In 1939, trumpeter Sy Oliver and trombonist James ‘Trummy’ Young wrote a song swiftly recorded by numerous singers including 21-year-old Ella Fitzgerald. In 1982, it became famous again when Fun Boy Three and their then unknown backing vocalists – Bananarama – recorded it. The song in question was ’Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) and that’s wholly germane to anyone transferring a stage musical to the big screen.
Even more than with “straight” plays, stage chops for a musical are no guarantee of screen success even for record-breaking long-runners. For every Les Miserables – worldwide gross £342 million – there is the notorious furrago (sorry) that was Cats which cost £74m to make, plus the same amount in marketing and distribution, but took just £58m. Since both were directed by Tom Hooper, personnel is clearly not the decider in determining success.
The likes of Les Mis and Oliver! suggest that being faithful to the original is key. But, Susan Stroman turned her sensational Broadway production of The Producers into cinematic torpor.
In contrast, three quarters of Bernstein, Comden and Green’s score for On the Town was replaced when Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly filmed the original three-sailors-on-shore-leave, over-sexed-and-over-here story. And it was a big hit.
Likewise, the screen version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes kept just three of the original songs. But with resplendent Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, did audiences care? Yet other screen rethinks – Paint Your Wagon, I’m looking at you – tanked, very expensively indeed.
So with the key to success remaining elusive, here are some hits to ponder. And some misses…
Cabin in the Sky
Daring for 1943, if now politically dated, this fable features an all-black cast, excellent songs added by Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington, and superb performances, not least from Ethel Waters and the otherwise woefully underused Lena Horne. Her singing of a reprise of Ain’t It the Truth in – gasp – a bubble bath, so appalled the censors that they cut it. And still some theatres in America’s South refused to screen the film.
The Sound of Music
Curtains, nuns and Nazis… what could go wrong? Nothing. New songs I Have Confidence and Something Good strengthened the original and in some US cities, tickets sales outstripped the total population. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the sixth highest-grossing film of all time.
Man of La Mancha
Not so much a failure as a bomb. A glaring example of the lamentable “Hollywood Knows Best” tradition of casting giant names – Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren – who can’t sing. At all. It retains the monster hit “The Impossible Dream” but file the debacle under: Impossible To Sit Through. See also, i.e. don’t, Camelot “starring” Richard Harris and noted vocalist (ahem) Vanessa Redgrave.
Maim, more like. Out went the legendary star turn by an explosively glamorous Angela Lansbury and in came 60-something Lucille Ball, about two decades too old for the role. Reading critic Pauline Kael’s mauling of the movie is far more entertaining than the trainwreck itself.
A Little Night Music
Almost all the elegant wit of Hal Prince’s staging of Sondheim and bookwriter Hugh Wheeler’s sophisticated charmer is lost in translation. Prince had such a miserable time on the shoot that he wasn’t there for the edit.
Countless directors tried to turn Fosse and Kander & Ebb’s deliciously cynical 1975 vaudeville into a movie. Rob Marshall finally managed it in 2002 and bagged six Oscars including Best Picture. Seven years later he tried the same thing with Nine to which the polite response is “Nein, danke.”
The Phantom of the Opera
Hal Prince was, safely, nowhere near the movie of his and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest hit. Joel Schumacher’s version arrived with the very definition of great expectations. The result? According to The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane: “If you ever longed to know what it feels like to be asphyxiated by brocade, here is your chance.”
Broadway’s semi-Supremes 1981 bio-musical finally became a hit movie in 2006. The shifts between songs in realistic settings and musicals-style singing were undeniably awkward, but the casting is stellar, from Beyoncé and Eddie Murphy to an incandescent Jennifer Hudson singing And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going all the way to an Oscar win.
Devout Sondheimites rage against Tim Burton’s film. Certainly, there’s much missing, not least the all-important chorus work. And no-one will ever clamour for a Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter Sing Broadway album. But more than any other Sondheim screen adaptation, it completely works as a film.