Ever since “Chicago” won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, Hollywood seems to be going back to Broadway for its material like it did back in the 50s and 60s. Thirty-one Tony Award winning Best Musicals have been made into major motion pictures to date.
An even more impressive statistic is that between 1949 and 1969, all but two of the Tony Award winning Best Musicals were made into films. The years since 1969 have been less fruitful, but then 1969 really marks the final end of the great era of the Hollywood-made musical. Some historians like to close the golden era of the Hollywood musical with “Gigi” in 1958, and that might be fairly accurate in terms of original Hollywood musicals, but the 1960s was a wonderful decade for film adaptations of Broadway’s best.
In the 1960s, film adaptations of Broadway’s musicals were big box office events. The pinnacle was “The Sound of Music,” winning Best Musical in 1960 over “Gypsy,” though the latter still received a big budget film treatment. “The Sound of Music” also won the Oscar for Best Picture, which brings up another impressive statistic that Best Musical Tony winners scored a good number of Oscars in the 1960s.
“My Fair Lady” is another Best Musical Tony winner that also received a Best Picture Oscar. “Cabaret” won eight Oscars. Although “Oliver!,” “Funny Girl” and “West Side Story” did not win Best Musical, the film versions did win Oscars for Best Picture. This would suggest that somehow Hollywood improved on the stage version, and in the case of these particular titles, many would agree.
On the other hand, improving on the stage version has usually not been the case. Hollywood’s reputation for destroying the good of a great Broadway musical is legendary. Most recently the film adaptations of Best Musical Tony winners “The Producers” and “Nine” received heavy criticism for being pale comparisons to the stage versions. Fans may complain about significant changes to a beloved show being made to a film version, but in the case of “The Producers,” the stage version was so strictly followed that the hammy bravado of the live performance didn’t translate into the same gales of laughter in the cineplex. Although, neither of these film adaptations would have happened if it wasn’t for the film version of “Chicago,” which justly deserves the credit for resurrecting the film musical. What is interesting is that Hollywood isn’t just going for the latest Broadway hit, but is dipping back into the very rich reservoir of Tony winners as well as other great works of merit, to make films out of musicals that got passed by when they were brand new. “Nine,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Dreamgirls,” “Les Miserables” and the forthcoming “Into the Woods” fit into this category, while films of more recent Broadway successes like “Rent,” “Rock of Ages” and “Hairspray” have also made it to the big screen.
In the years before the Tony Awards came into being in 1947, Hollywood adaptations of Broadway Musicals might barely resemble the stage source. MGM was particularly notorious for drastically re-writing a Broadway Musical property to the point of making it unrecognizable, which makes you wonder what they liked about the show in the first place. However, the first Tony Award winning musical came in 1949 with “Kiss Me Kate,” and although inevitable changes were made, the MGM film version remains a rather faithful adaptation. You can see the film and get the same spirit and purpose of the stage musical from it. Two other Tony winners that received particularly accurate film treatments are by the same authors, Jerry Ross, Richard Adler, Douglass Wallop and George Abbott: “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees.” Although Warner Brothers insisted on there being at least one bankable movie star in these films, the rest of the cast was largely made up of the original Broadway cast members and so they are fairly representational of the stage shows.
Even though during the past 15 years or so, Broadway producers have focused on adapting hit films into hoped for hit stage musicals, Hollywood seems to be going back to Broadway for its material again as well. After all, since “Chicago“ won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, we’ve seen 10 Broadway musicals brought to the screen. Not bad at all!
Michael Jackson is a freelance writer covering all things New York Theater. His work can be found on Examiner.com.