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With the recent release of the film version of Into the Woods, I thought it might be fun to share my top three favorite film versions of musicals that originated on the stage.
A number of adapted musicals have enjoyed big box office success and some are quite good; both for their stand alone entertainment value and in their homage to their source material. My Fair Lady and Grease are two good examples.
For me, there are three that stand above the rest for a variety of reasons. In two of the three cases, I think the film adaptations are actually better than the original stage versions.
Dreamgirls (2006) Directed by Bill Condon and adapted from the Tony Award-winning original 1981 Broadway musical directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. Dreamgirls was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two Oscars: Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Hudson.
Suggested by the rise of The Supremes, Dreamgirls is an exuberant tribute to the sights and sounds of the 50’s & 60’s.
I find the film version superior to the stage production because of the visual, on location advantages and smoother scene/time transitions. The screenplay (by Condon) stays true to the original.
Chicago (2002) Directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods). Screenplay by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls). Based on the 1975 Bob Fosse, Kander & Ebb musical, whose stripped-down 1996 revival, far exceeded the success of the original. Still running on Broadway after 18 years.
I’m not a fan of the stage version. I find it drab and dull. On screen though, Chicago is an exciting, vibrant song and dance masterpiece. By far, the best example of a film adaptation being much better than the original.
West Side Story is a contemporary re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet love story, told against the backdrop of the gang-controlled streets of New York.
Ground breaking in so many ways with some of the best choreography ever created, West Side Story is perfection.
The result was honored with a record 10 Academy Awards– the most of any other movie musical and the fourth biggest winner, overall in Oscar history.
I’ve loved West Side Story since I was a kid. When I finally saw it live on stage for the first time, I was completely blown away. It’s one of the few works that I wouldn’t say one version is better than the other. The film and stage versions are equally brilliant.
I’m always shocked when someone says they’ve never seen West Side Story. If you’ve honestly never seen it. Put it on the top of your list now.
The good news is that Into the Woods was the second highest grossing film on Christmas Day and it finished third overall for the weekend.
The bad news is that I didn’t love it.
Let me compare Into the Woods to a piece of chocolate cake. Right off, you may either love or hate it because you might like or dislike chocolate, cake, or both. If you’ve never had chocolate cake before– this may be the most delicious thing you ever tasted. If you like chocolate cake– this may be satisfying; but if you love chocolate cake, this may be underwhelming or a complete disappointment. There are still others that will find– good or bad, dry or moist– they are just grateful to have a slice of cake.
For me, this version of ITW is missing key ingredients. Or to draw from the script– the potion is missing it’s hair as yellow as corn. It didn’t work for me.
The original Into the Woods clearly explores the price that comes with wishes, what is really happily ever after; and the importance of teaching children, wishes as children and the hope that exists in children themselves. Much of this is lost or brushed aside in the film. Instead of a film using fairy tales to tell a bigger story, it’s just a film telling fairy tales with a slightly different ending.
The movie is beautifully filmed and features an outstanding cast. BUT– I found it visually too dark; and with the major plot changes, I was never drawn in or emotional involved.
I have some pretty strong opinions about this particular film because I’ve had a long personal attachment to the stage version of Into the Woods.
I saw the original 1987 Broadway production– twice, the 1988 first national tour, worked the theater where the second national tour began in Chicago (non-equity), saw the 2002 Broadway revival, designed the set and costumes for a local high school production; and have seen literally dozens of professional and amateur productions over the years.
The stage version of Into the Woods is visually a combination of light (colorful) and dark images, where the movie was visually dark from start to finish. The village and castle scenes in the movie all had a dingy, dirty feel as opposed to embodying color, light or any fairy tale magic. Emotionally, the movie is pretty much gray from start to finish. I didn’t feel the passion of the dreams and wishes from the major characters; which is problematic because it leaves no real reason for them to go into the woods to begin with. We never truly see even a glimpse of the happy ever after they are so desperate to achieve.
