Top 3 Things That Can Go Wrong in a Movie Musical

Music is everywhere. On your radio, on your iPod, on screen or on stage. Music permeates our life. It’s universal. But does it matter if this music is presented in a concert, a screen or a theater stage?

Let’s use movies as an example. One of the most memorable scenes in cinema history is Gene Kelly tap dancing in the street while it’s raining. Poor Kelly had a burning 103° fever while shooting this scene and the great and underrated Donald O’Connor had to be hospitalized after shooting “Make ’em Laugh.”

Hollywood proved to be capable of doing great musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and even taught Debbie Reynolds to dance while filming it. (By the way, Debbie got lucky because her teacher was none other than Fred Astaire, who saw her crying on the set after Kelly lost his temper with her.)

So, when we read in the news that a studio will bring a musical from the stage to the screen we get excited. After all, with Hollywood’s history of making musicals, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, most of the things actually. Here are the top 3 that happen all the time.

#3 – The script isn’t right for the new medium.

Writing a movie is totally different from writing a play, but most movie writers don’t understand that. It sometimes feels like they think that all the work is done, they just have to change a thing or two. Because of this kind of thinking we had the Phantom of the Opera adaptation that was basically a 360° stage. This may sound good because it would keep things faithful as possible, but that’s not how things work. Movies have many more gaps to fill. They need to provide a lot of details that weren’t needed on stage. On the other hand, movies only have two dimensions, while the stage has a depth that can’t be reproduced on screen. The screenwriter’s job, among other things, is to fill the gaps and kill a whole dimension without killing the movie, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

#2 – The director doesn’t understand how the musical worked onstage. 

When you call the guy that killed the Batman franchise with a single batcard to direct the Phantom film, you must know that the result may not be what your fans are expecting. (Who on earth expected that batcard?) Some film directors don’t understand how a musical works on stage. They choose to focus on other things like dancing in the background or the clothes that the actor is using in the scene. Sure, these things are important, but sound design is also important. There are a lot of sounds that are not needed on stage that in a movie with a DTS soundtrack become huge.

#1 – The casting favors Hollywood names over strong singers. 

I like when they cast theater actors to sing on screen because they usually know what they are doing. I hate when they cast Russell Crowe to sing anything. I know the guy had some sort of a band but really? The ability of Meryl Streep to sing is proportional to the ability of the post-production technicians. We don’t need big names. We need big singers. This is a musical not a movie…I mean…well, you got my point.

So why is it that the movie industry can’t adapt most musicals from stage to screen successfully? Because they see the project through the movie/studio lens, not a theater lens. The first day on the set, they start a movie, not a musical. They bring actors that bring revenue, not actors that can sing. They forget to construct details that are needed for the screen, like more sounds to be heard. They do the opposite of what they should do. Suddenly everything gets out of hand and we have those movies that people forget in a couple of years based on stage musicals that people remember for decades.

Does that mean that a stage musical should always be on stage and a movie musical should always be on the screen? Well, if we look backwards, at the adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain to the stage, we’ll realize that a lot is lacking. For instance, the “Moses Supposes” scene was never reproduced properly outside the movie, but does this mean that each musical should be stuck with the format it was built for?

No. As long as we always remember not only to bring the lines, but also the spirit and the lens that audiences used to watch it. If you forget that lens, your movie or play will be nearsighted and you won’t understand why people don’t see the way that you did and don’t feel the same way as you do.

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