In an important scene from the 1985 dramedy Educating Rita, the title character, a working class London gal trying to succeed at university, discusses a recent family outing with her professor. As the clan gathers in a local pub, singing the standard football chant pop hit, Rita looks over and sees her mother crying. “Why are you crying?” she asks. Her mother responds, “I just sat through a screening of Rob Marshall’s god-awful Nine,” she replies. Actually, that’s not the line at all, but it could be. What Rita’s mum does say is “there must be better songs to sing than this” and she’s right. Why anyone would take a middling musical from the mid ‘80s, a show celebrated for both it routine revue format and clueless riffs on Fellini’s 8&1/2, and turn it into a big budget awards season wannabe is anyone guess. Even with the post-Chicago pedigree of the director, it still seems like a stretch.
And the reason is rather obvious. Forget the casting, which includes six Oscar winners and one nominee among its eight leads. Ignore the fact that Marshall makes the mindbogglingly dumb decision to stage all the songs in a single soundstage setting, ala the finale of All That Jazz (a far, far better 8&1/2 homage, by the way). Even remove the uneven performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (who’s really more Godard than Italian maestro here), the blank as a fart version of “Be Italian” by acting-nonentity Fergie, or the smoke and mirrors, duct tape and pancake piecing together of 75 year old Sophia Loren. At its core, Nine is just an awful musical. The songs are almost instantly forgettable, the overall style failing to capture any of the swinging Roma reality of Mediterranean cinema circa 1965. If Marshall really wanted to try something different, while equally unexceptional, he could have skipped this excruciating epic and tried his hand at reviving the biggest belly flop in all of Broadway - the failed take on Stephen King’s Carrie.
The truth is, Mr. “Man Who Would Make Pirates of the Caribbean 4” is that there are dozens of better songs to sing than this - musicals both old and new, already part of the big screen canon and those simply dying to get their cinematic screen test. From novel post-modern twists on the stage type to hoary old favorites, Marshall could have picked any number of known and unknown projects and propelled them to this level of mediocrity. To target a show with an already huge built-in flaw - no matter what 1982 Tony voters thought - is like a Kiss of the Spider Woman death. So if and when he gets the chance to take another Great White Way (or Off) title to Tinseltown for approval, may we suggest something a little more…meaningful. Indeed, these five fresh examples and equal number of necessary remakes argues for a less star oriented and more show-ccentric approach. We’ll begin with the established efforts just waiting to be update:
Jesus Christ Superstar
While no one can argue with Norman Jewison’s inspired “hippies in the Holy Land” approach to the show, there is something timeless about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s supposed “rock opera” that could easily translate into something thoroughly modern and magical. With the right cast, the right reinvention, and the right filmmaker behind the lens, this could be a wonderful win/win for anyone willing to take on the mandatory controversy and convert this now dated effort into something completely contemporary.
Sidney Lumet is a genius. He is a filmmaker force few can compete with. That being said, he was the worst choice to bring the soulful reinterpretation of Frank L. Baum’s fairytale to the big screen. Sure, his decision to recast New York City as a seedy ‘70s Oz was inspired, but that’s about it. The rest of the effort - from crap casting (Diana Ross? Nipsey Russell? Richard Pryor?) to uneven execution - screams out for another attempt. And when you consider the wealth of talent currently burning up the urban and mainstream pop charts, sitting on this show seems pointless.
My Fair Lady
If there is a role in a timeless musical that is perfectly suited for the abilities of one Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s not that of floundering Fellini Guido Contino. No, the upper crust phoneticist Prof. Henry Higgins would be perfect for the actor’s lanky grace and contemplative muse - and unlike previous poster boy Rex Harrison, Day-Lewis can actually sing. For once, we’d have a Higgins who actually plays with Alan Jay Lerner’s magnificent melodies instead of sullenly sing-speaking them. Of course, the biggest problem would be finding an appropriate Eliza Doolittle. Perhaps the best thing about Nine - Marion Coitlland - could figure out a way to get her cockney on and make this all happen.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Zero Mostel was a Broadway god in 1966. Richard Lester was equally hot, having just guided the Beatles through both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! So it seemed totally apropos that the two should come together to create the big screen version of the actor’s star turn in the Stephen Sondheim farce. Sadly, the movie was manipulated by a studio that saw more Fellini than 42nd Street in the show. Lester’s loopy stagings, including some questionable casting and plot reconfigurations, rob the show of all its bawdy burlesque trappings, leaving Mostel to do all the heavy lifting. With a collection of classic songs, this begs for a post-millennial make-over.
Man of La Mancha
Another case of very questionable casting. Peter O’Toole is one of the great actors of all time. Sophia Loren is no slouch herself, all sex and slow burn sadness. But neither of them can carry a tune in a bucket…with help. So what better way to recreate the recent Broadway hit than fire original Quixote Richard Kiley (who won a Tony) and replace him with Lawrence of Arabia. Or give the vocally demanding role of Aldonza to a woman of very limited singing skill. Perhaps Terry Gilliam can give up his dream of making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and team up with two musical ready stars to give this much maligned show a new lease on life.
Waiting to Be Made
Granted, Stephen Sondheim can be a very difficult composer to convert to film. Just look at the movies of his shows that made it (Sweeny Todd…umm…hmmm…) with those that haven’t (A Little Night Music…umm…hmmm…). In fact, this brilliant post-modern reinvention of the genre would be perfect for today’s commitment-phobic demo. The storyline revolves around a single man who’s not married, the walked wounded wedded couples who compete for his attention, and the desire for all to find real love and connection. With the right cast and a visionary behind the lens, this could be the next big Hollywood - and cultural - hit.
With CG and 3D so prevalent nowadays, this Andrew Lloyd Webber effort about toy trains coming to life seems ready for its cinematic close-up. Perhaps Pixar could champion the title, using its own unique blend of movie magic to take this rail-Cars to new heights. With some gorgeous animation, the added dimensional gimmick, and a lot of poppy disco beats, this could translate across generations to be a confirmed kitsch classic. Why someone has jumped at the chance to do this - or Cats for that matter - within the confines of the new cartooning format is flummoxing to say the least.
Two Gentlemen from Verona
While the lyrics for Hair were all peace and love proclamations, it’s the amazing music that keeps the show in the decades-removed memories of the audience. While composer Galt MacDermot’s track record after the ‘60s smash was sketchy at best (Dude? Viva Galactica?), this Shakespeare-based show was a huge pop culture achievement. Hardly anyone in the early ‘70s didn’t know its name - heck, it even beat out Follies and Grease for the Best Musical Tony in 1971! And since the story is all about love unrequited and betrothed, it has the makings for a truly memorable irreverent melodic RomCom.
Okay, so Roger “Dang Me” Miller isn’t the first name you associate with Great White Way success. But when the former “King of the Road” decided to adapt American literary classic Huckleberry Finn for Broadway, his homespun aw-shucks approach really resonated with audiences. Running for over 1000 performance, it made a megastar out of John Goodman and remains a singular work within the genre’s ‘80s minded love affair with big, gaudy productions. Done up right, with actual locations and a true regard for Twain’s words and wit, it’s a modern masterpiece just waiting to be discovered.
Smile is a lot like Hairspray. It was first a warmly regarded comedy by Michael Ritchie, a small indie effort about the most satiric of all entertainment scenarios - the beauty pageant. Then it was turned into a musical by hot composer Marvin Hamlisch (who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for A Chorus Line). It would be interesting to see this redone as a big splashy production with first class Tinseltown talent and a new found perspective on these meat locker make-over fests. As long as the director doesn’t fall in love with the faux celebratory theatrics of the concept, this has greatness written all over it.