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.

Friday Free for all #50: Weird, rude, escalation, old-fashioned

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here, are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the weirdest thing about modern life that people just accept as normal?

Hands down, it has to be the tone and level of discourse on social media. Can you imagine if, say, real-life parties or bars worked like this? Well… I mean, when they open again. Sure, every bar has its occasional fight break out, but if they were anything like social media, the things would turn into constant riots.

I’d imagine that conversations would go something like this. One friend says to another, “I really didn’t like that last moving starring X,” and her friend agrees. A passing stranger walks up and says, “You’re full of shit and don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Suddenly, a bunch of friends (and strangers) are coming up to mostly defend her, some to attack her, and some to support the stranger. When someone else outside the group starts to make random comments attacking people that are rude, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or any combination of any or all of the above, that’s when the fists start flying.

Of course, some of this crap has spilled out into real life, seen most recently with the failed insurrection of January 6. That, everybody, was an example of a typical internet chat thread bursting out into real life — except, of course, that the conversation was mostly one-sided and completely stupid.

Speaking of which, this will post the day after all of those folks’ fantasies about March 4 absolutely fail to come true. I wonder what they’ll all do then. Ideally, just slink back home to their caves and shut up for good.

Except that I don’t half doubt that they’re going to pick another date to conspire about in anticipation instead.

If animals could talk, which would be the rudest?

Absolutely no question, I think it would be cats. They’d probably be very opinionated, sarcastic, and demanding. They probably also have very foul mouths.

What escalated very quickly?

January 6, 2021. I don’t think I need to explain why.

What’s something you like to do the old-fashioned way?

Nothing. It’s called the “old’fashioned way” for a reason, and that’s because it’s old-fashioned. I prefer to take advantage of whatever technology can offer me, shady sides of social media included.

I can’t even imagine trying to write things on a typewriter, or all the crap that goes with that — correction fluid or tape, carbon paper, only having a single physical copy of the first draft until you go out and photocopy it at great cost.

Or phones. A phone that’s physically wired into a wall? No thanks. That’s so last century. So is a wireless phone — that connects to a cradle that’s physically wired into a wall. Not to mention phone calls. Who does those anymore?

Except maybe for business, and only if you’re dealing with a company that’s too behind the times to have a useful web presence, but damn is that annoying.

I can’t think of the last time I’ve mailed anything with a stamp on it, or handwritten a letter, and that’s fine with me. And speaking of handwritten, are we done with cursive yet? That shit should have gone out with the first word processors.

I’ve given up on broadcast TV — not that there are that many channels left, even via HD — and only get my programming through streaming. I will sometimes listen to the radio in the car, but only if none of the podcasts I follow has a new update.

Speaking of music, I am so glad I don’t have to deal with vinyl or record players. Not only is vinyl cumbersome, heavy, and not all that environmentally friendly, but the sound quality is not that great, unless you like pops and hisses, or the needle suddenly skipping or getting stuck. Give me digital any day.

That’s probably the big difference between modern and old-fashioned, really. To modernize is to learn to let go of the need to own tangible versions of things. Music, movies, books, photos, and more — you name it and you can digitize it, then carry it with you on your phone, stick it on your computer, or keep it in the cloud to access from anywhere.

One big advantage? You can’t lose it all in a fire if it’s not all living in one place.

Yet… I do know people who insist on doing things the old-fashioned way. My last job was totally like that, although only two of us working there were under 60, which could explain a lot. So, while we could have gone a lot more digital and modern with things, everybody else wanted to do it on paper, which I think really slowed us down.

Not to mention that the clients, who were 99.9% 65 and up, tended to mostly be barely technologically literate, and that made things difficult as well. I can’t tell you how many times someone would tell me, “I sent it to your email, but it came back undeliverable.”

“What email did you send it to?”

“www.yourcompanyname.com.”

“Um… that’s not an email.”

But it’s not just Boomers that have the issue, either. I know people my age and younger who don’t do computers, some of whom even use typewriters or do everything on paper, and I just don’t get it.

Why, in this day and age, when you can carry more computer power in your pocket than NASA had when they landed a human on the Moon, would you not avail yourself of it?

So, yeah. About the only thing I’ll do old-fashioned is a donut, and that’s only because that’s what they call the style. Otherwise, no thank you.

Sunday nibble #45

Keep in mind that I try to keep my post-writing a week or two ahead of the dates they go live, so for all I know everything could have gone downhill in the past week, given events from last weekend, which is when I’m writing this.

The Sunday Nibble is back from hiatus, which began with my Christmas Countdown, and the last installment was the eighth and last in a series of short pieces I’d originally written with the intention of publishing them on a friend’s website, The Flushed.

