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?
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.
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.