Film and television adaptations of popular musicals haven’t been doing so hot lately. After enduring the disastrous live-action Peter Pan that aired on NBC earlier this month – not to mention last year’s The Sound of Music featuring Carrie Underwood “acting” – plus less-than-stellar translations of Nine (2009) and Rock of Ages (2012), is it possible Broadway and the screen just don’t mix?
With Into the Woods skipping into theaters Dec. 25, we’ll get a little bit closer to finding out. We’re optimists and think there certainly is a place for musicals at the movies and on television. Heck, there’s a laundry list of successful adaptations to prove it. The song-and-dance mojo wasn’t present for some efforts – let’s just forget about Pierce Brosnan’s singing in Mama Mia (2008) – but others were right on point. And even won Oscars.
West Side Story (1961)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94 percent
Notable awards or praise: The film dominated the Academy Awards in 1962, taking home Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), and seven other nods.
Why it works: Sharp direction from Robert Wise led the film to top-notch results. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie has dazzling source material, including an iconic score and lyrics from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim respectively.
My Fair Lady (1964)Rotten Tomatoes score: 95 percent
Notable awards or praise: The film faired more than well at the 1964 Academy Awards, taking home eight statues including Best Picture, Best Director (Greg Cukor), and Best Actor (Rex Harrison). It also scooped up three Golden Globe awards.
Why it works: Audrey Hepburn’s charm made this movie a hit and won over audiences who may have been partial to Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Eliza Doolittle.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 85 percent
Notable awards or praise: The hills were alive with the sound of Oscar nominations at the 1965 awards. It ended up winning five, including Best Picture and Best Director (Wise).
Why it works: Sometimes it’s the heart that makes a movie. Because the actors, notably Andrews, truly believe the potentially corny Sound of Music story, saccharine is replaced with genuine warmth.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 81 percent
Notable awards or praise: Fiddler took home three Oscars (Best Song Score Adaptation, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound) and two Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture- Musical or Comedy and Best Actor- Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Chaim Topol).
Why it works: Ambitious directing from Norman Jewison plus a breath-of-fresh air portrayal of Tevye from Topol makes Fiddler on the Roof soar (when it could’ve fallen victim to its rather dull story).
Cabaret (1972)Rotten Tomatoes score: 97 percent
Notable awards or praise: Cabaret danced home with eight Academy Awards at the 1973 show, including Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minnelli), and and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey).
Why it works: Fosse’s electric direction and choreography plus Minnelli’s explosive leading performance led to one of the most titillating musical-film adaptations in history.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)Rotten Tomatoes score: 79 percent
Notable awards or praise: While the film wasn’t nominated for any Oscars or Golden Globes, it’s become a phenomenon with midnight moviegoers. The New York Times dubbed it a “low-budget freak show/cult classic/cultural institution” with “catchy” songs.
Why it works: The players embrace the lunacy of Rocky’s plot and keep all elements on the bleeding edge of camp. More importantly, the lead actors make the characters real.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 79 percent
Notable awards or praise: The film was nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, Best Actor- Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (John Travolta), and Best Actress- Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Olivia Newton-John).
Why it works: Travolta and Newton-John keep the energy high and director Randal Kleiser tells the story through a breezy and indisputably catchy lens. The result is a summertime-sweet flick that goes down like a glass of cold lemonade.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 90 percent
Notable awards or praise: The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1987, including Best Original Song (“Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”). It was also nominated for Best Motion Picture- Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes.
Why it works: Like Rocky Horror, Little Shop won audiences over with its playful disposition, irresistible songs, and cult-camp charm.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 64 percent
Notable awards or praise: The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one (Best Original Song, “You Must Love Me”). Madonna received high praise for her portrayal of Eva Perón, with critic Zach Conner writing, “Madonna once again confounds our expectations. She plays Evita with a poignant weariness and has more than just a bit of star quality. Love or hate Madonna-Eva, she is a magnet for all eyes.” She ended up taking home the Golden Globe for Best Actress-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in 1997.
Why it works: Breathtaking visual style, plus a surprisingly good performance from Madonna, made Evita a handsome effort for critics and audiences alike.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92 percent
Notable awards or praise: John Cameron Mitchell was nominated for his performance at the 2002 Golden Globe awards.
Why it works: Inch flirts with fun and feels throughout its rock-tastic journey, and it struck a serious chord with theatergoers.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 87 percent
Notable awards or praise: Chicago was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, taking home six, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Why it works: Rob Marshall’s direction packs a powerful punch and is only aided by zesty, multifaceted performances from Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere. In addition, the musical numbers, notably “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango,” are layered with inexplicable drama that work naturally on screen. In this flick, there is no weak link.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 78 percent
Notable awards or praise: The movie walked home with two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes in 2007; Jennifer Hudson scored supporting actress nods at both shows, while Eddie Murphy won Best Supporting Actor at the Globes.
Why it works: Powerhouse performances from Hudson and Murphy shoots the film from good to great. Never underestimate the power of a killer musical solo, or Beyonce.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 91 percent
Notable awards or praise: Hairspray received three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Travolta.
Why it works: Even with sparkly dance sequences, social commentary and emotional heart to boot, Hairspray never takes itself too seriously. And that’s perhaps why it permeates culture even today.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)Rotten Tomatoes score: 86 percent
Notable awards or praise: Sweeney Todd was nominated for three Oscars (including Best Actor for Johnny Depp), winning for Best Art Direction. The movie won Best Motion Picture- Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes, and Depp took home Best Actor for the genre.
Why it works: Director Tim Burton and Depp’s working relationship have never synthesized so wonderfully on screen as Sweeney Todd. Helena Bonham Carter aids the effort with a bold, musically adept performance.
Les Misérables (2012)
Rotten Tomatoes score: 70 percent
Notable awards or praise: Les Mis was nominated for eight Academy Awards and took home two, including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway.
Why it works: Bravura performances from the lead actors, notably Hathaway, carry the film even in its shaky moments.
So, what’s the consensus? Yes, musicals can work on film and television. But it takes an enviable blend of crisp direction, solid acting and great source material to work. If one falls short, then we’re left with Underwood searching for emotional cues in her hat. Not pretty. What are some of your favorite musical-film/TV adaptations? Keep the discussion going in the comments below.
[Photo Credit: Miramax]