FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
July 5, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Turner Classic Movie’s annual July 4th airing of the 1972 film version of 1776 has come and gone, and with it the always illuminating on line chat room discussions on whether or not this musical got a fair shake in its transition from stage to screen. This is something I’m not prepared to weigh in on due to A) my affection for the show — from Peter Stone’s brilliant book/screenplay and Sherman Edwards’s music, both merry and thought provoking — to B) my personal relationships and connections to certain cast members, as well as to the play and film’s director, Peter H. Hunt. Plus with my having paid a dozen times to see the original Broadway production as a teenager during its three-year run, “fair and balanced” I ain’t. I know there are things that don’t work about the film, but since a great deal of what made the Broadway production so successful is in evidence, most memorably in the performances of William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard, I often happily defend the film of 1776 when called upon.
But not today. Instead, I thought I would take the opportunity to point towards a couple of stage to screen adaptations that have worked (or didn’t) in an attempt to figure out what the most favorable conditions might be in order to yield the best results. It’s certainly not a simple formula, but there are many ways to avoid crashing on the launching pad before the countdown for lift-off even begins.
For example, there is no better Broadway musical made into a worse film than the 1985 version of A Chorus Line, where one unwise decision after another piled up to create an enormous garbage heap of a movie. First, dictating that a star actor was needed to play Zack (the mostly unseen director of the show-within-a-show framework of the stage production) was unnecessary. I had no problem with the casting of Michael Douglas, but building up his role so that the story becomes about whether or not he and his former lover, Cassie, will get together — instead of just whether she gets into the chorus — was a monumental mistake. In the play, we are supposed to care whether Cassie makes it onto the line a bit more than the others, but it’s entirely due to what she needs at this point in her life and career, not what she needs from her relationship to her former lover. The director and producers who made the film (none of whom had anything to do with the stage version) were seriously misguided in thinking that audiences needed a Zack-Cassie love story to take on more importance than the relationship between the dancers and their love for performing and need to “get that job.”
Uh oh. I just spent a lot of time on the first thing … and there are so many more in A Chorus Line. To return to my original point: crashing on the launching pad happened the minute Richard Attenborough was hired to direct it. A fine (if perfunctory filmmaker), Attenborough was simply the wrong man for the job; someone whose better instincts failed him here (though he had previously directed the film musical of the London revue Oh! What a Lovely War, its string of songs didn’t have to tell a cohesive story). Of course Attenborough was not the first person approached (or even the twenty-first, I’m sure). There was an attempt to allow the one person who might have pulled it off — Michael Bennett — the father of the property from its inception and beyond its opening nights, both off and on Broadway. Unfortunately, he was incapable of making any crucial decisions during the brief time he was hired by Universal Pictures to rev up pre-production work to get things rolling. Bennett’s inability to come up with anything over the course of the few months was probably due to ego, drugs or “director’s block,” (or all three, if you believe what has been written in a number of books about this time that Bennett spent in Hollywood). It’s sad, because much in the way Gower Champion might have made a better film musical than Gene Kelly did out of his Broadway triumph with Hello, Dolly!, is just something we’ll never know.
When Harold Prince, one of the great stage directors of all time, got a shot at helming A Little Night Music, it meant that the person who helped bring Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night to Broadway, would be responsible for its film adaptation. That it turned out disastrously was sad for everyone who had first thought it was reason for cheering. In fact, the film is so bad that I have never been able to get through it. And it’s not only because Elizabeth Taylor is miscast, but because it is so poorly paced and shot with mischance lurking around every corner. It’s even set in the wrong country (Austria from its original Sweden), in order to accommodate the location shooting giving the production tax breaks. Its 11% Rotten Tomatoes rating says it all, as even Howard the Duck, a critical bomb of epic proportions, has a 15% rating. With only one other film to his credit, the 1970 dark comedy Something for Everyone, Prince is simply one of those directors who doesn’t possess the ability to get behind a camera and work the same magic.
Which brings us to a someone who did possess that gift (and then some): Bob Fosse. And though his first attempt, filming the 1969 version of his 1966 Broadway hit Sweet Charity was not good, he more than made up for it with his second film, 1972’s Cabaret (ironically, first staged by Harold Prince). Cy Feuer, the Broadway producing legend responsible for taking Cabaret from stage to screen, was resistant to hiring Fosse, going after other filmmakers who all turned him down. Fosse, was insistent that he was the right man for the job and went after it aggressively. He had to, as Sweet Charity grossed $4 million domestically on a budget of $20 (a fortune to lose in 1969). His work on Cabaret would eventually provide the proof in the pudding when it instantly secured its place as one of the best stage to screen musicals ever made. Demanding pivotal new material from screenwriters Jay Presson Alllen and Hugh Wheeler (who went back to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories upon which the musical was initially based) restored a subplot about a gigolo and a Jewish heiress missing from the stage musical, as well as make its leading man question his heterosexuality.
Funnily (or not so funny as it turned out), all the right moves Cy Feuer made with Cabaret failed him thirteen years later. He was the producer of the film of A Chorus Line.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.