In the last 30 years or more, roughly half of every new musical that arrives on Broadway or in the West End seems to be based on a film. Before the pandemic shut Broadway down, a new musical version of Mrs Doubtfire was in preview; in the West End, the Broadway version of Pretty Woman had just opened at the Piccadilly, where the current Broadway musical version of another film Moulin Rouge was already booked to follow it into that theatre. Likewise, in Manchester there was a try-out of a stage version of Back to the Future, which had its run curtailed, but has now been announced for London’s Adelphi from May, pandemic permitting.
It makes perfect sense that popular film titles frequently beget stage musicals, because there’s already a perceived public interest in them, and at least the title has some familiarity. But at the same time, I’m never quite sure that it’s a guarantee of success: after all, people are being asked to invest a lot more money in seeing a story told onstage than they would in renting a title on Amazon or subscribing to Netflix, and the theatre experience has to offer something more to make it not just worth the money to see it but spending vast amounts to put it onstage.
Broadway and the West End have also regularly offered a launch pad for feature film adaptations. Recently released on Netflix are new filmed versions of August Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (featuring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his last film role before his premature death last year) and the Broadway musical The Prom (featuring James Corden).
I’ve reviewed both of these in the last five years: Ma Rainey when it was revived at the National in 2016, which I called “a thrillingly powerful slow-burn of a play that rewards every minute of attention you pay it”; and The Prom when I saw its 2018 Broadway premiere at the Longacre, where I wrote: “Though no Broadway show is ever exactly low budget, this show’s invests more in its characters than its sets. As with [director Casey] Nicholaw’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, this is a knowing, self-referential musical about recognisable show business types; it also shares the asset of its originality, not being based on a previous existing source. Owing something to the Glee and Smash television franchises, it takes Broadway types and tropes on the road to a small-town Indiana community wrestling with societal change and promoting a story of lesbian acceptance.”
A new film version of One Night in Miami, Kemp Powers’ play about Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, originally premiered in LA in 2013 and subsequently receiving its British premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2016, has just this week been released on Amazon Prime, starring Leslie Odom Jr (Hamilton’s original Burr) as 60s soul singer Sam Cooke.
Also released this week, via Sky Cinema, is a new screen version of Noel Coward’s 1941 wartime diversion Blithe Spirit, a revival of which was due to open in the West End at the Duke of York’s in March, but after a handful of previews found itself summarily shut by the arrival of Covid — and since it was only going to be there for six weeks anyway, at the end of a national tour, I doubt it will be returning. That production was the fourth revival of the play in the West End this century alone starred Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati (earlier outings in 2004, 2011 and 2014 respectively featured Penelope Keith at the Savoy, Alison Steadman at the Apollo and Angela Lansbury at the Gielgud).
When I reviewed that 2014 outing, I wrote: “There is nothing like a Dame – especially one playing a Madame. But this isn’t a Madame that’s selling sex, but connections to the afterlife. And the person bringing her to vivacious life is a stage and screen legend with connections that spread everywhere. She is theatreland’s newest theatrical dame Angela Lansbury who was made one in the New Year’s Honours List. She was born in London but has been resident for most of her adult life Stateside, since being evacuated as a child to America, where at the age of 17 she began a film career and earned her first Oscar nomination for Gaslight. Now, over 70 years on, she is back in London, making her first appearance on a West End stage in nearly forty years, since starring in the London premiere of Gypsy back in 1973 at the Piccadilly Theatre in a revival that subsequently transferred to Broadway.”
The new film has the equally beloved Judi Dench [pictured above right] in the role. But by all accounts, this film version — directed by Edward Hall, former artistic director of Hampstead Theatre — is a turkey. There was a slew of one-star pans, from The Times and Guardian to the Financial Times and Telegraph.
As Robbie Collin, writing in the Telegraph, put it, after directing people instead to the 1945 David Lean version, said,
“On the other hand, if top-to-toe miscalculations are your bag, by all means help yourself to the 2021 version, which might be an object lesson in what not to do with Coward on screen. The irresistible comic elegance of the premise – a remarried widower is tormented by the ghost of his first wife – is lost in a mass of pointless embellishments and tinkerings. And Coward’s dialogue – which is, yes, of its time, but still alive with musicality and wit – has been almost entirely replaced with the kind of contemporary pastiche of vintage posh-speak that would bring on a full-body cringe in a Comic Relief sketch.” His review concludes with this priceless quote from Coward himself: “‘Just photograph it, dear boy’ was Coward’s famous advice to Lean during the making of the 1945 adaptation. One can hazard a guess at how the playwright’s spirit might react to this effort, and you probably wouldn’t need a medium to hear it.”
In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw is equally devastating:
“It can only be described as an un-reinvention, a tired, dated and unfunny period piece that changes the original plot a bit but offers no new perspective, and no new reason to be doing it in the first place. (Not compared with, say, Matthew Warchus’s stage revival of Coward’s Present Laughter at the Old Vic, with Andrew Scott radically reinventing the leading role.) This film looks unironically like the tatty old musical revue show that Ken Russell imagined for his ‘meta’ adaptation of The Boy Friend…. Despite the heavyweight cast, the film’s production values are those of a kids’ TV show that might go out on a weekday afternoon.”
And in trade bible Variety, Guy Lodge quotes the film itself:
‘You’ve been commissioned to write a 90-page screenplay, not War and Peace.’ With these airy words, in the opening minutes of Blithe Spirit, exasperated trophy wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) admonishes her first-time screenwriter husband Charles (Dan Stevens) as he twitchily battles writers’ block. Then she adds a kicker: ‘How can it be so difficult to adapt a story you’ve already written?’ If her frustration with the whiny, self-absorbed Charles is hardly misplaced, her assumptions about screenwriting are nonetheless off-base. Penning a good, short, pithy screenplay is no easy feat, even when working from solidly proven source material — and one need look no further than Blithe Spirit, a tin-eared, lumpen-footed, almost perversely unfunny new spin on Noël Coward’s breezy 1940s farce, for proof.”
And he concludes with another great Coward line: “We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?”, he reports Coward once quipping. “If nothing else, the new film proves him wrong: Wherever he is, one hopes he’s blissfully unaware of it.”
A new film version of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s stage musical version of Matilda has recently been announced, with its original stage director Matthew Warchus set to direct again, with a cast that that will be led not by a male Miss Trunchbull (originally played at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the West End and on Broadway by Bertie Carvel, pictured above) but by Emma Thompson in the role. As Baz Bamigboye recently reported an executive connected to the film telling him in the Daily Mail, “The best gender to play a woman, should be a woman.”
Some stage shows are just transferred to film verbatim: the original cast of Hamilton was filmed and has (naturally) been a massive hit on Netflix; given that its reach in the theatre is limited both by the capacity of the theatres it is playing in, and the outrageous prices being demanded for those seats, it has made the show much more widely available than ever before. And finally, Disney’s Aladdin: Live from the West End is set for imminent release via Disney Plus, filmed before the London production closed with a cast led by Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie (pictured above), joined by cast members from different international companies.