When it was recently announced that Cats, the smash-hit 80’s dance-ical was headed for the big screen, musical fans everywhere began speculating whether the new Cats will be a triumph or a disappointment. Some say it’s unfilmable. Some say it needs to be animated. Some say it could work, but not in the hands of announced director Tom Hooper who proved that he was really good at filming close-ups of people crying in Les Miserables (2012). In a time when movie musicals are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, no one has yet been able to nail down a formula.
It got me thinking: *cue Carrie Bradshaw voiceover* what makes a movie musical work?
Studios, desperate to make millions with the least amount of effort, are obsessed with established commodities like musicals, especially if it’s a show that’s drowning in awards and box office records and comes with a pre-packaged audience. Announcements that such-and-such a show is going to be filmed cause a lot of free buzz and even if fans are worried that the film will butcher their beloved show, they’ll probably go see it out of curiosity. With a business model like that, it’s a fairly sound investment. Even if the film doesn’t make billions of dollars, it can still recoup its investment pretty easily, provided the advertising department knows what they’re doing.
But fans don’t care about studios making money. they just want to see their show come alive in a world not constrained by the stage, curtain, and wings. Sometimes it works spectacularly, like 2002’s Chicago, which snagged not only the adoration of fans, but several Oscars, including Best Picture. It made some changes from Kander and Ebb’s 1975 show, directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, but it worked perfectly. The Sound of Music (1965) is another great example of a film which reworked a stage show into something equally iconic. Both films made changes to their source material to fit the film medium and created something that both fans and critics embraced.
Other times, it falls apart. A Chorus Line (1985) completely missed the point of its Pulitzer-Prize-winning original from 1975. And Nine (2009) failed to present anything in the way of coherence, even though the Raul Julia-led original from 1982 won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and has been revived several times. Nine is especially perplexing because it was directed by Rob Marshall who did such magnificent things with Chicago.
And then there are those movie musicals we like, even though we’re aware of their flaws. Sweeney Todd (2007) and Into the Woods (2014) come to mind. Both films look brilliant. Tim Burton infuses Victorian London with so much opulent decay that you just can’t help but be drawn into it, even though the actors can’t quite manage the vocal complexity and breadth required of a Sondheim score. And Rob Marshall (we’ll see him a lot) brings the fairy tale forest and characters of the second show to beautiful life, but misses the significance of the second act which becomes a ponderous epilogue to a traditional fairy tale (instead of a dark mirror image). Both are gorgeous films, but they don’t quiiiiite work. I’d say the same thing about Joel Schumacher’s 2004 The Phantom of the Opera, which is so pretty it hurts…but the vocal strength of the cast is uneven and the pacing is shaky. The creator’s hearts were in the right place, though, so I don’t mind watching them.
The one thing many fans complain about when a show becomes a film is changes made to the original, but that’s not the reason why some shows fail. The Sound of Music added and deleted songs and moved other songs around (for example, Maria sings “the Lonely Goatherd” with the children during the thunderstorm rather than “My Favorite Things” in the stage version). Phantom of the Opera turned the chandelier crash from a confusing Act One finale into an explosive climax for the whole film (and it works really well). Changes are necessary when turning a stage production into a film because both formats require different things of the audience. I don’t mind that.
A stage production can be changed as long as the creators understand what they’re changing. Norman Jewison’s film version of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) took several big risks with the setting, but the performances were so good that the show’s core was preserved. This doesn’t always happen.
For example, my biggest issue with Les Miserables was that it had no grand romantic sweep to it. It was so fixated on making the audience as miserable as the characters that it eschewed melodrama for boil-infested realism, shoving the camera five inches away from everyone’s face as they choked and sobbed through tears and rain while talk-singing. It was so realistic that it lost the transcendental effect of the music which, in its stage incarnation, lifts the characters out of their miserable surroundings and connects them with the dramatic events that are rocking France out of its complacency. It’s grand and operatic and I was really excited to see 19th century France come alive, but all I saw were the pores on everyone’s faces while they wept. In terms of story and song, they did a good job of adapting the script for film, but its visual style wasn’t all that enjoyable for the audience.
If Cats is going to be a success, the filmmakers need to really think about how they’ll turn a plot-lite revue of dancing cats each telling their story into something that works on film. They have a few different incarnations (the two stage versions and the made-for-TV version) to work from, so hopefully they’ll be able to find the soul of the film that keeps it coherent. It’s a show that’s all about spectacle, but it’s the sort of spectacle that works great in a theater with a huge cast moving in sync across a beautifully designed stage. On film, it will either end up feeling absurd or ridiculous if the audience isn’t made to accept that they’re listening to dancing cats telling their stories.
I have faith, tentatively. It may be misplaced because studios had faith in Rob Marshall after Chicago and he gave them Nine, but then he sort of redeemed himself with Into the Woods (since the issues with that show lie with the writers and meddlesome Disney execs, not the director). I have no doubt that the film version of Cats will look great because if filmmakers know how to do do anything, it’s give us really gorgeous visuals, but I hope they give the same level of attention to the script and the heart of the production.
I’m also curious how they’re going to manage Grizabella’s ascension… Hand? Flying Saucer? Explosion of white light?
In the meantime, what’s your favorite movie musical?