Tomorrow is significant for any number of reasons, but the release after more than two decades of promises and failed starts of a film adaptation of West End megamusical Les Misérables is not least among them. Divisive, muted reception or not, I, at least, find that it makes good on the promise of being one of the most satisfying movie adaptations of musical theater ever. Not that the competition for that title is very fierce: while movie musicals are a wonderful genre on the whole, not so many stage adaptations count among the masterpieces of the form. But that inspired me all the more to trot out a long-moribund feature and provide my list of:
The Ten Best Film Adaptations of Stage Musicals
Honorable Mention: Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
By all means, the best film of Fosse’s directorial career – a big claim, for the director of All That Jazz – is one of the all-time great movie musicals, and better than any of the ten films on the list to follow. That being said, it’s a basically terrible adaptation of John Kander & Fred Ebb’s wonderful stage musical, cutting out songs, subplots, and entire character, streamlining and reducing the material to a story that works extraordinarily well on its own, but is basically a different piece altogether than the musical show staged under the same name. This list is for great movie musicals that also do right by their theatrical predecessors; not just Cabaret, but more than one ’30s classic was left off for similar reasons.
10. Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, 1953)
It does leave a little bit to be wanted as an adaptation: Cole Porter’s saucy songs are defanged, and the “divorced actors playing Shakespeare together” concept is treated with rather less intelligence and wit, in deference one supposes to the presumptively less-sophisticated film audience. But it’s a particularly lush MGM production when that studio was at its most opulent, including the first screen work done by dance/choreographer Bob Fosse, and as the one and only time that I’ve ever genuinely liked the studio’s much-used leading man Howard Keel, I feel honor-bound to admit it. Besides, it’s the only 3-D musical of any significance, and clearly that deserves to be recognised.
9. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)
Set aside the baggage of its interactive cult; ignore the debate over whether this is a genuine missive from a sexual counter-culture or just a cheap attempt pour épater le bourgeois. When all the chatter is stripped away, we’re left with a sweet-natured, altogether fun parody of ’50s B-movies that prod at the achingly straitlaced tone of those movies with bawdy humor, married to a compulsively hummable batch of songs by co-star Richard O’Brien. Sharman’s direction is a bit stiff in the non-musical sequences (though he gets most of the numbers just right – “Time Warp” especially), and if the film did nothing besides capture Tim Curry’s go-for-broke performance of sweet transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter (the best work, by far, in the actor’s career), it would still deserve attention after three and a half decades.
8. The Music Man (Morton DaCosta, 1962)
Speaking of capturing great performances: there are many ways to find fault with the filmed version of Meredith Willson’s outstanding masterpiece – one of the great stage musicals of all time, if you asked me – including sets that look awfully like sets, and DaCosta’s at times over-literal direction. But the one thing it does absolutely right, and the only thing it really had to, was allow Robert Preston to re-create his Broadway triumph on celluloid, so that every generation to come would be able to stand in gawking amazement at one of the absolute great musical comedy performances. The fact that the rest of the cast is nigh-unto unimprovable, and that the staging of the numbers is at a high ebb of sprightly energy in a decade where movie musicals frequently jammed to an abrupt halt to let the singing happen, are more than enough to put it over, whatever minor problems crop up here or there.
7. Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)
Minnelli’s directorial debut isn’t one of his essentials (black-and-white robs him of the most important tool in his arsenal), and the best song in the movie, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg’s “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”, magnificently sung by Ethel Waters, was nowhere to be found in the Vernon Duke/John Latouche stage version. But the finest thing about the movie is also the finest thing about the musical: it trains a white-hot spotlight on several African-American musical artists who had not to that point been treated with much respect or dignity by the white establishment, and gives them more complicated interesting characters to play than the Mammy/Sambo stereotypes prevalent in movies to that point. A historical curiosity in many ways, but the songs and their staging are as good as any WWII-era musical.
