By: Mandy Pennington

Since Broadway blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s with writers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, filmmakers have jumped at the opportunity to make Broadway hits into feature films. From “West Side Story” (1961) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) to “Hairspray” (1988, 2007) to “Rent” (2005) to “Les Miserables” (2012), these movie adaptions attempt to capture the beauty of the music, the impact of the plot, and the “wow” factor of the original musicals. However, many times these movie directors fail. Why is that?

Some would say that it’s because movies simply cannot capture the thrill of seeing a musical performed on stage. How could a movie possibly represent the brilliant lights and the swelling orchestra, the raw vocal talent, the clack of tap shoes echoing in a giant hall, the communal experience of laughter and tears shared by a theater audience? There is an aliveness in an anticipatory theater crowd that cannot be replicated in your living room, or even in a movie theater. Movies are a less interactive, farther-away representation of an otherwise up-close-and-personal experience. A night out at the theater is a night to remember, but nowadays we see movies quite often. For example, seeing the Broadway tour version of “West Side Story” was astounding; the beyond-impressive dance numbers brought me to tears. While the dancing is still interesting to watch in the movie version, it is not a show-stopping, thrill-giving experience to observe.

Perhaps it’s the plot points, characters, or songs that most movies have to cut out of the original musicals to create an audience-friendly and reasonably long film. Just as movie versions of books often lose meat and power, so do movie versions of musicals. Though a necessary casualty of the movie form, it is a discouraging reality for musical fanatics who simply want to see their favorite musical over and over.

Another casualty of the movie musical is the lack of live singing in most cases. Most sound in movies is already overdubbed, so the fact that the music is as well is an inherent reality. Though dubbed vocals are usually cleaner and more precise, they sometimes lack authentic emotion, especially paired with on-screen actors who sometimes are not even singing for themselves. Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” which has arguably some of the best musical theater music of all time, lost some emotional authenticity when the directors cast non-singing actors in the movie version. In this area, the 2012 version of “Les Miserables” is commendable; it was one of the first feature film musicals to record all of the singing live. “Les Miserables” has a distinctly vulnerable, authentic, and rough feel to it, which contributes to the general aesthetic of the story and stays true to the original musical.

This leads to my main critique of movie musicals: the casting. The crisp New York City air and the nation’s brightest stage lights create and foster Broadway’s biggest stars. However, sometimes these stars are only stars within their city, or within the musical theater community. We’ve all heard of Broadway belters like Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Idina Menzel, but there are so many more stars that, though revered in New York City, are unknown to the rest of the world.

When film directors are casting for musical movie adaptations, they are faced with a dilemma. They can either cast Broadway stars, whose talents are certainly worthy of the roles, or they can cast big-name Hollywood actors, who will break the box office records. Sadly, most directors choose the latter. Certainly, some actors fit both molds: big-name Hollywooders who can also sing and dance pretty well; however, others get their vocals dubbed and are taught dumbed-down dance moves, hired only for their acting talent….in a musical. Sacrificing the integrity of what the musical is meant to be for ticket sales is the opposite of musical theater’s purpose. “Les Miserables” is a good example of this point. Though beautiful and brilliant, the movie did star many big name actors such as Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, and Helena Bonham Carter. The only actual professional Broadway actress in the film was Samantha Barks, who played her character, Eponine, at the Queen’s Theatre in London for a year, and also in the 25th anniversary concert version. Without even knowing this, I found her character the strongest and most sincere vocalist.

Now, I am not against casting actors who are both talented and well-known. The movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof”—which is, in my opinion, one of the best musical movie adaptations—stars Topol, who was a popular Israeli theatrical, film, and television actor, among other things, before being cast in the role. However, Topol perfectly embodied the role of Tevye, and was more than adequate at fulfilling its demands. After the movie was filmed, he performed in the stage production more than 3,500 times.

In case you have finished this article thinking that I hate movie musicals, let me assure you that I certainly do not. I love the ability to watch my favorite musicals again and again without paying $100 for nosebleed seats in a theater. It is, however, important to realize what we are missing when we see a movie adaptation, and that if we dislike a movie version, we may actually love the stage version—the way the musical was originally intended.

As a closing sidenote, at least the directors of Les Miserables didn’t cast Taylor Swift as Eponine. I may have died.

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