The scenic revolution of the musical


By Sophie Lambton

There was a time when the genre of the ‘musical’ was the simplest form of entertainment. It was really thanks to Hollywood that musicals began to get glitzy. But when one talks about musicals, which have the fabric that is really more suited to Hollywood rather than the stage? It could easily be defined as the most complete ones, in every sense of the word. Why have we never seriously considered a stage version of The Sound of Music? Why did it close in London after two and a half years when Chicago and Blood Brothers go on after ten? We never picture a ‘Maria’ as anything but Julie Andrews. Similarly nobody could ever have a stiff upper-lip and former “Captain” code and practice as did Christopher Plummer. When we hear “The hills are alive with the sound of music”, we prefer to see Austria, not cardboard cutouts.

Similar hugely successful films have sabotaged the chances of their foundations ever being made into a hit of a stage musical. The 1978 iconic motion picture Grease, with John Travolta sewn into black leather pants, became such a lasting, blockbuster success that theatre producers jumped at the chance to present it in the auditorium. Some musicals are simply better left in their time and as a memento of Hollywood than dragged out through decades. Whilst the film can still make an impression over thirty years later, the stage version often looks forced in comparison.

We can expect to hear crooners’ and jazz songs on stage; it’s where their heart lies and where they first started being performed. But in an age where cinema is targeted towards the masses and mostly towards teenagers, the performance of the 30’s hits begins to look false and synthetic.

As with The Sound of Music, the remembrance of many films is based hugely on their star quality. Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady became popular with Audrey Hepburn in the role, though it has never served a particularly long West End or Broadway run. Fans are possessive of their musicals. If the leading lady in the role was a beloved Hollywood figure, especially one who died early or unexpectedly, they are unlikely to morally envisage some young ingénue in that same role on stage. Perhaps this can also explain why the Marilyn Monroe hit, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has only ever had one West End and one Broadway revival.

And then there are musicals which stick to the screen because they were born to it. Although West Side Story had become a successful show before its birth in Hollywood, viewers got accustomed to seeing one particular version of the work. West Side Story has the enormous advantage of working both on stage and screen because of its dance numbers. Mambos and Cha-Chas are just as effective on stage as they are in the cinema, if not more so. But sometimes the original stage interpretation betrays itself.

On the other end of the scale are musicals which become so accustomed to their stage habitat that they have no chance of scoring as films. Among these can be named Chicago, which hardly made a lasting impression when it was released as a film in 2002. The stage version, now a favourite in the West End, famously has women clinging on huge vertical columns on the stage and dancing about chairs as they sing ‘Cell Block Tango’. Once the film was released with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere in main roles, nobody had much faith in it despite the musical backgrounds of its stars. None of their performances were bleak or average, but the reality was probably too much.

The next few years will see many crimes committed in the field of musicals. Keira Knightley will become the new Elisa Doolittle in a remake of My Fair Lady. Stephen Soderbergh wants Catherine Zeta-Jones to star as Cleopatra in a rock-musical. The trouble with Hollywood is that films like West Side Story, which were constructed under Leonard Bernstein’s eye and guidance, will never be remade. Hollywood and Broadway can continue manufacturing musicals and twisting them around. Luckily, we have the knowledge and the memory to remember what they should be.


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