

With the success of The King and I, more musicals were turned into box office blockbusters during this period. Another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, South Pacific, was turned into a movie in 1958. The adaptation is considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time and has lived on for generations. Both of these Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations have been met with high praise and were very lucrative for the studios.

Robert Preston in The Music Man. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Robert Preston in The Music Man. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Rolling out of the roaring 50s, Hollywood continued its domination of adapting stage musicals to films. Some of the most influential movie musicals premiered during the 1960s and 70s. In 1962 The Music Man, based on the stage musical by Meredith Willson, premiered in cinemas across the United States. The film starred Shirley Jones as Marian and Robert Preston as Harold Hill. That same year, Warner Brothers Studios released Gypsy. Starring Natalie Wood, Rosalind Russell and Karl Malden, Gypsy tells the story of stage mother Rose and her chase for success and stardom. Both musicals were nominated for a 1963 Academy Award for Best Picture with The Music Man winning the top prize. These movie adaptations were met with critical acclaim and helped propel a new era of movie musicals.

Following The Music Man and Gypsy, studios began to increase the number of stage musicals being turned into movies. During the 1970s, more prominent actors became attached to musical movies. In 1971, Fiddler on the Roof danced on screen and into the hearts of millions. The adaptation starred older actors like, Chaim Topol, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey. Both Topol and Frey performed in the original London stage musical and transferred their work to the big screen. This movie would start the trend of the original stage actor playing the same role in the film adaptation. The musical was met with huge praise for acting and production aspects.

After Topol and Frey reprised their roles in Fiddler on the Roof, the next box-office smash took their cue. Cabaret (1972) starring Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli opened to extreme praise from critics and raked in close to $42 million worldwide. Grey originated the role and took his Tony Award winning performance to the big screen. Grey and Minnelli’s work earned each of them Academy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor and Leading Actress respectively.

Up to this point, movie musical adaptations were met with critical acclaim but were mainly targeted towards an older audience. That would all change when Paramount Pictures would adapt the smash stage hit, Grease in 1978 starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. This was the first time a movie musical reached a broad audience. The music was catchy and the high school themes attracted the young demographic while the older setting brought in adults. The marketing of this film in terms of merchandise revolutionized the movie musical industry and paved the way for numerous child and teen centered musicals today. After Grease, movie musicals began to become sparse until the most recent resurgence of the genre.

Today, Hollywood has ushered in a new era of musical adaptations. More and more movie musicals are making a comeback as Hollywood begins to dip into the lucrative business. This era began to creep into the movie sector with the 2002 Academy Award winning film, Chicago. The film starred Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger in the main roles. The film was met with critical acclaim for its take on an exuberant and crowd pleasing Broadway musical. The film did not use any of the original cast members and instead went the route of using renowned Hollywood stars to sell the product. Zeta-Jones and Zellweger had the box office name to propel the film to high-ticket sales. With the success of Chicago, the new era of the movie musical adaptation began to take shape.

Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms in Rent. Photo Credit: Phil Bray/Sony Pictures.
Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms in Rent. Photo Credit: Phil Bray/Sony Pictures.

Although there are numerous movie musicals, not many film adaptations boast a large cast of original Broadway actors. The film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, changes this. The difference between this movie musical and others was that Rent incorporated a majority of the original Broadway cast such as Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. The issue with using a cast mainly made up of Broadway stars was that ticket sales were very low. Although the actors are big names in the theatre community, viewers did not have a major name to acquaint to the film. Producers recognized this and began to make move musical adaptations with a cast combination of Broadway and Hollywood actors.

In more recent years, movie musicals have begun to dominate the box office. The movie musical adaptation to thank for this: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Les Miserables. Taking into consideration the massive Broadway fan-base of this musical, casting was very challenging. The principal cast consisted of a mixture of Broadway and Hollywood actors. Leading the team was the Tony Award winning and Hollywood A-List actor, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Rounding out the Hollywood side of the cast was Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. The Broadway portion of the cast consisted of Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks. By combining Hollywood actors and recognizable Broadway actors, Les Miserables was able to top the box office and usher in a new era of movie-musical adaptations. Similar to Anything Goes, this film added a new song to the already expansive repertoire. This was met with criticism from theatre fanatics and praise from movie lovers. Prior to this film, movie musical were a niche genre. They would be targeted towards theatre fans and a small demographic of film lovers. Now with Les Miserables, Hollywood has recognized that musicals can hit a wide demographic. The obsession with turning beloved musicals into blockbuster films has now reached a fever pitch and continues to escalade.

