Saturday, January 19, 2013

Theatre For Thought, January 19, 2013

joel fishbane

“Have you seen it yet?” 

This question permeated my recent holiday season. Ever since Christmas Day, it has been asked of me by family and friends. It’s asked with the same tone a lawyer uses in court when conducting a cross-examination; in other words, they think they are asking a question whose answer they think they already know. 

The “it” in question is the film version of the musical Les Miserables. I am, as so many know, a musical theatre connoisseur; Les Miserables is one of my favourite shows. I imagine my friends and family assumed that I have been awaiting the film version with the same breathless anticipation that theatre fans await the discovery of one of Shakespeare’s lost plays. But the truth is, I awaited the film with the same minor curiosity I have regarding my credit card bill. I know it’s going to be something unpleasant; the only question is how bad the damage is going to be.

Music written for the theatre is, by necessity, larger then life.

I remain unconvinced that material written for the stage can ever be put on the silver screen. Playwrights know this, which is why plays written for the stage are always adapted for film. But when Broadway musicals transfer to film, no one rewrites the music. This strikes me as a critical mistake. Music written for the theatre is, by necessity, larger then life. Songs are written with the knowledge that there is a distance between the audience and the singer. But in cinema, that distance disappears. One would think that just as you adapt a theatrical script for the screen, composers would also adapt their own music to take advantage of cinema’s inherent intimacy.

Yet Broadway composers rarely write a new score for the film (the most you get is one or two new songs), a tradition which leaves  us with a unique amalgamation. Half the film (the dialogue) has been written with the cinema in mind; the other half (the songs) have been written for the stage. What is one to make of Les Miserables, then, a show that is almost entirely sung? 

The success of the movie version of Chicago is due entirely to the fact that director Rob Marshall showcased this dichotomy. It’s notable that in that film all the songs occurred on a stage. By turning each song into a fantasy segment, Marshall essentially filmed what we would have seen had we been in the theatre (Marshall did this again with Nine, although in that case the end product was a much weaker film).

finding A-list celebrities who can sing a specific score is something else

There are other problems with the movie musical: the oft-discussed issue of casting. Finding A-list celebrities who can sing is one thing; finding A-list celebrities who can sing a specific score is something else. Composers write for specific voices; throughout the rehearsal process, they continue to tailor the scores as the cast falls into place. Stephen Sondheim wrote Send in the Clowns specifically with actress Glynis Johns in mind. “Her chief limitation was an inability to sustain a note,” wrote Sondheim in his book Finishing the Hat. “The solution was to write short breathy phrases.” 

The finished score of any musical is a testament to theatre’s collaborative process. Send in the Clowns will always be the song that it is because once upon a time there lived an actress who couldn’t hold a note. True, non-musicals are often written the same way (even Shakespeare wrote with specific actors in mind). Yet it’s easier for an actor to reinterpret text than it is for one to re-interpret a song. Music is more rigid. There is a certain amount of latitude but ultimately all singers are slaves to the notes. 

It used to be that Hollywood dubbed its leading actors if they couldn’t give a score the performance it deserved – look at the story of Marni Nixon, who notoriously dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Nowadays, though, such vocal ghosting is rare and we are left to watch Johnny Depp fake his way through the score of Sweeney Todd. This does a disservice to the musical, for it not only limits the score but also the narrative itself. In a musical the music is integral to the plot; a climactic musical moment may be intrinsically linked to a character’s emotional arc. Limit the moment and you limit the character. 

All this brings us to Les Miserables. I’ll end the suspense here. Yes, I did see it and yes, I found the experience decidedly unpleasant. The film is a textbook case of the problems at hand. Hugh Jackman is a fine singer, but his best moments come when singing the song Suddenly, a song written specifically for him and for the silver screen. With more movie musicals to come – expect film versions of Wicked, Jersey Boys and maybe even The Book of Mormon – one can only hope that composers take the hint and begin tailoring their scores for the movies the way they do for the stage.


  1. Check out the Showtime adaptation of Reefer Madness: The Musical. They did a great job of making the score more cinematic. They adapted it it the screen really well. And the key word is "adapted".

    What made West Side Story such a great film is that entire chunks of it were shifted around so that it would work as as film, rather than just dumping it on screen. The play decidedly has two acts, and the first one ends on a cliffhanger/moment of tension. That scene is moved later in the film, as the story builds, rather than is split in two.

    So often, plays are just put up on screen without any adaptation and they fail, because the stage is not the screen and the screen is not the stage.

    The only hope Wicked has of being a strong film is if they re-write the entire second act, but don't worry about Book of Mormon. You know they'll do a great job. They've had plenty of experience with musicals doing South Park.

  2. On West Side Story - I agree it is truly powerful but I think it is also because dance is the chief element and, moreover, the cinematographer GOT that. It was a great film - great film-MAKING. This can't be said of most musicals on film. Also, let's not forget perhaps the greatest musical on film: Cabaret.

    1. Oh, absolutely. West Side is just plain great filmmaking all around. And it was pretty revolutionary that it was shot on locations and not soundstages. That was pretty abnormal for movie musicals. But it's easy to imagine how lacklustre the film might have been had they just stuck it on screen (like the atrocious Phantom Of The Opera. I mean... they actually found a way of making Phantom worse).


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