To Movie or Not to Movie? A Question for Musicals

I remember my excitement when I stood in line for my ticket to see 2004’s Phantom of the Opera. I was at the height of my craze of listening to the musical. Singing along to it. Switching between the Canadian cast (my favorite) and the London cast.

Sadly, watching the film was disappointing. Gerard Butler’s rock and roll voice did little to make me believe he was the angel of music, but his performance wasn’t the only one to bedevil the film. It seemed the film took a turn toward the parody that Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally intended his musical to be before making it something better.

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I remember hearing a woman in the audience sobbing during the climactic scene. I wanted to cry, too, but not for the Phantom’s pity, but for the wasted opportunity of the film. And for the money I spent on the ticket.

Not all musical films are bad. My favorite is 1972’s Cabaret. It adapted the stage production excellently, and even altered the story for film in a way I find superior. The musical numbers were plausible yet exciting and the parts were all well portrayed, garnering two of the film’s stars Academy Awards.

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In 2002 we got Chicago which also garnered much critical acclaim. It was glitzier and flashy and trashy in the best ways, and I barely noticed Catherine Zeta-Jones was preggers.

Otherwise, film adaptations of musicals seem to be a spotty affair. Damn Yankees mixed mediocre Hollywood and the best of Broadway together for a “blah” experience, Mamma Mia! was really hokey, but maybe it was supposed to be that way. Les Miserables seemed to do okay, and let’s not forget ever popular Grease whose dismal sequel is largely forgotten (as it should be).

It’s this inconsistency that makes me nervous when someone wants to adapt musicals to film. They are very polarizing, catering either to hardcore fans or the laymen movie goers. What is the magic formula that caters to both?

Probably the next big thing, now that Les Mis has come out, is Miss Saigon. It’s one of the most recent musicals in both setting and conception, and even features a more modern structure and darker, more contemporary conflicts.

Miss Saigon is practically begging to be on screen, but would a film do it justice? Could a cast match the magic that is Lea Salonga; could a director translate the vision to the screen without making it a mess?

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I can imagine a version of the film that recreates the tragic love of a young girl not just for a man, but her love of a dream for a better place. It’s a film that celebrates her spirit and warns us of a world that threatens to break it.

I can also see an over-politicized mess with extra scenes of the Vietnam War that draw us away from the intimate nature of a musical in favor of a Michael Bay-esque orgy of cheap effects and lens flare.

These are the thoughts that come up with these adaptations. There is beauty in adapting a musical to the cinema so that millions can see what most don’t get to experience on Broadway. But the question remains, does it compromise the integrity of a musical to be shoehorned into a medium that is tauntingly similar but fundamentally different?

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