The next major adaptation of a stage musical will be released on Christmas Day. Into the Woods is sure to make a major impression to close out the 2014 movie season. Starring Hollywood stars like, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and Broadway vets like James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Tammy Blanchard and Billy Magnussen. The film adaptation will take the critically acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical and bring it to mass audiences. This blockbuster movie has already been met with critical acclaim as fans anxiously await the adaptation. Will Into the Woods flourish like Les Miserables or will it fade into the background like Rent? Only the critics and the box office sales will tell.

So, what is Hollywood’s latest obsession with musical adaptations? Well, for starters the fan base is already established on some level. Broadway fans are notorious for following every aspect of their favorite musical or play so, when it’s slated to become a major motion picture they will likely follow it to the ends of the earth. With this as a starting base, Hollywood producers simply need to cast a blend of A-list Hollywood actors that will draw in other demographics. The next major step is to market it extremely well. One of the biggest mistakes movie musical adaptations tend to make is that they market it solely to a theatre-based audience. That isn’t the audience that needs to be sucked in. Into the Woods has done an awesome job with marketing. They not only released numerous poster adaptations with all the characters, they have slowly been releasing music from the movie to major news outlets. This allows viewers to get acquainted with the voice and dive into the world of the musical prior to the movies release. This is something other movie musicals have failed to accomplish.

Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last 5 Years. Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC.
Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in The Last 5 Years. Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC.

It appears the trend of adapting musicals into films is here today. Already slated for 2015, the Off-Broadway hit The Last 5 Years by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown will hit the big screen starring Tony Award nominees Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. This film has been produced as an independent film so it’s likely to have a small niche audience, specifically musical theatre fans. But with a name like Anna Kendrick attached to the project, it could surprise the box office.

Hollywood may have recognized the lucrative business of turning stage musicals into movie musicals however, but TV has also jumped aboard. Last year, NBC produced a live version of The Sound of Music. The live event drew in 20 million viewers and introduced an entirely new demographic to musicals. The live event starred Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Six time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and Tony Award winners Laura Benanti and Christian Borle. Although the adaptation was seen by millions of people, it was met with a lot of criticism. Although Underwood is an extremely talented country singer, her portrayal of Maria was met with harsh criticism. Critics would have preferred a Broadway veteran in the lead role. NBC is duplicating the process this year with Peter Pan Live! This will see Allison Williams as Peter Pan, Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, Minnie Driver as the Narrator/Older Wendy and numerous other Hollywood and Broadway stars. Will NBC learns from their previous mistakes and be able to please both the masses and theatre fans? Only time will tell.

As Hollywood continues to push out blockbusters year after year, it looks like the movie musical genre is here to stay. With a long history in Hollywood, adapting stage musicals to beloved movies tends to be a trend that will continue.  By combining A-list Hollywood actors and Broadway veterans, Hollywood and television may have finally found the perfect balance to make smash hits. The obsession with musical adaptations is here to stay, but will it continue to be successful? That’s for the viewers to figure out.

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  1. “The main issue with the movie adaptation? Crosby ended up gutting most of the original music by Porter and adding in four original songs. Even in the 1930s, fans of the original stage musical were in an uproar. Although one of the added songs became a hit for Crosby, the musical wasn’t the same without the original music. Since then, most movie musicals keep as much of the original music as possible; however, they still add in original song here or there.”

    Can you name me one article of the period where it states there was an uproar? Of course you can’t. There were plenty of Broadway to Hollywood adaptations before “Anything Goes” in 1936. “Good News (1930)”, “Roberta (1935)”, and “Girl Crazy (1932)” were perfect examples. There was nothing unusual about the way they treated the score to “Anything Goes”. “Since then” you say? Until composers started to take control of their own properties, Hollywood studios were notorious for keeping the one or two hit songs from the stage show, having a new score created. Almost all pre-Kiss Me Kate Cole Porter musicals fell victim to this practice. “Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)”, and “Panama Hattie (1941)” are examples. “Lady Be Good (1941)” and “On the Town (1949)” are other examples. Except for edits and additional songs, certain musicals based on classics remained intact. Examples included “Showboat (1936)”, “Annie Get Your Gun (1950)” and “Kiss Me Kate (1953). Additional songs written for score also meant they were eligible for Oscar nominations. Due partly to his bad experiences at MGM in the early 1930s with Hart, Rodgers decided he and Hammerstein would have complete artistic control over Oklahoma. Most musicals of the so-called Broadway Golden Age, from about ‘Oklahoma” to “Fiddler on the Roof”, stayed faithful to their original source. Still “Finian’s Rainbow”, “Paint Your Wagon, and “Mame” were travesties. “Cabaret” was re-conceived (brilliantly so), with total respect given to the composer and lyricist. Yes -the current practice of reviving the movie musical adaptations which were for decades considered a dead art form, is a positive one, but your articles spew the kind mis-information that will give impressionable young musical theater fans a poor sense of history. If you’re going to write about an art form of any kind, it would be great if you knew what you were talking about.

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