Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 8, 2013
I noticed Scrooge on the schedule today at TCM. It’s the musical version of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ timeless classic (I’ve never used that cliche before but if it doesn’t apply to A Christmas Carol, what good is it?) about a miserly old man, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who learns the true meaning of the giving spirit from three such spirits, and his old partner Jacob Marley, on Christmas Eve (or Christmas day, I suppose, since it happens in the early morning hours). I’ve written up A Christmas Carol twice for TCM, once here for the 1938 version, and once here for the 1951 version. If they asked me to write up Scrooge as well, I would, even though, full disclosure, I’ve never really liked it. Fuller disclosure, I’ve never really liked any musical version better than the non-musical original. But it generally works, I’ll give it that. And other musicals based on plays work, too. And if it works one way, why not try the other way? Why not make straight up, all non-musical versions of famous musicals?
So many books and plays and movies with nary a musical note between them have been turned into all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas. A Christmas Carol, of course, as I’ve just mentioned, but there have been several others. The Matchmaker became Hello, Dolly!, Pygmalion became My Fair Lady, Oliver Twist became Oliver!, Nights of Cabiria became Sweet Charity and many, many more were adapted without ever changing the title (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Producers, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors). But what about the other way around? Taking something that started life as a musical and playing it straight? I’ve got a few I’d like to see.
The first one that comes to mind is one based, very loosely, on a play itself but not enough to feel like a musical version. I’m speaking of West Side Story which, though based on the outline of Romeo and Juliet, is not a strict musical version of Romeo and Juliet but rather, a redefining of it in modern day New York with song and dance. I’d love to see another version, done today, that has the same characters, same story line but no songs and no dancing. A straight up telling of the Jets and the Sharks and that girl named Maria. If someone made that, I think it would still have to take place in the late 1950′s. The themes of the original musical work best in the context of their time. I’d keep everything the same, except for the singing and dancing. Would it work? Who knows? It’s certainly worked the other way around often and when someone makes a musical version, no one looks back and thinks the original is somehow lacking without the songs. If the story’s good, it’s good, period. So could West Side Story, which works so well with the music and dancing it uses, work as a straight up dramatic piece? I’m inclined to say yes, it would. I think the characters and story are compelling enough on their own.
But what about musical comedies? It seems easy to take Roger Corman’s horror-comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, and turn it into a musical-horror-comedy but can it work the other way around? Can someone take a classic, like Singin’ in the Rain, and do it without the famous title song (except, perhaps, over the credits) and dance? Certainly the movie is filled with great comic bits and behind the scenes escapades that work exceptionally well all on their own. The singing and dancing is tied intricately to the story but, still, it’s a story of movies making the transition to sound and I can’t imagine that wouldn’t work all on its own. In the story, most of the dubbing done by Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) for Lina (Jean Hagen) is dialogue anyway. It’s Lina’s speaking voice that’s the real problem. All of that would be kept intact. Of course, the main problem would be, as with any famous musical, in audiences accepting someone other than Gene Kelly in the lead. Or Donald O’Connor as second fiddle. It would take a lot of talent – great comic talent – but I think a straight up comedy version of Singin’ in the Rain might work pretty well.
One musical I think would be prime material for a great drama would be one that, technically, was based on straight dramatic material first but was never adapted to the stage or film except as a musical so it’s still awaiting the non-musical treatment: Fiddler on the Roof. Frankly, the story of Jewish villagers in Russia, dealing with impending pograms that will push them out, always seemed to be perfect dramatic material where the songs kind of get in the way. Of course, I like the music and think the musical works perfectly well as it is but I also think a dramatic non-musical presentation would be quite powerful indeed.
And finally, one movie musical that’s getting a lot of publicity right now, thanks to a new movie out about its making, is Mary Poppins, featured in the current release, Saving Mr. Banks. The stories of P.L. Travers have been made a few times, even on Russian television, but each time as a musical. Had it been adapted today, like Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, or The Chronicles of Narnia, it probably would have been made without songs. So let’s do it! I think a new non-musical version of Mary Poppins would work extremely well and there are so many aspects of the character and the stories that were never touched on in the musical adaptation (click here for the many adventures just waiting to be filmed).
Non-musical adaptations of musicals should happen more often than they do. When the most famous one you’ve got is Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Dolittle, a non-musical version of the previously musical film (which was also adapted from books like Mary Poppins but put into musical form), there’s some work to do. Musicals like West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain provide excellent characters and stories that would work well whether they had music or not. I’ve only listed a few here but I’d love to hear other ideas for other musicals that might work well without the songs. It may seem odd at first but if the story’s good enough, and the characters engaging enough, a straight up adaptation just might be music to your ears.
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