For too much of my life Hollywood executives were gun-shy about making new movies based upon Broadway musicals. Despite the occasional hit like Grease (1978), the prevailing sentiment was that such films were too narrow a niche to attract broad audiences and too old-fashioned to attract the coveted young moviegoers.
An American Film Institute poll in 2006 to create a list of The 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time included only one musical from 1979 – 2000: 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. That Disney animated work was an original musical made for film (although later turned into a successful Broadway musical), not a movie adaptation of a Broadway show.
Yet over the last decade a couple of successes have helped pry open the door for new films based upon the Broadway musicals. Chicago was a major critical success, gaining 11 Academy Award nominations and winning Best Picture in 2003.
More recently the film Les Misérables based on the Broadway musical Les Mis won a slew of awards, including 2013 Golden Globes for
- Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical,
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical (Hugh Jackman), and
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Anne Hathaway).
What really attracted the attention of Hollywood producers, however, is that Les Misérables also was an international box office success. The film raked in $441.8 million ($148.8 domestic, $293 million international).
As a result, audiences are now seeing a slow but steady trickle of movie musicals. Earlier this year Clint Eastwood directed a film adaptation of Jersey Boys.
Three more movies musicals are one the way, two of which will be opening shortly for the holiday seasons. Here’s a short introduction and trailers for those three films.
Annie (opening Dec. 19th)
It’s true that Annie has been the butt of countless jokes and parodies. Yet the second Broadway revival that officially ran from Nov. 8, 2012 through January 5, 2014 helped win the show new respect.
Audiences must also respect the great blend of talent behind this second attempt to make a successful film adaptation. (The less said about the sluggish John Huston-directed 1982 film, the better).
A team of producers that includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Jay Z have updated the setting from the Depression to contemporary New York City with a racially diverse cast. Jamie Foxx (Academy Award winner for Ray) plays wealthy businessman and mayoral candidate Benjamin Stacks. In the re-imagined story Annie’s visit is now orchestrated by his clever business VP (Rose Byrne) and his cynical political advisor (Bobby Cannavale whose recent Broadway credits include The Motherf**cker with the Hat and Glengarry Glen Ross).
The title role is performed by eleven-year old Quvenzhané Wallis. Wallis made history at the age of nine by becoming the youngest female ever nominated for an Academy Award for best leading actress for Beasts of the Southern Wild. She’s already won a surprise Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a musical or comedy film for her performance in Annie.
Annie also won a second Golden globe nomination. The new song “Opportunity” is up for best original song in a motion picture.
Additional star power is added by Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan. Yet the most valuable player may be Will Gluck, who served as director, co-screenwriter, and co-producer for Annie and is best known for The Easy A with Emma Stone.
If Gluck can blend the comedy with the music while pulling on the audience’s heartstrings, Annie could be a surprise hit for Sony Pictures. The studio could use some good news in the light of the continuing fallout from the computer hacker attack on the company that is producing numerous embarrassing leaks.
Into the Woods (opening Dec. 25th)
The most eagerly-awaited movie musical of the year must be the adaptation of Into the Woods. The Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical is one of the most beloved and approachable works in the Sondheim canon.
Into the Woods made its original Broadway run from 1987-1989. The production won three Tony Awards for Sondheim’s score, Lapine’s book, and for best actress in a musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife), but losing out for 1988’s best musical to Phantom of the Opera.
One of the showiest roles is the Witch, originated by Bernadette Peters and played in the movie by Meryl Streep. Yet the entire cast is marvelous. English actress Emily Blount landed the key role of the Baker’s Wife. She first burst into widespread consciousness in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep. Both actresses have gained individual Golden Globe nominations and the film is also nominated for best musical or comedy.
Other cast members include Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine as Cinderella and Prince Charming, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Lilla Crawford and Johnny Depp as Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Tracey Ullman as the Mother of Jack (of beanstalk fame). The Baker is played by James Corden, who won a Tony Award in 2012 for best actor in One Man, Two Guvnors. Sadly for theatre fans, in September Corden pulled out of playing the lead role in a planned Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when he was chosen to replace Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Late Show on CBS starting March 9, 2015.
Disney has really gone all out with its production and promotion of the film with a heavy advertising buy for the Christmas Day release. Some might view it as just penance for pulling the plug on a planned filming of Evita with Meryl Strep so that they could instead cast Madonna in the lead role of the 1996 adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical.
Hollywood executives will be watching to see if Into the Woods can be the big winner among Christmas Day releases (main competitors are the World War II drama Unbroken and the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview). Hopes are high based upon the skill director Rob Marshall showed with 2002’s Chicago and the outstanding production values (principal photography occurred at Shepperton Studios in the UK where the Harry Potter movies were filmed). This Disney film may have the inside track on being the family favorite of the holiday season.
The Last Five Years (opening Feb. 13th, 2015)
While both Annie and Into the Woods have gained a lot of attention, many true theatre geeks are eagerly awaiting The Last Five Years. This off-Broadway favorite tells the story of a promising yet ultimately unsuccessful romance between rising Jewish novelist Jamie and his shiksa goddess, the less successful actress Cathy.
The structure of Jason Robert Brown’s musical play is interesting. The story is told through alternating songs by the two-person cast mostly singing in isolation. Jamie’s songs tell the story in chronological order, while Cathy’s songs start at the end of the relationship and move backward to their first date. In the theatrical production the two only sing and interact together in the midpoint when they wed.
Opening up this work and making it into a successful movie will be tricky, yet respected screenwriter turned director Richard LaGravenese is a fine choice for the task. Some of his screenplays include The Fisher King (with the late Robin Williams), The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, and HBO’s Behind the Candelabra.
LaGravenese co-wrote the screenplay of The Last Five Years with Jason Robert Brown. The screenplay preserves the terrific songs while allowing more character interaction.
Anna Kendrick is aspiring actress Cathy. Those who only know her as a singer in the Pitch Perfect movie about a college a capella group may be surprised to learn she is a theatre veteran. She was nominated for a Tony Award at the age of twelve for High Society. It’s also worth checking out her performance in the delightful indie film Camp (2003) when she sabotages another summer theatre camp actress so she can sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Jeremy Jordan is promising young writer Jamie. While he is best known for playing the character Jimmy on NBC’s Smash, his performances were much better in leading Broadway roles in Newsies and the short run of Bonnie & Clyde.
Props to the producers of this small film for filming it on spec with a $2 million budget before even having a distributor. If the film is as charming and heartbreaking as the original work, it could find a great niche with a Valentine’s Day weekend release.
— Personal plea: please turn out for these films in the theatre. If they are successful, we will be that much closer to seeing movie musical adaptations made of Wicked, The Book of Mormon, and Spring Awakening. —