Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Downgraded From the Movie

If you follow musicals, it can't have escaped your attention that many if not most stage musicals nowadays are based on movies. Sometimes it's an expansion of a movie that was already a musical, like Cameron Macintosh's stage production of Mary Poppins -- I hear it's good, but the hype surrounding it has inspired too much pointless anti-Disney twaddle -- but more often it uses a non-musical movie as source material: The Producers, Hairspray, The Full Monty.

The reason for this, or part of the reason, is that musicals are usually based on "scripted" entertainments, where a script or something like it already exists, and all that is needed is to rewrite the script and find places for songs. Traditionally, the major source was the live theatre; a producer would option a nonmusical play like Pygmalion or Green Grow the Lilacs and hire people to musicalize it. It's so hard to put together a musical, with all the different talents and departments it requires, that it's an advantage to have a theatrical script and structure already available before you even start. But now there's not much in the way of commercial non-musical theatre, and even the frankly commercial plays tend to have very few characters; a play with a big cast, like Porgy or The Matchmaker, belongs to the economics of a bygone Broadway. So the equivalent of the commercial theatre is the cinema, and a movie script has some of the things a musical needs: a good-sized cast of characters, opportunities for visual coups, strong dialogue.

Which brings me to the question I should have posed at the beginning: what are some movies that you think would make good stage musicals?

There are two movies that I've particularly wanted to see as stage musicals. One is Love Me Tonight. The movie is just about perfect as it is, I agree, but there are some things a stage musical could add. For one thing, a stage adaptation could restore the sections that were cut out of the movie when it was reissued after the implementation of the Hays Code (the sequences are lost, but the relevant script portions are included on the DVD as an extra). There are supporting characters, like the man-crazy Valentine and the impecunious Count, who could be developed farther than in the movie, with perhaps the introduction of some new characters to be their love interests (I really miss the old-fashioned "secondary couple" that disappeared from the Broadway musical around the '60s). The "Isn't It Romantic?" sequence would be challenging and interesting to re-imagine for the stage. And some additional Rodgers and Hart songs, carefully chosen, could fill out the score.

The operative word there is "intelligently chosen." Normally when a great songwriter's catalogue is raided for a stage show, the temptation is to pack the show with hits; that's what has happened with, say, the various bastardized versions of Anything Goes, where a perfectly fine and well-balanced Cole Porter score is inflated with a bunch of additional hits that really have no business being in this show. If someone were to do Love Me Tonight as "Rodgers and Hart's Greatest Hits," that wouldn't work; there's no place in this operetta-like story for "The Lady Is a Tramp" or even "There's a Small Hotel." But there are a lot of lesser-known Rodgers and Hart songs that could fit into Love Me Tonight and even advance the story and characters, without the danger of the audience recognizing the song from some other show. For example, a Rodgers and Hart musical called America's Sweetheart produced a song that would be perfect for Valentine (and no, it's not "My Funny Valentine," though in Babes in Arms that is in fact sung to someone named Valentine): "A Lady Must Live," a defence of nymphomania: "With my John and my Max/I can reach a climax/That's proof positive/That a lady must live."

The non-musical movie I'd like to see as a musical is Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. It's set in a period, the early '60s, that is now considered sort of cool (look at all the Rat Pack nostalgia). It has two couples, one middle-aged, one young, and lots of funny supporting characters who could conceivably find something to sing about. And while a musical version would probably have to make the characters somewhat more sympathetic than they are in the movie, the cynicism of the source material would still give the whole thing the sort of edge that a good musical comedy needs. A musical version of this movie could be sort of like The Producers with more plot and more of a romantic element.

I once tried fooling around with song ideas for One, Two Three; the silliest one I came up with was a nostalgic duet for two of the ex-Nazi West Germans -- the ex-SS right-hand-man Schlemmer and the chauffeur Fritz -- where they insist that they are not at all nostalgic for pre-War Germany. I present the lyrics here as part of my continuing series of "silly stuff I wrote and can't use anywhere else so I might as well post it." Meanwhile, I'd be interested to hear what movies other people think would be good for a stage musical.

The Bad Old Days

Refrain 1

The bad old days,
Our darkest hour
Of crushing nations flat,
The bad old phase
Of strength and power,
Who'd want to go back to that?
The bad old days
When we were heiling
The man we hated so,
The songs of praise,
The constant smiling,
We're happy to see them go.
That mustached man
Had an evil plan,
Ambitions so grandiose.
We never knew
What he tried to do
Or that he came so close, so close!
But that was wrong,
And there's no German
Who'd ever long
With all his heart
For all the fun we had
In the bad old days.


Those people with the boots, who wore those crosses out of shape,
We clapped for them, but secretly we wanted to escape,
Though thanks to Leni Riefenstahl it's all on film and tape,
We could tell they were buffoons
In the bad old days.

Performances of Meistersinger warmed the human heart,
Furtwangler on the podium and stars in every part,
Of course, we never liked the ode to holy German art,
We just went to hum the tunes
In the bad old days.

Refrain 2

The bad old times
We want no word of,
We're glad they disappeared.
The bad old crimes
We never heard of
And certainly never cheered.
That bad old tome,
So long and sloppy,
"My Camp" or something such;
Though every home
Contained a copy,
It never sold all that much.
We spent each year
Drinking Rheinland beer,
Maintaining our cheerful style.
So keep in mind,
We were not inclined
To march and shout sieg heil, sieg heil!
We all would moan
When we were drafted,
And if we'd known
About the war,
We'd all have gotten mad
In the bad old days.


The bad old days,
So rank and rotten,

The bad old ways
We've all forgotten,

Give thanks and praise
We're living not in
A time like then,
The bad old days will never, never, never, never! -- come again!

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