The buzz on the movie version of LES MISERABLES already has critics salivating and audiences waiting with bated breath for it to open Christmas Day. Whether audiences buy all the hype remains to be seen, but some pundits are already predicting a Best Picture Oscar win. It sounds like it’s an exceptional transfer from stage to screen, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. For every brilliant classic like WEST SIDE STORY (1961) or THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), you get an unwatchable clunker like this year’s ROCK OF AGES. I’m hopeful LES MIZ will fall into the former category. And if you’re chomping at the bit to see it like I am, perhaps you can satiate your musical cravings with these five terrific stage-to-screen musicals that don’t get nearly as much due as the aforementioned classics.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)
I think this is the greatest movie musical since CABARET (1972), and yes, that means it’s better than Best Picture winner CHICAGO (2002). And it got just as many good reviews by the critical community. Yet shockingly, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS absolutely bombed at the box office. And now, it’s barely remembered. What a pity considering that director Frank Oz did such a wonderful job bringing this offbeat love story between boy, girl and hothouse flower, to such a full bouquet. Rick Moranis plays the boy, a hopeless nerd named Seymour who toils away in soil, as a flower shop clerk, pining for fellow shop worker Audrey (the adorably quirky Ellen Greene). One day he discovers a talking Venus flytrap who happens to have a taste for blood. He starts feeding it droplets of his own plasma, but it isn’t long before the plant’s insatiable appetite grows to want larger, more fully-rounded humans, like Audrey. Now that’s a love triangle! The movie’s black comedy sensibilities may have doomed it, but it is one of the funniest musicals on film nonetheless, with a brilliant score by Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman. (Right after this, they did THE LITTLE MERMAID, followed by BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Dang, they’re good.)
A musical about the Declaration of Independence sounds like a dry history lesson, doesn’t it? Yet this film couldn’t be further from that cliché. 1776 is a totally engaging entertainment with a quick-witted score, loads of uproarious comedy & compelling drama, and rich characterizations that bring history to vivid life. The original production won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1969, and its transfer to screen five years later wisely utilized most of the same creative Broadway talents behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Star William Daniels reprised his career-defining role as John Adams and if you think Paul Giamatti owns the character, see Daniels. He’s passionate, prickly, and physical. And he dominates every scene he’s in like few actors have before or since.
One of his best numbers finds him imploring his fellow congressmen to help him write the Declaration of Independence, reminding them that his version will be dismissed due to him being so “obnoxious and disliked.” When called upon to write the damn thing, the cowardly Roger Sherman sings back to Adams, “But Mr. Adams, I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette, I don’t know a participle from a predicate, I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut!” Now that’s a lyric! (And it’s factually accurate too.) If you liked Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, you should see 1776. Both films show just how difficult it is to get things done in the name of freedom when politics keeps rearing its ugly head and stands in the way.
Gene Siskel picked this as his Best Picture of 1979 and with good reason. It’s a unique, challenging, and utterly original musical. Milos Forman, a director not exactly known for musicals (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, AMADEUS), found a quirky, raw tone for his screen version of the landmark 60’s rock opera, and from the very first frame the film is filled with edgy intensity. The narrative concerns a ‘boy meets girl’ love story set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War and the youthful counter culture raising its voice at home. It’s a darkly adult movie musical filled with big themes and liberal leanings. And it’s got Twyla Tharp’s unique avant-garde choreography strutting its way throughout.
One of its highlights is seeing the hippies frolic around to the song “The Age of Aquarius” in Central Park while the police horses match their dance moves step by step. It’s as dark a film musical as they come, but it’s largely forgotten today. That’s such a shame because it’s as powerful as many more popular anti-war movies about Viet Nam. To this day, I’m still haunted by Forman’s brilliant shot of Treat Williams, as the hippie leader, being forced into a humongous cargo plane to be shipped off to his certain doom in Asia with all the other new draftees. Forman frames the plane so it looks like a big whale swallowing up the hapless grunts. They’re marching straight into the belly of the beast and it’s powerfully symbolic of everything that was wrong with the draft and the war.
This movie was a big hit, making over $100 million in the USA alone, but it was completely forgotten at Oscar time despite award-worthy production design, costumes, editing and a knock-out supporting performance by Michelle Pfeiffer. HAIRSPRAY started as a 1988 John Waters cult film and then was adapted as a big Broadway musical comedy in 2002. It became an enormous hit that ran for years, spurring director/choreographer Adam Shankman, one of the recurring judges on SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, to turn it into a toe-tapping, big screen extravaganza. His movie is exhilarating, full of joyous movement and plucky humor. The delightful score is by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell and adaptor Leslie Dixon wrote its witty book. And the first-rate cast is filled with stars, both young and old. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky took the lead, with John Travolta in drag as her mom. Surrounding them are teen idols Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow, holding their own against veteran scene-stealers like Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah. It’s a shimmering jewel of a film that only gets better with repeat viewings. And it should have at least gotten an Oscar for costume design.
Barbra Streisand is set to direct and star in a new big screen version of the famous story of a pushy burlesque stage mom trying to turn her daughters into stars. But way before that, and way before the Better Midler TV version and all the umpteen revivals on Broadway, there was this marvelous big screen version of this Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents masterpiece that starred Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. As Mama Rose, Russell was not a great singer and perhaps that’s why people overlook it today. But the character of Rose is supposed to be a ‘wannabe’; a woman who wanted to be a star but didn’t have the chops. Now she’s living through her children and forcing her dreams to become theirs. Personally, I think Streisand’s soaring talent is not right for the role of the bullying matriarch but I could be proven wrong. Nonetheless, Russell gives a great performance, one that netted her an Oscar nomination despite not having a great singing voice.
And supporting her, in one of her finest film performances, is the doe-eyed ingénue Wood. She plays Louise, the tomboyish daughter, who never sings out enough and can’t be the girl that guys want to dance with. But irony of ironies she’s the one who becomes a star. By accident they’re booked into a strip joint and Louise goes on stage to fulfill their contract and her mother’s dreams. She ultimately becomes ‘Gypsy’ Rose Lee, the world famous striptease artist whose memoir is the source material for this musical. It’s one of Broadway’s all-time greatest shows, and it’s a helluva movie too. If you haven’t seen it, you owe yourself the pleasure. And do it before Babs gets her long nails all over it!
Today, fewer and fewer Broadway musicals are being transferred to the silver screen. And if they are, it takes years. (It took LES MIZ almost three decades to arrive!) And in the most telling of reversals, new Broadway musicals are now being based upon proven cinematic hits. In the last decade alone, Broadway has adapted dozens of movies into musicals for The Great White Way, everything from LEGALLY BLONDE to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Musicals remain an expensive, tough sell, on Broadway or off. And producers want a ROI so they turn to properties with name recognition. So do movie producers. With all that working against Broadway musical transfers to the Cineplex, don’t go looking for the film version of WICKED any time soon. At the rate things are going, it will be mid-century before that one shows up. Until then, we can look forward to LES MIZ and hope it opens doors for other Broadway shows to follow. And hey, we’ve got these five to enjoy right now.