Sunday, July 31, 2011

Movies Go Broadway

Used to be, when a Broadway play was a hit, sooner or later someone would make it into a movie: Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, and so on. But somewhere along the way, the trend got flipped. Broadway composers, producers, and their ilk began rummaging in the movie vaults for hits on screen to transform into hits on stage. Some used their own vehicles. For example, Blake Edwards and wife Julie Andrews took their hit movie, Victor, Victoria, and turned it into a stage musical, which I was fortunate to catch in Chicago before it moved to Broadway. Mel Brooks took his movie, The Producers, and made it into a wildly successful stage musical; although when he tried to repeat that success with Young Frankenstein, it was less than stellar.

On a recent trip to New York I was struck by how many of the hit musicals now tapping across the Broadway boards began life as movies—a majority, it seemed, though I may be overestimating. Billy Elliot was a sheer delight on stage. I’ll remember it better than the movie. It’s a great dance show. Pricilla, Queen of the Desert was pure costume fluff, not particularly better than the movie but good for a fun afternoon escape into an air-conditioned theater when the heat wave temperatures soared past the 100-degree mark. Of course, it’s always fun to hear again those great gay disco anthems, such as “It’s Raining Men.”

The flip-flop from Broadway-to-screen to screen-to-Broadway probably has a lot to do with conservative economics, the need to shepherd finances and bet on, presumably, a sure thing: hit movie equals hit stage vehicle. But there are no guarantees. Still, it’s not a bad bet and probably better than risking money on mounting an unknown show that might, or might not, catch the theater-going public’s fancy.

And yet I am troubled by this trend, for its lack of creativity, its lack of leadership in the arts, its pandering to the need to make a buck above all else. Going to a Broadway show today is less about having a new experience and more about seeing merely a new interpretation of a prior experience. That said, isn’t that what we’ve been doing with Shakespeare for the last 400 years or so?