So, Steven Spielberg is wrapping up the shoot for his new filmed version of West Side Story. Like many people, I thought the first movie would have been the last time the material was approached. Why would Spielberg—a director whose work I generally like (okay, let’s forget about 1942 and the Jurassic Park movies)—want to tackle this project?
I know why now. I hadn’t really watched the film since I saw it in the movie house in 1961. I’m sure I must have a DVD around I intended to watch someday. But it popped up on my Netflix feed and I figured I might as well satisfy my curiosity. OMG! It’s a painful movie to watch now. Indeed, I managed to struggle through half before I just had to turn it off. The direction by Robert Wise (Jerome Robbins only staged five musical numbers before he was fired for cost overruns) was very sloppy (as was most of his work, the exception being The Sound of Music). The cast, while being good actors, couldn’t sing the demanding roles and the dubbing was awful. (As an aside, I’m well over Marni Nixon after learning how terrible a mother she was to the late Andrew [“Lonely Boy”, “Thank You for Being a Friend”] Gold, a singer/songwriter I really liked. She was talented but a real bitch to Andrew, though they reconciled before he died.)
Spielberg cast actors who could sing the demanding roles, and he actually is using Latinx actors in the Puerto Rican parts. Hurrah. I’m looking forward to a great director tackling the material the way it should be tackled.
Then another movie popped up on Netflix, one I hadn’t seen since 1972. I was curious. Would it stand the test of 47 years or not? Turns out, it didn’t. The movie in question is Fiddler on the Roof. Now, being a nice Jewish boy who lived through countless bad renditions of Fiddler songs while staying in the Catskills (oy, don’t ask, please!), and having finally seen countless productions of the musical onstage, I was curious about whether the movie was as good as I remember it being when I was 18 years old. So, I watched the whole, tedious, sloppy (again; this time blame director/producer Norman Jewison; he’ll pop up again), three-plus hour film (the show clocks in at 2:30 with intermission, which should tell you something).
I finally understood why Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerome Robbins (again) had nothing to do with this film except to cash the checks for the rights. (Additional music for the film was composed by John Williams of Star Wars fame; he couldn’t capture Bock’s sound.) Even then, Topol was looking a little too old to play Tevye—especially when the rest of the cast (except Molly Picon as Yenta) looked decades younger (best performance coming from the late, great Leonard Frey as Motel). The real problem is that the film failed to capture the miracle Robbins performed onstage. The suggestive Boris Aronson sets were more realistic (in sparking our imagination) than the realistic film settings (I know, this is required for any movie). The script sounded right (Joseph Stein did both stage and film versions) but came off hollow and forced when opened up on film.
This story could be told so much better now on film. Jewison worked with what he had (I guess), but his work was uneven, dull, and lifeless. Fiddler on the Roof demands a remake, just like West Side Story.
I was recently talking to some of my fellow ATB bloggers, and it sparked an idea. What other movies were done so badly they demand to be remade? What films cut half the original scores (or nearly all in some cases) when there was no good reason? So, I’ve made a little list. Feel free to agree or disagree or add some of your own. (You might note certain names keep cropping up, like Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. I am not surprised.)
· A Chorus Line—Our ATB bloggers’ fearless leader calls this “Cats with people.” Okay, I get it. But there is no excuse in the world for this movie to be as stultifying bad as it is. Richard Attenborough was clearly the wrong director, the plot devices crammed into the movie to make more of the prior romance between Cassie and Zack was ridiculous, and the dancing took a backseat to the fake plot (which is completely counter to the point of the stage version). Whole swaths of the original were gone. Songs cut. The brilliant monologue by Paul? Not in this movie. Indeed, everything making A Chorus Line a landmark Broadway musical was erased from the movie.
· A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—Take a brilliantly funny, ribald musical farce with a terrific Stephen Sondheim score and reduce it to utter garbage. Cut half the score (why?) and change the intricate plotting. It just wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all, even with Zero Mostel and Jack Guilford recreating their roles. We need a good movie version of Forum. No question about it. And since Sondheim now sells more than he did in 1966, it makes sense.
