A couple of weeks ago I was watching the fifties comedy How To Marry A Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. It’s quite a slight film although very entertaining, and strangely it has the feel of a musical. Other than the odd choral outburst – and strangely a full length overture by Alfred Newman which is an odd thing to watch on film, it doesn’t feature any songs as such. There are, however, countless moments when you half expect the performers to burst into song. It’s that kind of film!
In fact a writer of musical comedy may well say that a story sings. This is the phrase that is often used to determine if an existing work – be it book, play or movie – is ripe for musicalisation. So when Rodgers and Hammerstein looked at Molnar’s Liliom they saw the potential that was to turn this eastern Europe tale into the classic Carousel, and likewise with Lynne Rigg’s Green Grow The Lilacs which became , in turn, Oklahoma! Indeed it’s often said that the reason that Mack And Mabel by Jerry Herman (despite a superlative score) has never been a real success is that neither the characters or the plot really sing, and the same has often been said of the legend of Saint Bernadette!. It’s difficult to pinpoint what really makes a story work in this way, but possibly what it needs are moments of heightened emotion, where it doesn’t seem inappropriate for a character to step outside himself and emote. Certainly moments of high drama and romance all help, in Carousel we certainly have both with Billy Bigelow’s Soliloquoy when he finds out that Julie is expecting his child, and the tender bench scene where the two characters extemporize about what they would do If I Loved You. So where am I going with this concept you may wonder? Well I thought I would take a look at a few movies etc. that I have always thought would work beautifully for the musical stage and speculate a little on why they may work and what could be achieved with the right collaborators.
Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias has been a success on both stage and screen, and dealing with a larger than life group of strong female characters I believe it would make a wonderful musical. There are certainly many moments of heightened emotion and also a rich vein of humour runs through this drama that tells a compelling story of female friendship. Set in the southern states of America there is ample opportunity to include many styles of music - country, folk and gospel could all feature within the framework of this story. So many elements of the story could work brilliantly through song. We have the transformation of Annelle as she begins as a timid mousey creature and then glamourises herself, we have the death of Shelby, and the comical relationship between ‘Ouisa the town eccentric and Clairie the mayor. Imagine M’lynn at Shelby’s graveside as she leads the cast in an impassioned gospel number, followed by the ice breaker as Clairie pushes ‘Ouisa forward and suggests M’lynn hits her. So much rich potential for a stage musical. David Yazbeck who was behind the songs for The Full Monty would be an excellent choice of composer as his music has a real suggestion of Americana running through it and manages to embrace everything that American music symbolizes. And what a cast we could have for this show…..imagine Betty Buckley as the cantankerous ‘Ouisa and for Clairie? Well perhaps Patti Lupone? Liz Callaway would be a sterling choice for the strong, emotional core of the piece M’Lynn, and who better for her sweet and ill fated daughter Shelby than British performer Caroline Sheen? And that’s just a few of the leading ladies in this prospective musical…….
When Rupert Everett leads the cast in a sing along of I Say A Little Prayer at the wedding rehearsal in My Best Friend’s Wedding it seems like a very natural uncontrived moment. The soundtrack uses Bacharach/David compositions so frequently that, along with the karaoke scenes and the camp Wishin’ And Hopin’ opening credits of the film you almost feel like everyone has been singing through the movie anyway, so it would seem very natural to musicalize this story. I am not quite sure how all the plot elements, such as the car chase, would work but there are certainly enough elements in this story that would make for an engaging old fashioned musical comedy. I am not quite sure who would be the best choice of composers for this project – maybe there is some modern day Rodgers and Hart just waiting to be discovered, but of course if we absolutely must have another hit compilation musical then this is the one that Burt Bacharach’s sixties hits are perfect for. Who to cast? In the Julia Roberts character who could pull of such a mean spirited girl and still make us fall totally in love with her? I would suggest that Kristen Chenoweth is the perfect choice. In the camp best friend role played so brilliantly by Rupert Everett? Well maybe John Barrowman could be a good choice, although I would be more inclined to cast him as the romantic lead – the Dermot Mulroney character - and cast someone such as Malcolm Gets (best known here for the sitcom Caroline In The City) This would only leave the Cameron Diaz part ? Well I am stumped on this, we may have to audtion!
The Poster from the movie Life Is Beautiful
A more serious piece altogether, yet told with such good humour and warmth, is the Italian movie Life Is Beautiful. The films first act, when it’s lead character first moves to a large Tiscan town, falls in love, gets married etc, contains such comedy and joy and a strong sense of music. There are so many elements that would make for a great musical. The films second act takes a much darker tone as Guido and his young son Giosue are interned in the concentration camps. His wife, determined not to be separated, boards the train herself but of course they are not kept together at the camp. Determined to protect his son from the Nazi’s, Guido tells Giosue that it’s a game and he has to win points in order to win the big prize – a tank! The story delivers on every level, joy, laughter and of course tears. All ingredients that make a great musical. So many scenes would be a delight to see on stage. When Dora (Guido’s principessa), on the occasion of her engagement party at the hotel where Guido works, seals her fate and gets on to the table, abandoning her prospective husband, before being lead away on horseback to a new life with Guido. At the other end of the scale the musical moment where Guido is serving a dinner for the Nazi’s at the camp and hears Dora’s favourite aria on the gramophone. He simply turns the speaker to the window and opens it allowing the music to float over the camp so his wife hears and knows he is ok. So many scenes are equally evocative and this is such a life affirming tale that I am sure musicalization would work. Even with the challenges that a concentration camp setting, for part of the show, would present I am sure that the right production team could carry this off brilliantly. Who to write this story? I would be particularly keen for Maury Yeston (Nine) to be given composing duties on this. He has already shown in Italianate sensibility in previous work that would suit the shows setting particularly well. Casting the show would present more difficulties I feel. Guido has to have a great comic ability, but also a big voice capable of operatic drama as well, and also acting skills enough to deal with the shows pathos. Alan Cummings springs to mind, but Anthony Warlow has also been suggested. Certainly Warlow has been noted for a talent for mimicry so maybe he would be a great idea in the lead for this imaginary project.
So if only I were writing for musical theatre maybe I would work on one of these projects. No doubt some of you will disagree with my choices, or indeed find the whole idea preposterous or sacreligious, but most successful musicals tend to be adapted from another source. Of course people may have other ideas and stories to adapt. Maybe Superman? Jane Eyre? Fritz Lang’s classic movie Metropolis? Or even the movie Meet Me In St Louis? Well they were all done and none of these were successful, so it only goes to show that for every piece of source material such as Les Miserables, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (Hello Dolly) and Romeo And Juliet (West Side Story) that are a resounding hit there are many more when maybe the original source material just doesn’t sing!!!
The original Broadway cast of David Yazbeck’s Magnolias based on the hit play and movie Steel Magnolias is great. With a cast of Broadways top divas including Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley and Liza Minnelli this is a great score. The Look Of Love inspired by My Best Friends Wedding featuring the Bacharach/David songbook is a great show to rival Mamma Mia and well worth a listen. Chenoweth is great in the lead. Maury Yeston’s Life Is Beautiful in it’s studio recording is one of the richest scores written for the theatre in many years. Anthony Warlow’s performance is multilayered and full of comedy and pathos, and when he sings the interpolated aria La Baccarolle it really blows you away! Of course none of these actually exist but if you should, by some strange twist of fate, see them next time you are in Dress Circle then please buy me a copy