Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better part 1

In the cases of adaptation, a frequent lament of fans of the original is that the movie version just wasn’t as good. We most often hear this about adaptations of novels, both graphic and non, but the same is true of plays, particularly musicals.

The big trick in adapting live theatre to cinema is that the latter is a lot more literal whereas the former has no need to be literal or realistic at all. This is why some shows that work so well on stage fall kind of flat on film. The Fantasticks is a really good example. Being a sort of reverse fairy tale — in which a pair of neighboring fathers conspire to have their children fall in love by forbidding them from seeing each other only to succeed in that to see the relationship go sour — the less literal and, well, more fantastic, the staging is, the better.

A more recent and spectacular example of how film’s need for realism can destroy an adaptation is Cats. Not that that show works on stage at all. In my humble opinion, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring, with no one to really root for. It’s my second least favorite musical, right after the mess that is Rent.

As with any adaptation, changes in the plot or other elements may be necessary for various reasons. When novels are adapted, this often means combining characters and dropping subplots, since a full-length novel is really enough material for a mini-series rather than a single film. (Novellas fare better at more direct adaptations.)

While stage works may more often than not follow a similar structure to film, there are still cases where storylines are dropped — or added — and there’s also the issue of changing times. For example, the original stage version of The Fantasticks, which premiered in 1960, includes a number called “The Rape Ballet.”

Now, it’s explained in the song that this is “rape” in the ancient sense of abduction, and since the character who leads in it has been hired by the two fathers to fake the abduction of the daughter in order to allow the son to be the hero and end the “feud” between the fathers, and he explains that he’s using the word in that sense, that’s how it was originally justified.

Yeah, that fell by the wayside eventually. By the time the movie came out in 1995, the number had been replaced with “The Abduction Ballet,” with none of the connotations of the earlier version.

(Oddly enough, I was involved with a theatre company in the ‘00s that produced the show, premiered it on September 11, 2002, and used the “rape” version of the number. And the artistic director was an old hippie woman. Go figure.)

A lot of the time, the original is better. But, every so often, the changes, particularly when they involve story or focus, can make an okay stage musical into an amazing film. Here are some of my favorite examples.

Cabaret (1972)

The film version of Cabaret is actually a fourth generation adaptation. It was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was based on the legit play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

Oddly enough, Isherwood played the character based on himself in the original Broadway run of the play in 1951. And while there’s a gay couple in his original novel, his character is apparently not and he pursues a relationship with Sally Bowles — who is British. There’s also not a hint of gay in the first film adaptation of the non-musical stage adaptation, and certainly not in the Broadway version.

The whole thing gets pink-washed, although Isherwood bears some of the blame for that. So it’s kind of a surprise that when notorious heterosexual womanizer Bob Fosse gets the project, one of his big innovations is restoring the homosexuality of the male lead. The other is making all of the songs in it diegetic. That is, the musical numbers are moved into the Kit Kat Club, where Sally Bowles (now American) performs, with the two exceptions being a record that Sally puts on in her room and a sudden nationalistic Biergarten rallying song begun by a member of the Nazi Youth.

The other big changes are in the treatment of the secondary couple, and the relationship between Brian (aka Isherwood), Sally, and Max — a character dropped from the stage musical, but brought back.

In the stage musical, the secondary couple is largely played for comedy and are cast as much older. The woman is Sally’s landlady and her suitor is also an older gentleman. A lot of the numbers that got dumped in the transition were theirs. Oh — a word about “secondary couple,” for those not up on musical theatre conventions.

Quite often, although not as much in the modern era, every musical would have two couples, the leading couple and the secondary couple. Both of them would fall in love, with one couple’s story mirroring the other. Usually, one half of each couple would be connected. Most often, it was divided into the boys and the girls. The most common relationships would be either siblings or best friends, with either set being one or the other or a combination of both.

Of course, there are other ways to mix and match. In Cabaret, the film, the couple are Fritz and Natalia, and Natalia is an English student of Brian’s. She’s a member of a wealthy Jewish family. Fritz is apparently a Protestant, so Natalia’s parents won’t allow them to marry. This leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film when Fritz shows up on Natalia’s doorstep at night, then hesitantly announces “I am a Jew.”

As for the other relationship in the film between Brian, Sally, and Max, who is a wealthy Baron, it turns out that Brian and Sally are both… as Natalia asks in a language question and Sally answers to Brian’s horror, “How do you say ‘screwing?’” Bumsen.

I’ll be polite and translate that into Yiddish instead of English: Max was shtupping both Brian and Sally, although neither of them knows that up until a confrontation between the two that has one of the most darkly funny dialogue exchanges in film in three sentences.

All the while, by placing the musical numbers in the club, some performed by Sally but a lot of them headlined by our Emcee, who serves as a Greek chorus, those songs entertain and distract the in-film audience while commenting directly on what’s going on in the film.

One of my favorite numbers in the whole film speaks directly to Max’s attraction to Brian and Sally: He’s rich.

Some interesting notes on this number: First, it’s the only one in the film that Joel Grey and Liza Minelli really have together, because there had to be that star moment, and it replaced a number that, in the stage show, is performed only by the Emcee and Kit Kat Girls.

Second, there is a strong hint that the Emcee is creeping on Sally Bowles and, while she doesn’t appreciate it, she kind of has no choice, so the more intimate moments in the choreography here are colored by that and add an extra layer to the whole thing. If she doesn’t perform with him, then she’s not going to make any money.

Finally, note that a lot of the Emcee’s choreography here is based on traditional dancing that would have been done by Jewish men during things like weddings, especially during the silhouette part behind the scrim at the end. Nothing is ever said about the Emcee’s religion in the film and, in fact, there’s the strong implication that he’s a staunch supporter of the Nazis, but this idea will color later adaptations, more on which below.

This diegetic music idea is one that the film adaptation of Chicago will pick up in 2002 and, while the film and stage versions of that show are equally good, Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture along with five others. Cabaret won eight Oscars total, but not Best Picture. The only reason I won’t insist that it should have is that it lost to The Godfather.

By this point, full disclosure. I discovered Cabaret as a tween because my paternal grandfather liked to collect records by buying up lots from garage sales and antique and thrift stores and the like, but he was only looking for jazz music from the 1950s and before.

So anything else — which included rock, pop, and musical soundtracks — went into boxes that were fair game to me and my three cousins whenever we visited. My oldest cousin (seven months younger than me) was only into hard rock and that kind of crap, which I never was.

The other two were really too young to care. So that left me to dive into all the weird shit — meaning musicals and stand-up and so on. Grandpa also apparently didn’t like big band, swing, and classical. Score!

So I found the original Broadway soundtrack of Cabaret, gave it a listen and immediately wanted to play the Emcee. This was long after the film had come out, actually, but I eventually learned that it existed, although I didn’t actually see it until a screening in a college class on film musicals.

When I finally saw the stage show, a year after I graduated from college, I realized, “Wow. The movie was so much better.”

Flash forward. When Cabaret was restaged by Sam Mendes in 1993, it picked up elements from the film, made Brian/Cliff’s bisexuality even more explicit, and hypersexualized the emcee, now played by Alan Cumming. And the biggest change to that character also makes for a really chilling ending.

In text and song, not much different from the original. In context… hang onto your socks.

I can’t help but think that this update was informed by the movie musical and Fosse’s choreography of his Emcee, which Mendes and Cumming ran with. And the last little bit here takes it on to a whole other level, just like the movie did in the 1970s.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment

Image author IsarSteve, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0), used unaltered.

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