Musical films have been a staple of cinema ever since sound was introduced, but they have a complex relationship with their sister form, musical theatre. The seemingly infinite series of film adaptations of stage shows has created an endless cycle of exchange that sparks debate even to this day. Both praised and panned, musical films are often seen as inferior to stage productions – but is this really a valid argument?
Proponents of musical theatre claim superiority because the proximity between the actors and the audience creates a more emotive atmosphere. Film is less able to achieve this – the viewers can’t experience the rousing choruses echoing around the auditorium or make eye contact with the characters on stage – and so the experience of the production is lessened. Film also demands alterations to be made – subplots may need to be simplified or removed; minor characters are often cut or combined; the setting is usually given more depth. These elements move the adaptation even further away from the original production. Some people use this to justify their belief in the superiority of musical theatre, but shouldn’t the two forms be viewed independently? Changes have to be made whenever a story moves across different forms of media, whether it’s from book to stage show, or from stage to screen. Whilst it’s important to recognise this, no form is inherently better than the other.
‘Changes have to be made whenever a story moves across different forms of media, whether it’s from book to stage show, or from stage to screen’
Les Misérables, for example, originally came from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel before it was adapted into a stage musical in 1980 and then a musical film in 2012. Inevitably, the shift from page to stage involved cuts to the copious source material, as well as structrual changes to make it better suited to performance, and the same occurred again for the movie version. Nevertheless, both have been critically acclaimed and well-received by audiences, and the fandoms often overlap. Different forms of media have always been interlinked and continue to inspire each other. Many musical theatre shows, including Wicked and Matilda, have been based on novels, and many musical films, such as Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, have been adapted from musical stage productions. Some musicals have even more interwoven relationships with their source material – Hairspray is a musical based on a film based on a musical! This cycle is testament to the genre’s enduring appeal, both for critics and audiences.
But what makes musicals so popular? The Greatest Showman rose to the top of the iTunes charts; Mamma Mia! was so popular it spawned the soon-to-be-released sequel; La La Land was a hit at the box-office and the awards shows. Yet musicals are still seen as cheesy, hammy, and lacking realism – for obvious reasons. If someone started narrating their life through song, especially with a voice as terrible as Hugh Jackman’s, they’d probably end up with a slap. But these traits that are so often panned are part of the appeal. Musicals, with their spontaneous singing, offer an escape from the reserve of everyday life. They are more light-hearted and interactive, and sing-along showings, which are increasingly popular, make the experience more communal.
Yet this extra level that musicals bring to cinema is arguably just another capitalist venture designed to exploit the popularity of certain stage shows. If a musical stage show is popular and well-received, it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later it will get a movie adaptation. It was recently announced that the hottest show in the West End, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, will be adapted into a feature film, and a live performance will also be recorded for release in cinemas. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, meanwhile, is an original sequel to the hit 2008 film that was based on the Mamma Mia! musical. In both cases, Hollywood is trying to monetize the popularity of the productions, sometimes putting money before quality.
‘Making film adaptations of musical theatre shows improves accessibility and allows many people who wouldn’t otherwise have the means or ability to see a stage show to experience the stories’
At the same time however, making film adaptations of musical theatre shows improves accessibility and allows many people who wouldn’t otherwise have the means or ability to see a stage show to experience the stories. Seeing a film is cheaper than going to the theatre and can be watched in the comfort of your own home, so is both economically and physically more accessible. The production can be viewed by millions of people across the world, both in the cinemas and on DVD or streaming sites, and the period for which it is accessible is potentially infinite, unlike theatre, which often has a limited run.
Musicals on screen and on stage have a layered relationship to say the least and are often set against each other – but both continue to appeal, so why can’t they exist in harmony? At the end of the day, Hollywood will be adapting musicals non-stop for the money, money, money – you can’t stop the beat, so you might as well dance to it (sorry not sorry).
Hugh Jackman Image Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]