In 2013, at the end of a family trip to Europe, my family had the chance to watch “Mamma Mia!” in London’s West End (the Broadway of England). Watching a group of talented actors dance across the stage while singing ABBA’s greatest hits was a great way to cap off what had already been an amazing trip. A few days after returning home, my family sat down to watch the 2008 film adaptation for the first time, still high off of the incredible performance we had seen in London less than a week prior. After the live performance we had just seen, it was disappointing — to say the least.
Though this experience was more memorable given that we had just seen the show live, this was not the first time I’d been disappointed by a movie musical. It was consistent with something I’ve noticed: As a musical transitions from the stage to the screen, the material loses its magic. I should clarify that I’m not talking about animated musicals or musicals that are specifically made for movies, or movies that have been adapted into musicals (such as “Mean Girls,” “Amélie” and “Beetlejuice,” to name a few). Instead, I want to talk specifically about the mistakes that are made during the transition to the screen.
Creating movies based on musicals has historically served as a way to capitalize on the commercial success of the theater by dispensing it to a larger, more widespread audience. That way, you don’t have to go to New York to see a Broadway play, but can instead watch a facsimile of it from the comfort of your own living room. In the case of “Mamma Mia!,” the show has been touring internationally since 1999, so it makes sense that they used that momentum to adapt it into a film (and a sequel, but I’m not even going to touch on that). The problem, though, with stage-to-screen musicals is that there is so much that can go wrong in the adaptation process.
The first mistake that movie musicals always make is their casting choices. Attempts to take advantage of the buzz that comes from casting big-name actors usually leads to a major pitfall: They can’t sing. Take “Mamma Mia!” as an example, a film so chock-full of famous actors that it has eight cast members with above-title billing, but few that can sing well. Pierce Brosnan (“Die Another Day”) with his cringe-worthy crooning is probably the worst offender; his time portraying James Bond in the late ’90s did nothing to prepare him for singing ABBA songs, and he even took home a Razzie for worst supporting actor. Another example of this is the 2012 adaptation of “Les Misérables,” which featured a very talented cast and proudly boasted the “unique” trait of having their actors sing live during filming, but was occasionally spoiled by shoddy vocal performances. Most old movie musicals, such as the 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story,” avoided poor performances entirely by dubbing in vocal performers for their stars, but made the musical experience less authentic in the process.
One of the biggest differences between film and theater is the possibilities. Theater productions are limited in terms of physical space, economic means and the constraints of time, whereas film can travel between locations or create elaborate dream sequences with relative ease. This distinction can ruin the effects that theater musicals carefully design and implement. A good example of this is the recent and well-criticized adaptation of “Cats.” I never saw “Cats,” partially because of the negative press and partially because when I asked my friend about the film, the word he used to describe it was “terrifying.” Even as a musical, “Cats” is a bit hard to swallow, with the confusing storyline, strange music and the presence of anthropomorphic cats dancing across the stage. When you put it on screen, it transitions from captivatingly strange into just plain weird. One of the few things that makes “Cats” work as a musical is that the costumes are designed not to look like actual cats, but instead something else entirely. In order to demonstrate the technological prowess of modern technology, the film chose to use CGI instead of costumes, but by making the cats more “realistic” they just made them more bizarre.
The biggest issue, however, from the transition to the screen is losing the magic of the theater. This is harder to explain, but there is something special about live performances that puts you in another world, where bursting into spontaneous song and coordinated dance seems normal. As soon as you put that on screen, the musical shifts from playful ostentation to something a bit more uncomfortable. In film form, background singers and dancers feel awkward and out of place. Ballads in particular look strange because the actors are just standing there, singing to themselves or another actor rather than singing to the audience, as they would in the theater. In other words, a lot of what is missing is the audience, a key part of a live performance, and film adaptations must try to recreate this experience while being limited by a true fourth wall.
That said, some movie musicals are incredibly effective. “Singin’ in the Rain,” for example, is one of my favorite movies and one of the best-ever movie musicals. The combination of expertly choreographed dancing, catchy music and an incredibly talented cast make it an effortlessly charming and timeless film. “The Sound of Music” is one that made the transition from stage to screen skillfully, aided mainly by Julie Andrews (“Mary Poppins”), whose film career was preceded by an exemplary career on Broadway. “Hairspray,” the 1988 film that was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, was adapted back to film as a very successful movie musical. The 2007 adaptation does everything that “Mamma Mia!” could not, finding big-name actors (Queen Latifah! Christopher Walken! Post-“HSM” Zac Efron!) that could put up excellent performances and still carry a tune, and ways to help the transitions into song feel natural.
There is no such thing as a perfect movie musical, and there are few excellent ones. A lot of a musical film’s quality will depend on the casting, which should find a balance between actors that will bring talent to the film and those that will bring attention. Part of it depends on the material that they are given, but even then things might not fall into place if the direction or production is shaky. But there is no denying that movie musicals are always entertaining, even if they aren’t excellent. There is always a charm that goes along with losing yourself in flashy dancing or seeing a familiar face burst into song (or try to). You can bet that when the “In the Heights” adaptation and the “West Side Story” remake come out later this year, the theaters will be full of people excited to see their favorite musicals come to life in a new way on the screen. And you can bet that I’ll be in the audience, probably trying hard not to sing along.