· A Little Night Music—Do I really need to explain why we need a good movie version of this musical? Okay, you twisted my arm. Here goes:
— Elizabeth Taylor is lovely to look at but painful to hear singing You Must Meet My Wife and Send in the Clowns
— Director Hal Prince could not find a way to make this movie look good no matter what he tried
— Fully one-third of the Sondheim score is missing
— One-quarter of the plot is gone
— The stage musical is lively and buoyant; the movie is dull and leaden
— It’s dull, it drags, it’s boring
— Why the hell is it set in Austria instead of Sweden? (I know, Prince got money from the Austrian government to fund the film. It still makes no sense since it’s about events of a midsummer’s night when “the sun won’t set,” and everyone still has Swedish names.)
· Anything Goes—No, there’s nothing wrong with the 1936 black and white version except it’s missing most of the amazing Cole Porter score; thank Bing Crosby for that travesty. And the 1956 color version not only threw out most of the Cole Porter score again but also the whole storyline (except both have scenes on an ocean liner). Again, thank Bing Crosby for this travesty. We need an actual movie version of the original Cole Porter musical once and for all. Thank goodness Crosby isn’t around to mess this up a third time. (Not a fan, not at all.)
· Brigadoon—My favorite score by Lerner and Loewe was truncated, major roles reduced to bit players, and it was produced entirely on a soundstage instead of offering real Scottish locations (or even suitable substitutes). Gene Kelly danced up a storm but never could find the right hook for the character of Tommy, and much of what made Brigadoon so special was lost because 20th Century Fox tried to produce a lush musical on a shoestring budget. A real movie version (and not that insipid television version with Robert Goulet) is demanded.
· Bye, Bye Birdie—Ugh, I think this movie is awful compared to the original Broadway musical. Half the plot was jettisoned (along with half the score) to build up the role of Kim—played by Ann-Margret. Why? And please don’t cite the painful to watch television version with Jason Alexander as Albert. The less said about that the better (though Tyne Daly as Albert’s mother was the one bright spot).
· Cabaret—Okay, let’s start by saying Bob Fosse’s movie is brilliant on its own. But let’s also say it isn’t the stage musical Cabaret by any stretch of the imagination. We should demand a movie version of the original.
· Camelot—We have to be honest here. The stage version as it originally opened on Broadway was a complete mess. Director Moss Hart had been hospitalized during rehearsals, so Alan Jay Lerner limply tried to direct the show. But part of the problem was his book was just all over the place. (My BFF refers to this show as Cram-a-Lot, because they tried to cram so much stuff into it.) A few weeks after opening, Hart returned, cut three songs, trimmed the book, and voilà, the show as we know it now. So, making a movie out of the material already started with two strikes against it (the second strike being hiring AJL to write the screenplay). Dispirited direction from Joshua Logan (who should have known better) and subdued performances (to the point of rigor mortis) by the leads made this movie painful to watch. A remake done right would be expensive, but it would be worth it.
· Finian’s Rainbow—Why hire a master realistic director like Francis Ford Coppola to direct a fantasy musical like this? His work (to be kind) was awful. Fred Astaire insisted his mostly non-singing role have more songs. The plot was changed. The whimsy was strained out. As a movie, to be honest (and kind), it sucked. A remake is needed.
· Guys and Dolls—Word is a new movie remake is in the works (though others have been announced in the past and never come to pass). Good. Of the four leads, only Vivian Blaine recreated her Broadway role in the film. Jean Simmons was passable as Sarah Brown. Then we have the two male leads—Frank Sinatra as Nathan and (gasp) Marlon Brando as Sky. Why? Whose bright idea was this casting? (Answer: Samuel Goldwyn and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.) Sinatra is again miscast as the lead (he actually wanted to play Sky) and Brando couldn’t sing or act the role (he managed to look extremely uncomfortable throughout the movie). Five Frank Loesser songs were tossed out (three lesser Loesser songs were written for the film). It’s time for a remake—please make it happen this time.