Even in the worst productions I’ve seen, no matter how badly acted or staged– I’ve always been moved by No One Is Alone. Except in the film. To borrow from another musical, I felt nothing.
Some might feel that it is to Disney and director Rob Marshall’s credit that they didn’t Disneyfy the look of the film. I see it as a missed opportunity to enhance the story. I really would have appreciated seeing some of the beauty and opulence of the castle, for example. Instead, it was dark and drab, as was the brief wedding imagery.
In adapting for the film, the writers chose to edit and whitewash the deeper, meaningful moments of the story. Combining that with the lack of passion, it left very little to get emotionally involved in.
Without Rapunzel’s demise, we lose the witch’s profound grief that propels her into a frenzied Last Midnight. Without a larger presence of the Baker’s Father (Mysterious Man, or not) and the cut song No More, we lose what is the cathartic moment that leads to the Baker’s return to his new family. As a result, the intensity and the pure, desperate passion is lost from characters’ motivations.
One of the early moments in the film set the tone for me. Jack’s Mother, played by the incredible Tracey Ullman, was directed to be purely a serviceable character on screen. (In the stage version, she is a warm, witty and lovable character.) I believe this was done to lessen the audiences’ attachment and thus, later in the film: the reaction to her death; which also seemed somewhat muddled. Jack didn’t seem terribly upset when he found out his mother was gone, nor did Little Red over her Granny. (And did it bother anyone else that Little Red suddenly looked like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz for the remainder of the picture?)
The character of the Witch and Meryl Streep’s performance have to be looked at separately. First, I didn’t feel like the other characters really feared the Witch and her power as much as they saw her as a means to get what they wanted, or as an obstacle in doing so. Second, since the film chose to let Rapunzel ride off with the Prince, future unknown– instead of becoming a victim of the giant; it lessened the Witch’s loss. These two points affect the whole dynamic of the Witch’s antagonistic role in the story, as well as her motivations.
Meryl Streep, easily the greatest American actress of our time, fully embodied what the film set out to portray. Though I hoped for a much more powerful performance, Streep filled the bill the way the story has been adapted, perfectly. One thing I noticed, having listened to the soundtrack since; you don’t really grasp the incredible technique and emotion Streep brought to the character– vocally, in one viewing in a theater. Meryl Streep doesn’t just sing musical roles– her vocalization is a well-crafted extension of her character’s development and expression. Every word, phrase and guttural sound is perfection.
I liked the introduction of the blue moon to the story, opposed to just the passing midnights of the stage version. I thought it gave a clearer understanding of why the spell had to be broken now.
For me, the best and only perfect moment in the film was Agony. It was beautifully acted and staged. If the entire film had this energy and attention to detail, it could have been the best stage musical-to-film ever made.
I remember thinking about two-thirds of the way through: Where is all the music? A substantial amount was cut and occasionally reduced to underscoring. This is composer Stephen Sondheim’s baby. Though he and original book writer James Lapine were actively involved in the film, I feel they caved in to the studio pressures, too much, just to get this film made.
From all that I read leading up to the film’s release, Disney was concerned about the original version being too dark (plot-wise), too many main character deaths and wanted to make it more family-friendly. The result is a watered down story that still, in my opinion, is not a family movie.
Into the Woods, on screen, felt like it was too long. This is ironic since it was 20 minutes shorter than the stage version, not including an intermission. It was more than a little slow and disjointed at times.
I’m sure people completely unfamiliar with ITW will have a completely different reaction to the film. And that’s okay. I just hope it’s a positive experience. The very best thing that could come out of the film is that it might encourage a new audience for the stage version. The film versions of other more recent movie musicals have done a great service to building and keeping audience interest in live theatre.
I can only hope that this film will contribute to that trend.
