Talking to Singing and Back Again

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?

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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.

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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.

18 Responses Talking to Singing and Back Again
Posted By doug : December 8, 2013 2:29 pm

An interesting idea, Greg-as someone who has loved the stories of Sholom Aleichem (Sholom Rabinowitz) for decades, I would love to see a non-musical “Fiddler”in a new production.
If there is a sequel to “Oz The Great And Powerful” it may well be a non-musical “The Wizard Of Oz”, which I think would be great. We love the original, but the songs are so popular that they have constrained any attempt so far to remake it. Hopefully Sam Raimi and company can make that happen.

Posted By gregferrara : December 8, 2013 3:44 pm

Yes, I’m one of the few who kind of liked Oz, The Great and Powerful and I’m curious to see a new version of The Wizard of Oz without the music. I also liked Return to Oz which placed me, again, in the minority.

Posted By B Piper : December 8, 2013 5:42 pm

Eddie Murphy’s DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was neither a non-musical remake of the Harrison film nor an adaptation of the original books, it was simply an Eddie Murphy comedy borrowing the name and central gimmick of the character. Hugh Lofting’s books are so full of great material that I’m a little surprised they haven’t been adapted to film more, but considering that a new Doolittle movie would probably be a bloated CGI fest without any of the charm of Lofting’s stories I guess it’s just as well.

Posted By jeanette minor : December 8, 2013 7:39 pm

Irma La Deuce was a musical on stage. Billy Wilder cur all of the songs when He adapted it. The score for the show was adapted sans lyrics for the films score. Also there was a Yiddish language film based on the Tevye stories made in the thirties.

Posted By AL : December 8, 2013 9:19 pm

Mark Lester(OLIVER)grew-up to become the true father of Michael Jackson’s “children”. Recently, when confronted with this allegation, Mr. Lester admitted that it’s true.

Posted By AL : December 8, 2013 9:26 pm

little known fact: That was Jean Hagen’s real voice we heard in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN–in actuality Debbie Reynolds was mouthing to Hagen’s real voice, not vice-versa. What?

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 8, 2013 10:12 pm

two iconic rock vocalists of the sixties,Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and Davy

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 8, 2013 10:16 pm

…and Humble Pie (Marriott) and Davy Jones of the Monkees both played the Artful Dodger …

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 8, 2013 10:30 pm

a glitch before i could finish my response,but now there’s a movie about Mary Poppins,essentially a musical,but would it work without it?…probably,just wouldn’t be the same without the songs you’ve got ingrained into your memory…which is why Scrooge works just as well as Christmas’s a case of which came first…Scrooge i saw when i was very young,and i wanted Albert Finney to get the Oscar for it,when i cared about such stuff and actually watched them…now,i think the traditional Sims version is superior to the Finney musical

Posted By doug : December 8, 2013 11:14 pm

I passed “Oz The” around my group of friends, and we all enjoyed it. It’s been too long since I saw “Return To Oz”, but I remember liking it.
After being impressed by Joss Whedon with both “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Dr Horrible” I wouldn’t mind seeing him tackle a non-musical remake of a classic, or a drama re-made as a musical.
Let’s see…”Anna And The King Of Siam” became “The King And I” and then was re-made in 1999 as a non musical.
“The Shop Around The Corner” became the Judy Garland musical “In The Good Old Summertime” and then was re-imaged as “You’ve Got Mail”.
I agree with B Piper about Dr. Doolittle-I loved the Lofting books as a kid, and Eddie Murphy should have never sullied the screen with his alleged comedy.

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 9, 2013 4:08 am

THE RAINMAKER was remade as the stage musical 102 IN THE SHADE but the tuneful version never made it to the screen…understandably since the original play was so lyrical in its language, adding music seems beside the point.

Posted By Jenni : December 9, 2013 2:14 pm

I stumbled across an article in Entertainment Weekly,(last of Nov. issue) that Kind Hearts and Coronets has been remade as a musical, now on Broadway, and it’s getting rave reviews from the critics. As I read the reviewer’s article, he made no mention that this musical was originally the British film-shame on him! This review, from the NYTimes, mentions the movie.

Posted By swac44 : December 9, 2013 5:24 pm

FWIW, there actually was a previous film version of the story that inspired Fiddler on the Roof, a 1939 New York-shot (using the old Biograph studio) drama in Yiddish called Tevya, directed by and starring Yiddish Art Theatre founder Maurice Schwartz. He was also in Delmer Daves’ Bird of Paradise (1951) and William Dieterle’s Salome (with Rita Hayworth).

Posted By Dan Oliver : December 9, 2013 9:27 pm

There was also an earlier play by Arnold Perl called ‘Tevya and His Daughters’ which was produced (I think) in the late ’50s. Its story is essentially the first two thirds of ‘Fiddler.’

Posted By kingrat : December 9, 2013 9:38 pm

I also liked OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. At least one non-musical film has been made from a Broadway musical: FANNY, directed by Joshua Logan. Some of the music, especially the title song, was used underneath various scenes. Of course the musical had been based on both film and literary sources from France.

Posted By gregferrara : December 10, 2013 1:39 am

I was not aware of the Tevya movies. I’d love to see a new one. I think Fiddler on the Roof is overlooked.

AL, I read about that Lester/Jackson thing. Man, that guy’s whole life was weird (Jackson, I mean).

Posted By swac44 : December 10, 2013 11:28 am

The 1939 Tevya is pretty obscure, probably because it was shot in Yiddish, I can’t imagine there was a huge market for it, but there was a string of Yiddish films made around that time. I’m guessing they also played in Europe, but we can understand what happened there within a few years. The only reason I ever heard of it was from reading a piece on Edgar G. Ulmer’s Yiddish films, which mentioned other noteworthy titles in the genre.

Incidentally, they’re all available from The National Centre for Jewish Film (as is Tevya):

Of course the first thing I thought of when I read this piece was a bit from Woody Allen’s standup days, where he quips that Noel Coward was buying to rights to My Fair Lady, removing the music, and turning it back into Pygmalion.

Posted By robbushblog : December 10, 2013 9:19 pm

West Side Story might work. Singin’ in the Rain? No way.

Some boring musical like Evita would probably be better if they remade it as a drama (also without Madonna). I could definitely see THAT work.

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