· Grease—I know some people might consider this heresy, but I think the movie version of Grease is an affront. The original Grease was a raunchy, raucous good time at the theatre. Then someone decided it should be more family friendly (why?). So, half the score was replaced by mediocre Bee Gees songs (and really, by comparison, they are mediocre). Sandy was made Australian to accommodate Olivia Newton John. All the fun and the life were sucked out of the original. I hated it in 1978. I hated the godawful live television version (directed by an old friend of mine; I always said he had no business directing musicals and I still believe it). Here’s a clue: Grease is NOT family friendly. Get it? Good.
· Gypsy—It should have been Merman. It was Rosalind Russell. It should have been someone who could sing Louise. It was Natalie Wood. It should have been great. It wasn’t. We need a definitive version (though we have a few video ones passing muster).
· Hairspray—John Travolta as Edna? Really? No. Do it right. It should have been Harvey. And everyone knows it, too.
· Hello, Dolly!—Before all the Barbra Streisand fans chew my head off, this is not about her being way too young and too Brooklyn to play Dolly Gallagher Levi. It’s about the overblown direction by Gene Kelly, who managed to not just open up the Michael Stewart/Jerry Herman original, but blew it up into a huge, monstrous, unholy mess. Most of Hello, Dolly! Is surprisingly small and intimate on stage, with a few big production numbers thrown into the mix. The Thornton Wilder whimsy is completely gone. The movie goes way beyond Gower Champion’s wildest wet dreams. I’d love to see the movie done right, cast right, and directed/choreographed right. As a movie director, subtlety was never Gene Kelly’s strong suit.
· Jersey Boys—Right material, wrong director. Clint Eastwood? What were they thinking? Those must have been some powerful drugs they were taking when the producers put him at the helm.
· Jesus Christ Superstar—Norman Jewison strikes again! The director who bungled Fiddler started working on JC Superstar while filming it. He cast the movie mostly with actors who had never been in a film before (though the leads had done the show on Broadway; let’s not talk about what an unholy mess the Tom O’Horgan production was). Instead of a straightforward retelling of the rock opera, it became a story about a busload of traveling players staging a musical passion play. New songs were added, and some original songs were trimmed beyond recognition. This is yet another case of Jewison not really trusting the material enough. He should have stuck with dramas where he excelled.
· Little Shop of Horrors—Really, this movie shouldn’t be on this list, but yet it’s here? Why? Because the producers tacked on a happy ending which did not belong there. Put it back, the way it was. Period. End of discussion. (Rumor is this is going to happen in a new filmed version, but I’ll believe it when I see it.)
· Mame—Everybody loved Lucy, that is, until she bought the film rights to Mame and cast herself as the title character. In truth, aside from her voice being wrong for the role and her being 30 years too old to pull it off effectively, she wasn’t that bad. No, the problem with Mame is Gene Saks wasn’t a good movie director. He had brilliantly directed the Broadway version, but he couldn’t find a way to make it work on film. He even made his wife, Bea Arthur, look forlorn and bored on screen. Indeed, the look of the movie is all wrong (the Morton de Costa film of Auntie Mame got it right). And no amount of mayonnaise on the camera lens could make Lucille Ball look like Mame. A movie remake is demanded (or at least a live television version).
· Man of La Mancha—Okay, let’s take a small musical, ostensibly a one-set show performed in a dungeon, and then open it up with realistic Italian scenery subbing for the plains of Spain. Let’s go through three directors and writing teams (only go back to the original book writer of the stage musical). Let’s cast three well-known actors (Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren, James Coco) who can’t sing a note and then dub them badly (because you pissed off the actors from the original stage version who had been promised they could recreate their roles in the movie). Let’s cut some of the musical’s better numbers while we’re at it (indeed, if O’Toole had gotten his way, all the songs would have been excised). Man of La Mancha demands a remake. It has angered theatre fans since 1972; it’s time to put them out of their misery with a good movie.