Box Office: 773-614-7846
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BROADWAY MUSICAL SPRING AWAKENING HITS THE NAPERVILLE STAGE
Naperville, IL — Surging Films & Theatrics and Introspect Theatre jointly present the Award-Winning Broadway musical Spring Awakening, January 31- February 2, 2014 at the Center Stage Theater, 1665 Quincy Avenue #131, Naperville, Illinois 60540.
Excitement is building in the Chicagoland area as Surging Films & Theatrics and Introspect Theatre gear up for their joint production of the controversial and award winning hit musical, SPRING AWAKENING, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater.
Winner of 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, SPRING AWAKENING is a rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 expressionist play. Set in the rigid and repressive late 19th century Germany, SPRING AWAKENING follows a group of students navigating their way through the timeless story of teenage self-discovery and coming-of-age anxiety in a powerful celebration of youth and rebellion. Alternative rock ignites the stage as part of the folk-infused score that fuels the inner angst of the capricious teens. SPRING AWAKENING is rated R for language, violence, and sexual content.
Artistic Directors Jeff Linamen and Billy Surges have assembled a phenomenal cast for SPRING AWAKENING, featuring outstanding talent from all over the Chicagoland area. Surges leads the cast in the role of Melchior Gabor, a smart, headstrong boy who refuses to bow down to society’s rules. He is best friend to Moritz Stiefel (Billy Chengary), a troubled and uncertain boy, unable to handle the pressures he receives from his parents and peers to succeed. Rounding out the trio is Katie Meyers as Wendla Bergmann, an innocent young girl, exploring her blossoming curiosity to tragic results.
The large cast features Amara Brady (Martha), Taylor Bright (Thea), Tyler Clayton (Otto), Becca Heitz, Noelle Humbert (Ilse), Marc James, Mark Johnson (Adult Man), Gabi Knoepfle, Alex Knoll (Ernst), Chris Knudsen, Jennifer Lenius, Brandon Piper, Jordan Piper (Anna), Katie Long Piper (Adult Woman), Brandon Pisano (Hanschen), Vince Tolentino (Georg) and Aiyanna Wade.
Following its conception in the late 1990s, SPRING AWAKENING received further development leading to its Off-Broadway debut in May 2006. The original Broadway production of SPRING AWAKENING opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on December 10, 2006. Its cast included Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher, Jr. with a creative team led by director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. The original Broadway production won 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor (Gallagher). The production also garnered 4 Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album.
The success of the Broadway production has spawned numerous productions worldwide, including a production in London’s West End that won 4 Laurence Olivier Awards including Best Musical.
Surging Films & Theatrics and Introspect Theatre are presenting the full, uncut version of SPRING AWAKENING, January 31 at 7:30pm, February 1st at 2pm and 7:30pm, and February 2ndat 2pm at Center Stage Theater, 1665 Quincy Ave., #131, Naperville, IL 60540. For ticket information, visit www.surgingfilms.com or call 773-614-7846.
SPRING AWAKENING contains strong language, sexual situations and mature themes and may not be appropriate for younger or sensitive audiences. Recommended for ages 15 and up.
Presented by Surging Films & Theatrics and Introspect Theatre
January 31, 2014 at 7:30 PM
February 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM
February 2, 2014 at 2:00 PM
Center Stage Theater, 1665 Quincy Ave., #131, Naperville, IL 60540
BOX OFFICE: 773-614-7846
Directors Jeff Linamen & Billy Surges
Music Director Seth Durbin
Choreographer Billy Surges
Billy Surges, Surging Films & Theatrics
Jeff Linamen, Introspect Theatre
It’s three in the morning. The birds are chirping like crazy, there’s the sound of a train in the distance and across the street the meter man is ticketing cars parked on the wrong side of the street. I guess it’s just some of the benefits of sitting on my front porch and living in my little acre “forest in the city” I’ve created. Mostly tranquil, it’s a great place to relax and reflect.