The series title was “A short guide to knowing your shit,” and it fit right in with The Flushed, which is about all things having to do with the bathroom — although the title they would have gotten used the word “poop” instead, because they’re more PG-13. But the series never ran there.

However… I am now also guest-blogging four times a month over at Paw.com, a site all about pets, mostly of the canine and feline variety. I wound up with this job because I used to write for “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s ecommerce website, and one of my former co-workers there recently became Creative Director for a company that does content creation for various client sites.

He contacted me almost immediately to offer the gig, and how could I say no? It was a natural fit. Check them out, and yes, they do sell stuff, specializing in beds, blankets, and other pet-friendly products.

So yes, it’s another case of “it’s who you know,” but Creative Directors are good people for artists and writers to know in general, since they tend to have a lot of clout within their organizations. And, being Creative Directors, they hire us — the creatives.

Also, from time-to-time, I’ll still post the random movie review to a site called Filmmonthly.com, which I founded two decades ago with a pair of fellow film-lovers, one of whom was the other roommate during the tenure of the very bizarre Strauss, about whom I wrote on Friday, and the other was the roommate who took over when Strauss abruptly departed — the one whose cousin accidentally torched their kitchen with a toaster oven.

We ran the thing for a good while, and all three of us were the publishers, racking up a ton of reviews. Eventually, we all stepped back and turned it over to the next generation, although for a long time our prior work was there — until one of the people trusted with the site at some point muffed up and wound up losing a lot of the older files forever.

Things that make you go “Grrrrr.” Unfortunately, if you search my name and filmmonthly, you’ll get a ton of hits because, as publisher, my name was on every page. Most of them will not be my work.

But I did recently review a low-budget adaptation of the King Arthur story that surprisingly did not suck, so there’s that. There was also a fun little indie comedy about incest, Call Me Brother, that I also liked and reviewed.

I’ll share another secret with you. The Christmas and New Year Countdowns are my way of giving myself a vacation. I program everything to publish automatically before Thanksgiving arrives, and then on the Friday after, boom. I don’t need to write or post anything for over a month.

This works out great IRL, because this also coincides with the frantic tail-end of my busy season at work, which pretty much entails seven-day weeks and ten hour days from October 15 to December 7. Every. Single. Year.

The only exception, of course, is when the Out of the Blue Oxford Boys drop their charity single for the current year. That always gets its own special post, because they and what they do are both very special.

Which is to say that, looking back at 2020, I’m kind of amazed that I managed to post something every single day when there were many days that I felt no motivation — and I think that’s true of a lot of us who lived through lockdown.

Kind of ironic, really. All the time in the world to write, but it was hard to get motivated. Except… it did give me time to focus in on The Rêves, which I started serializing here weekly back in July, long before I actually finished it.

And now it’s 2021, and it feels like we’re going to have a new beginning, maybe, but it won’t be soon and it won’t be fast. What it will probably be is the final general realization that if we want to fight this thing, we do have to take it seriously and sacrifice.

It may not seem like it, but “sacrifice” is something that Americans can be good at when they actually do it, and when they’re not being cheer-led on by greedy, selfish leaders.

Nobody really complained when security tightened up after 9/11 and it seemed like it took an anal probe and two blood samples to get into any government building. No one complained back when they could only buy gas on days based on their license plate number.

No one complained when everything was rationed during WW II. And on, and on.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of people who voted for a certain losing presidential candidate last year are also staunch anti-maskers, but I can give you these numbers. Out of the total U.S. population, only 23% voted for the outgoing incumbent. But if we cut that number down to “all people eligible to vote,” whether they do or not, then it’s 38%.

The other candidate got 25% of the total population, and 42% of all people eligible to vote, although based on the actual vote count, it came out as 52% to 48%.

Or, in other words, for the politically engaged, a divided world, but if you look at the total population, one thing stands out. The selfish people fall to around one-fifth of the population.

And that is very hopeful, because there are more of us who can be good Americans and sacrifice, whether we vote or not (and why the hell don’t you, if you’re eligible?) than there are greedy Americans who want to burn it all down.

So… for every Karen, there are four Americans willing to stand up to her shit. And that is how we are going to turn it around in 2021, albeit slowly, and finally see normalcy return in 2022.

Simply put, there are still more Americans willing to do the right thing. We’re just not as vocal or visible as the selfish ones who like to kick and scream like infants to get their way. But their tantrum will end soon, once they’ve woken up to reality. If they ever do.

Okay, it’s another Sunday Nibble turned into a full buffet, but that’s okay. It feels like I’m coming out of hibernation, so there’s a lot on my mind.