Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
As a companion piece to last week’s list, I wanted to take a look at the best films adapted from stage musicals. Once again, I’m going to limit these to musicals that started out on the stage and then were adapted to the big screen. This will discount films like Mame, which was based on a stage musical, but that stage musical was based on a film, a book, and a stage play. Plus it’s apparently really bad. I haven’t had any desire to see it. Of course, there’s also My Fair Lady, which was based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, an example of a film that could have made my list if it hadn’t been adapted from other sources.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t explore musical adaptations that have other sources. There are just too many great options like Oliver! and West Side Story to be ignored completely. Strangely enough, that leaves very few musicals as most of the greatest musicals of all-time are based on other material. Still, the films left on my list are all pretty terrific in their own rights.
Long before Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda redefined the stage musical, a earlier period of history was explored in this adaptation of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s musical extravaganza that told the story of John Adams’ efforts to declare independence from Great Britain.
The stage musical won three Tony awards out of five nominations including Best Musical for the 1969 Broadway season. Having played for 1,217 performances, the popular musical was brought to the big screen with William Daniels, Ken Howard, and Howard Da Silva reprising their stage roles as Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin respectively. Several other members of the original cast made the transition to film, including Tony nominees Ron Holgate and Virginia Vestoff, the former having won the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical.
This darling little film has a spritely score and explores a period of history that has been discussed and detailed in various ways over the years. Most musicals have toyed a bit with history and this film was no exception, but it’s still delightful and engaging even if it isn’t always accurate.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Originally playing in London’s West End in 1973, B-Movies got a send-up in this Richard O’Brien musical adaptation, which added the word “Picture” when it was adapted for the big screen in 1975.
Along for the ride, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell (credited as Little Nell), and Jonathan Adams (on stage as The Criminologist) reprised their original production roles for the big screen. They picked up Broadway cast member and future rock superstar Meat Loaf to reprise his role while adding future Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Peter Hinwood, and Charles Gray to the final cast.
A box office disappointment on release, a midnight screening in New York City on April Fool’s Day in 1976 was the beginning of one of the most legendary cult experiences ever made. Still playing around the world today with audience participation tossing out an array of snarky rejoinders, the film remains one of the most popular cult classics in history. While the film has a handful of flaws, it’s a surprisingly well written and directed film and the music is absolutely wonderful.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, grandiose musicals began to falter on the big screen, becoming the almost sole province of animated films by the time Disney’s animation renaissance began in the 1980s and 1990s.
The first attempt to revive the flagging cinematic genre was an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic rock opera Evita. Starting out as a concept album that eventually made it to the London stage, Evita has had an array of prominent performers taking on the role of Eva Peron, spiritual leader of Argentina during the rise of populist politician Juan Peron and his ascension to the presidency in the post-World War II reconstruction period.
With the original stage productions in 1978 (West End) and 1979 (Broadway), the stars of those shows, Elaine Page, David Essex, and Joss Ackland from London and Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin, and Bob Gunton from New York City, were notably aged out of the roles for the big screen version that would be directed by Oscar nominee Alan Parker. Taking over for those actors, Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce filled in nicely in one of the most lavish and bombastic musical adaptations in history. Each actor delivered knock-out performances and the film was an aural delight. While it was mildly popular in its theatrical release, it didn’t do quite well enough to revitalize the genre right away, but its modest success helped pave the way for the rebirth of the cinema musical with 2002’s Chicago finally realizing the vision Evita had established.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Based on the musical he wrote the book for with composer Stephen Trask, John Cameron Mitchell mounted a film version of his countercultural off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This glam rock/punk hybrid explores the life and history of Hedwig, a genderqueer East Berliner who suffers a botched sex change so that she and the army sergeant she falls in love with can escape the walled nation and be free. Through a series of setbacks and a yearning for her other half, Hedwig moves from band to band, pursuing the man who got away.
Mitchell takes on the title role he originated off-Broadway as well as the writing and directing chairs of the film. This charged musical is a depressing and inspiring piece of pop pizzazz that was later revived for Broadway in a Tony-winning run starring Neil Patrick Harris. Mitchell’s film is gritty, surreal, and fascinating as we find out what makes the woebegone rocker trying to eke out a living in the world without succumbing to its homogeneity. A far cry from the blockbuster musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, this 2001 experience may not have been a huge success at the box office, but it’s an engrossing, exciting, and well crafted gem.
In 1981 in the wake of the success of The Wiz on Broadway, Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen took the story of Motown sensations The Supremes and crafted a 60s-fueled paean to the girl groups and the price of fame with the show Dreamgirls, loosely based on the behind-the-scenes turmoil that rocked the legendary group. The Broadway sensation earned 13 Tony Award nominations, winning six, including awards to stars Jennifer Holliday, Ben Harney, and Cleavant Derricks, but lost the top Tony for Best Musical to Nine, adapted into a far inferior film three years after this one.
Bill Condon exercised his musical chops in the sensational production of Krieger’s Broadway hit putting Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, and Eddie Murphy into the main roles. Hudson, Knowles, and Rose formed the musical trio who rose to fame, but eventually splinter due to the promotion of Knowles’ Deena Jones into the lead singer position due to her more pleasing physical appearance. Bitter, Hudson’s Effie White departs the group for a solo career. Hudson delivers a bravura performance which rightly won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress while a deserving Murphy was nominated, but passed over by the Academy. The production itself, which earned eight Oscar nominations without one for Best Picture had three for original songs written by Henry Krieger and a team of other lyricists (his counterpart on the original production, Tom Eyen, having died in 1991).
Weaving in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement that was reaching its peak during the group’s rise to fame, Condon’s film is both a tribute to the original musical and a glimpse into the role African-American performers had in bringing visibility to the cause even if only superficially. The film reminds the viewer of the importance of musical theater in our cinematic landscape and, unfortunately, ended up being one of the last great musicals released in the last two decades, ending quickly the vaunted musical revival that began germinating in the mid-1990s.