I love my yard, loosely landscaped– some parts manicured, others untamed. It’s a lot of work to maintain but I love working outside and getting my hands dirty. It gives me time to reflect on life and dream of the future as my mind unwinds all the knotted and pent up thoughts stored away from the stressful activities of everyday life.
This is a year of milestones. I turned 50 in December, Michael and I celebrate our 20th anniversary in September and my career is taking an unexpected turn that has yet to be determined.
At school, the colleagues I’d worked with for fourteen years all retired. Together, we’d built a musical program that I’m extremely proud of. For the past year though, it was hard to watch this beautiful thing come to an end. I just didn’t know how final it was for me. Now, all of us are gone and the future of the program is completely unknown. It’s a bittersweet ending to a very stressful but extremely rewarding chapter in my life.
Over the years, the musicals have taken us from back alleys to exotic lands. We conjured up hope and laughter, tears and sorrow– celebrating the joys of life and the difficult challenges of the human condition. Live theatre is like nothing else.
There were some years we knew exactly what musical we wanted to do next but more times than naught, it was an organic process that just felt right. This year, we did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — and perhaps not so coincidentally, it was the 30th anniversary (for me), directing it as my very first show in 1983.
The final number in the show, Any Dream Will Do, asks the question, “May I return to the beginning?” I got it– a milestone and the end of a collaboration. It was a time for reflection and of celebration.
This the 7th time I’d directed the show– each one, somewhat unique. I’ve never tried to duplicate a previous production but it has always been important to me that one element remain: the magic.
That 1983 production was magical. Nearly every person involved in that show went on to have, or had a career in the visual and performing arts. The right group of people brought together at the right time, in the right place can make magic and somehow we did. We were all novices then– unseasoned thespians full of passion and youth.
That was my beginning.
In 1995, I directed a production that was inspired by the Donny Osmond version that had become wildly popular. Every kid out there knew about Joseph, had seen it or been in it. This year was totally different. None of the students knew the show or were necessarily excited about doing it, so it was my challenge to bring that excitement to life.
After so many productions, you’d have thought this one would be easy. Yet, time and time again I found myself second guessing my choices and vision and tried to keep the overall focus, while allowing elements of the show to evolve naturally as rehearsals progressed. It was a true collaboration of thoughts and ideas that really made the show work for me. Being such an ensemble show, it was fun seeing the cast’s excitement build and all their hard work and determination pay off in the end.
Then it was over.
The show, a fourteen year collaboration of an amazing creative team –and as it turned out, the end of my time at Bartlett High School.
May I return to the beginning?
I’ve learned a lot over the years about the importance of reflection. Though I don’t feel like I live in the past or want to actually re-live the past, the lessons learned only move us forward. I’ve had the privilege to work with, and learn from, many wonderful people. Teachers, parents and most of all– the students, have inspired me and taught me in so many different ways.
Do I actually want to return to the beginning? No. It was a marvelous, wild ride while it lasted. I wouldn’t change a minute of it. Now it’s time to move on.
I think it’s a huge mistake to live in the past, yet there is so much to be learned from it. It’s nice to look back from time to time at where I’ve been. It often helps put today in perspective and helps guide my tomorrow.
I’m on my second pot of coffee now, the sun is coming up and sounds of distant trains and chirping birds is slowly being over taken by that of garbage trucks beeping and other people starting their day.
A new beginning.
Goodbye, Bartlett High!
Today was my last day as AV Director & Auditorium Manager after thirteen years and ten months of service. I just found out late last week and have only told a couple people until now.
This was not my choice, the district stated that BHS wanted to move in a different direction with the present position. As a non-union employee, I always knew this could be a possibility.
That said, I’ll blog all about it at some future point in time. Let’s just say, the past five to six months have been utter hell for me. At least now I can move on.
I’ll miss working with the students and watching them grow and discover themselves most of all. I’ve made many friendships that I hope with continue to grow as time goes by.
For now, I wanted to share a few parting images that will forever remind me of BHS. Odd, little things that most people wouldn’t even notice.