· Oliver—I know, I know, it won the Oscar for Best Picture. It still sucks. It’s painful to watch. When every song turns into an overblown production number (even the quiet, wistful Where Is Love?), then you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
· On the Town—The original Broadway show, based on Jerome Robbins’ (again) ballet Fancy Free about three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City, was a brilliant piece with an incredible score with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green. Not one bad song in the entire piece. (Odd side note: Bernstein also wrote the lyrics to I Can Cook Too, which led him to first tackle all the lyrics to West Side Story. He couldn’t according to his daughter, and Stephen Sondheim came to the rescue.) Successful on Broadway so it had to be made into a movie, right? Well, um, uh, sure. But the producers miscast Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as two of the sailors and jettisoned most of the Bernstein score for mediocre work by Roger Edens (who thought Bernstein sounded “too operatic”). This movie needs to be remade. Not updated (there’s no more Miss Subways, after all). Cast it with people who can sing and dance and actually play the characters as written (sorry, Sinatra and Kelly didn’t cut it so far as I’m concerned).
· Pal Joey—Sinatra again miscast as the title character, a heel who preys on women until one woman preys on him. The biting Lorenz Hart lyrics were tamed by Hollywood, and it became a mess of a movie. At least Sinatra sang his own songs; Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak were dubbed. The movie has a happy ending; the musical doesn’t. In the movie, Joey is a nice guy; in the musical, he’s a major louse. It’s a crying shame movie for many reasons. The changes to the Rodgers and Hart show were just plain dumb. Worse, Pal Joey on stage made a star of Gene Kelly, and he could have easily recreated his star turn. Sinatra didn’t think bad boy Joey fit his image, so the whole thing was Bowdlerized beyond recognition. It demands to be made—this time using the original score and storyline. In the #MeToo age, it is especially relevant.
· Porgy and Bess—This movie is so laughingly bad, so deliciously lousy. It’s an affront to the original Gershwin work on every level. Is it any wonder the Gershwin estate wouldn’t allow it to ever come out on DVD? Let’s do it right this time.
· Show Boat—There are two movie versions of this landmark American musical (actually there was a third, part-talkie one made in 1929). The first complete one from 1936, shot in black and white, is the superior one, sticking closely to the stage version and features (be still my heart) Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson, and Helen Morgan. So, of course, MGM couldn’t leave well enough alone and remade it in color (sometimes I still wonder what Arthur Freed was thinking in his choices). Hammerstein’s original book is mostly gone. The social commentary propelling Show Boat is reduced to a few lines. Ava Gardner’s character is beefed up (she being a big MGM star at the time). It’s a friggin’ nightmare to watch now. It’s MGM lush and MGM lousy at the same time.
· South Pacific—Just get rid of the tangerine skies and the movie would automatically be 100% better.
· The Fantasticks—What? You never saw this movie? Consider yourself extremely lucky. Still, try to remember authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt were themselves the ones who adapted their work for the movies. Badly. Very badly. So incredibly badly even MGM wouldn’t release it for five years after director Michael Ritchie filmed it—and under duress because of contractual obligations and in only four theatres. Francis Ford Coppola (see Finian’s Rainbow) was brought in to trim it from 109 minutes to a scant 86 minutes. What went wrong? First, the authors opened the tiny show up. Onstage, the musical is performed on a small stage with a platform and a trunk. Total orchestra? Two (a piano and a harp). On that small stage, the audience is transported around the world and in two backyards. Full orchestrations were created. The film tries to emulate the big, splashy 1950s movie musicals, setting the story in the Arizona prairie, yet reducing the whole world to a traveling carnival (don’t ask). While the show opens and closes with Try to Remember, the movie cuts this famous song down to a couple of choruses at the end (huh?). The tiny story is lost in all the extraneous scenery. Hallmark Hall of Fame attempted to do a truncated television version in 1964, but it wasn’t good at all. The Fantasticks is the world’s longest running musical. It’s simple, sweet, and makes you cry at the end. If ever a property is demanding a great movie version, this is it.
Some (dis)honorable mentions not worth remaking: Annie, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, The Wiz, On Your Toes, Rose Marie, Good News, and Evita (I say this reluctantly because I sort of enjoyed it).
There you have it. Movie musicals derived from Broadway shows demanding to be remade as soon as possible. Entirely my opinion, of course, but I don’t think there’s one movie cited anyone could disagree about the need for a better version.
(Michael Kape a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy® grew up watching movie musicals when he couldn’t see live performances. Even as a kid he knew a bad movie musical when he saw one. Now he cringes when watching them.)