6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Starring, written by, and directed by the man who created the show, it’s not much of a surprise that Mitchell’s high-spirited glam rock fantasy of political freedom and genderfucking manages to recapture the spirit and songs of the rock club-influenced original while rebuilding its structure more or less from the ground up. Who better than the original author to understand what matters most about the material, and reframe a theatrical experience theatrically to best showcase it? And the end result is non-stop delirium, maddeningly catchy songs married to a sugar-sweet, massively kinky story of love and identity, all carried off through captivating indie-movie creativity. Follow the bouncing wig!
5. 1776 (Peter H. Hunt, 1972)
Sherman Edwards’s magnum opus is by no means the most friendly or tuneful musical to ever grace the stage, but it’s one of the best dramas about the American Revolution ever written, and the movie manages to improve on it completely. The naturalistic lighting and heavy use of exterior sets adds a layer of physical authenticity to a book (by Peter Stone) that already did so much to remove the history book fustiness from the Founding Fathers and restore to them a measure of grubby, sexual, selfish humanity; and the cast, largely imported from the original Broadway production, cannot be improved upon. There are few movie musicals that aspire to realism and plausibility this successfully: Hunt’s low-key style, dominated by wide-shots, manages to turn the song-and-dance routines into surprisingly effective extensions of the film’s overall scheme of bring normal human emotions back to an event that had long since traipsed into myth.
4. Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s warped little off-Broadway cult hit would seem an unlikely choice for a great movie, particularly one coming out in the worst-ever decade for screen musicals; but that’s what a terrific cast (Rick Moranis was never better) will do for you, and even more, a director willing to completely embrace the weirdness of the project, if not even amp it up further: the project is inherently a parody of ’50s and ’60s B-movies (it was adapted from one), but it took Oz to real studio money to make a costly, high-tech film that looked and felt this much like a collaboration between Roger Corman and Arthur Freed. And, if I can be a goddamned despicable heretic for a moment: I actually prefer the studio-mandated happy ending.
3. Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971)
The blockbuster original, the best-known work by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, has an irreducible theatricality that was never going to survive a transmission to the screen, but Jewison (just one movie before directing one of the all-time worst stage-to-screen adaptations, Jesus Christ Superstar) made up for that problem by not trying to recapture it: like 1776 and the #1 film on this list, what makes his approach so great is that it emphasises the physical reality of the movie, turning a heavily stagey piece into a heavily cinematic one, the last of the great roadshow musicals that were so damned popular in the ’60s, and by all odds the best. The contrast between the New Hollywood grittiness of the filmmaking and the robust grandeur of the musical numbers is electrifying rather than off-putting, and in the form of the over-the-top cartoon Topol, the film was graced with a lead performance that was absolutely vital to giving it an earthy fullness that grounds it real, rich emotion.
2. Show Boat (James Whale, 1936)
Harder to find than MGM’s embalmed adaptation from 1951, Universal’s lively adaptation of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece – my very favorite stage musical – would win if only for putting Paul Robeson’s scorching take on “Old Man River” on film (the role of Joe was written for him, but he was unavailable at the show’s 1927 premiere). But on top of that, it has Whale’s elegant direction, making this one of the most kinetic of all ’30s musicals, an exceptionally good Irene Dunne performance, and two of the new songs – “I Have the Room Above Her” and “Ah Still Suits Me” – are wonderful, welcome additions to a great score (the third, “Gallivantin’ Around”, is less so; certainly, serving as the excuse for a most unwelcome blackface number doesn’t help it). It tinkers with the original a bit, but that always happens to poor Show Boat, and the changes here result in a much more engaging story than some of the later hatchet jobs.
1. The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
The only Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptation that works more than intermittently – but man, how it works! Four years after co-directing a mis-cast, frequently glassy-eyed West Side Story that enjoys far too generous a reputation nowadays, Wise made good by taking the opulence of a studio musical to the eye-popping beauty of Salzburg, Austria and the surrounding mountains, bringing a sense of movie-magic glamor and physically grounded realism to bear like no other musical ever. The results are lofty and emotionally resonant, all the more so with Julie Andrews in a definitive take on one of the most lyrical roles in the R&H canon. Best of all, the film manages to do something virtually unheard-of in stage-to-screen adaptations: it clearly and decisively improves the story, switching around songs to make considerably more narrative and emotional sense, and adding a new number to deepen the romantic plot considerably.