Sunday, 22 August 2010

Musicals on film - an experience that's SO second-best.

Like many gay men, I'm a BIG aficiando of musical theatre as well as being a long-term cinephile. Yet somehow these two media almost never seem to satisfactorily mix, and I wonder if they ever can. When compared with the immediacy and dynamism of a live theatrical show, there's something unsatisfactory about preserving an art-form on film where the essential complicity between performers and audience in one is totally absent from the other. There's an almost electric 'charge' in a well-delivered live musical which is unique to that medium which cannot be emulated or transferred via the artificiality of the screen. But as that is the only way we know how to keep a permanent record of it, one has to admit that it's probably better than not attempting it at all. Incidentally, it does irritate me when people claim to have 'seen' a musical when what they mean is that they've seen just the one film version of it, a form for which, of course, the vast majority of musicals were not originally written - and they've never attended a live theatrical production of it. Even scores that were originally written for film, such as 'Singin' in the Rain', 'Gigi', and 'Mary Poppins' can have an even more memorable longevity when later re-interpreted for the stage, so no one can ever look on filmed musicals as being the definitive version. They can always be improved upon.
Just one of the many reservations I have about filmed musicals is that they invariably omit a number of the songs ('Sound of Music', 'Oliver!, 'Cabaret' etc etc) - and, moreover, often mercilessly 'prune' even the ones that are there. To name but a mere two of the scores of examples of the latter - the witty 'Zip' from 'Pal Joey', 'I'm Gonna Wash...' from 'South Pacific' and so many more. (Needless to say I've seen all the musicals I've just named on the stage too.)
But having laid out my stall I'm now going to cite those three films (just from off the top of my head) that I think were the biggest travesties of their original music stage-show heritage - and not only are they all from the same period of late 1960s/early 1970s, but the latter two both have the same director! (Coincidence?) :-

Fiddler on the Roof
Jesus Christ Superstar.

There, I've said it. I'd be very interested to know of other 'nominations' to this category of worst filmed musical as a film.

But any idiot can criticise. So, to be fair, I ought to mention those which I think were quite successful in their own terms and can bear repeated watching. So, without having done any profound or lengthy thinking, three that come to mind are:

The King and I
The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show.

I could write a long blog on the pluses and minuses of the individual entries on both lists, as well as on many more films - and may well do in future - but it would be nice to get get other peoples' thoughts on the subject. After all, there is so much written on both films and musicals, but I've yet to read anyone voicing opinions on the success or failure in attempting to combine the two.


  1. I need to move to a bigger town, for I have seen a total of two live musicals (Rent and Phantom).

    I agree with what you said about being unsatisfied with preserving live theater on film. I think the best way is to just film the theater performance rather than trying to create a new film version.

    A few nights ago there was a live television broadcast of the South Pacific revival performed at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It was very nice in that in many shots the audience could be seen, especially the first several rows. It gave the viewer a sense of actually being in the theater with them. Plus they used a live 30-piece orchestra, something I learned is a rarity nowadays on Broadway.

    The broadcast failed however due to sound. The sound engineer could not keep up on his microphone duties and we missed the first several seconds of song or dialog from every actor. They should have spent a few dollars more and hired some extra engineers to make sure mics were turned up/down properly.

    "I've yet to read anyone voicing opinions on the success or failure in attempting to combine the two." I'd say you should write a lengthy article or series regarding this and sell it for publication. Have you thought about it?

  2. I was underwhelmed by Phantom on stage and felt the film version worked better (helped by the addition of the Phantom's backstory).

    It's a long time since I've seen it on film or stage but I think I quite liked the treatment of Chicago on film.

    Finally, I think Moulin Rouge is worth a mention here - a superb musical which succeeds because it is created specifically for film... I suspect that an adaptation for the stage wouldn't work as well in much the same way as most stage musicals don't work on film!

  3. Larry - Your minimal experience of live musical theatre surprises me, though it seems it's due more to lack of opportunity than your not wanting to go.
    'South Pacific' really is a marvellous work, containing (as I've said before somewhere) one of my own VERY favourite songs, 'This Nearly was Mine.', a slow waltz with, unusually for Oscar H., lyrics that really touch the heart. Great shame about your own disappointing experience but I would urge you to see it again if you get the chance.
    Pity that the film was so marred by those absurd colour filters, which, when I first saw the film on the big screen at the age of 13, left me in wide-eyed wonder. But that was as an easily-impressed adolescent. Later on I started to ask myself "Why on earth did they ever think that such brilliant songs needed visually underlining in so vulgar a fashion?" (The cast of the film was acceptable. But you may know that the entire cast with the exception of the pretty good Mitzi Gaynor, was dubbed by 'proper' singers.
    Btw yes, in this country too the traditional orchestra has largely been replaced by a few electronic instruments (for reasons of economy, I suppose) or even with (oh, the horror of it!) pre-recorded backing tapes.

  4. onexwidow - I first saw 'Phantom' in a preview performance before it officially opened. Michael Crawford did lead the cast but the billed Sarah Brightman was 'indisposed' and played by her understudy who was very fine. But then I've never cared for Brightman whose voice I find too thin with no vocal resonances in the lower register. But unlike you I quite like the musical though I was then getting increasingly aware of how Lloyd Webber tends to repeat himself, even sometimes using the same melody for different lyrics covering an entirely different mood, which I think is a mistake
    The film was a curiosity. Certainly has all the spectacular visuals the work demands (the graveyard scene I found particularly well done) but I think the fault is in the two leading cast members who seemed to have personalities which remained stubbornly stuck on the screen instead of jumping out at you - though Butler in particular has gone on to higher things.
    'Chicago' I would LOVE to have seen live. Everyone seems to say that it's better than the film (but then what musical wouldn't be?). But I did like the film a lot too with its uniformly good cast.
    And like you I did also like 'Moulin Rouge' - but of course it's very much designed as a purely filmic experience. When I first saw it I described it to my sister as 'Ken Russell at his most manic!" which I still reckon is near enough. But for me it was an odd choice of songs - they were all acceptably good, though not in the very top flight of popular songs. You may disagree. And btw, how on earth did they manage to shorten John Leguizamo's legs to enable him to appear as T-L?