[5 November 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Musicals are once again off the radar, though this month we will see its limited return with an update of the “classic” Langston Hughes piece, Black Nativity. Naturally, the original gospel themed show has been given an urban update by director Kasi Lemmons, and one imagines a new soundtrack thanks to a need to feed the demo, but the truth is that, outside of Disney’s upcoming Frozen, we’re back to where we were pre-Chicago. Singing and dancing on film is being relegated to gang-like standoffs ala Step Up and Pitch Perfect or refashioned standards with new material included to make the supposed stars (contractually) happy. While there are rumors of new projects (we’ve already got a take on Stephen Sondheim’s revisionist fairy tale, Into the Woods, in the works, featuring Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep) are abundant, few in film can see the forest of available material from the trees of ticket sales.
With that being said, here are our suggestions for musicals that should be remade (regardless of the results the first time around) or up for consideration. Heck, if someone thought the faux Fellini of Nine was good enough to stage on screen, these 10 choices should be a given. Yet Tinseltown is a fickle financial mistress, incapable of admitting a mistake (Madonna in Evita???) or truly defying expectations (an African American hip-hop version of Annie? Seriously?). Wanna prove something to us, studio suits? Hire a famous Asian arthouse director and give him carte blanche over Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, or better yet, get David Fincher to make a film out of the Broadway vet’s controversial Assassins. Until they wake up to the potential within walking distance of the Great White Way, we will be stuck with unnecessary updates and reimaginings. Frankly, any of the properties we’re pimping here would be better than that.
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.
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 Marion Coitlland could figure out a way to get her cockney on and make this all happen.
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.
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. 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.
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) with those that haven’t (A Little Night Music). 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.
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.