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Different approaches for turning Broadway musicals into movies yield very different results

Once upon a time, the great musicals — “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret” and countless others — were born on Broadway and then, for better or worse, they were turned into Hollywood blockbusters, allowing audiences who could never make it to New York to experience them.

In recent decades, the process has often worked in reverse, with Hollywood movies (everything from “The Lion King,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Sister Act” and “Newsies,” to such upcoming shows as the Chicago-bound “First Wives Club” and “Beaches”) transformed into Broadway musicals. Yet the process has increasingly become a busy two-way street, with such hit stage musicals as “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Les Miserables,” and “Jersey Boys,” originating on stage and then being “translated” for the screen.

The two latest entries in this category, both holiday season releases, are “Into the Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine classic that cleverly interweaves the branches of many familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and “Annie,” the enduring show by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Thomas Meehan that was inspired by a Depression-era orphan who emerged from the comics pages. As it happens, the approach taken in turning these shows into movies could not be more different.

The conventions of live musical theater and grand-scale movies are very different, and what audiences can accept in one form can sometimes seem ridiculous in the other. Like all acts of “translation,” the process is tricky and flawed. Sometimes it is best to be literal. Sometimes (as with productions of Shakespeare’s plays) you can take the bare bones of a story and totally reconfigure it to fit a different time and place.

With “Into the Woods,” Rob Marshall, the Broadway-bred director and choreographer who had such a huge success with the 2002 film version of “Chicago,” has remained intensely faithful to the original. Of course he has opened it up visually, though just how much was shot on “a real location” and how much was artfully “devised” electronically is difficult to determine. And while everything is beautiful, nothing looks entirely real, and if you stick around for the credits you will notice the list of “digital artists” numbers close to a hundred. Of course the stories that unfold in this musical are full of magic spells, witches and unnatural happenings, so all this artifice, and all these special effects make perfect sense.

Also notable is the fact that nearly everyone in the cast, from veterans Meryl Streep (as the Witch), Emily Blunt (as the Baker’s Wife) and Anna Kendrick (who all but steals the film as Cinderella), to the two “children” — Daniel Huttlestone (as Jack, of beanstalk fame) and Lilla Crawford (as Little Red Riding Hood, who is abducted by Johnny Depp’s Wolf) — have extensive stage experience. It makes a crucial difference.

“Annie” is so different from the original musical that by all rights it should have been retitled “Annie.2014.com.” In fact, director Will Gluck (who also wrote the mobile phone-driven screenplay) has not only shifted the story to contemporary New York, with all its racial and ethnic diversity, but also has created more of a play-with-music than a full-out musical. Only a handful of the songs from the original show are heard here, and they feature predictably “hip” new arrangements by Sia and Greg Kurstin, who also contributed four new songs for the soundtrack. In addition, there is a karaoke quality about the singing despite the fact that the actors’ voices are used.

Gluck has devised a clever but ultimately heartless “transposition.” And, as the time and place dictate, this shift comes with a whole lot more cynicism and high-tech consumerist glitz than the original, with the issue of literacy tossed in as a politically correct afterthought. Gluck also has incorporated all the usual Hollywood cliches, including a high-speed helicopter chase over Manhattan that even catches a glimpse of the new One World Trade Center on the site of the 9/11 attacks. What he has neglected to do is create any unity of acting styles among his cast.

The Annie here is Quvenzhane Wallis, who is photogenic, but to steal a line from Dorothy Parker, “she runs the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” An African-American foster child, she lives with several other girls in a Harlem tenement where the unhappy Miss Hannigan (a relentlessly high-pitched Cameron Diaz) is now a failed, debauched rocker who lives on monthly payments from the state. The “updated” Daddy Warbucks character is Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a narcissistic, self-made mobile phone mogul who just happens to be running for mayor, and who, like several of the characters in the film, has a bad habit of expelling his food. Such a lack of charm is emblematic of the movie as a whole.

“Into the Woods” is a fine alternative to the stage experience, though not quite as heart-wrenching as the live version. The new “Annie” is a shrill imposter. And catching it just a couple of days after seeing a sensational stage production of “Newsies” — a show with immense appeal for young audiences — only underscored the fact that there is no substitute for the profound human connection forged in the theater.

NOTE: “Newsies” runs through Jan. 4, 2015 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. For tickets, visit broadwayinchicago.com.