Musical Adaptations

What makes a movie adaptation of a stage musical financially and critically successful? For the purposes of this paper, success will be defined as being critically acclaimed and returning the money that the  production company spent. Movie adaptations and especially musical adaptations of them are starting to make a comeback, so now is an interesting time to see what causes these movies to be successful and what can lead to an adaptation not doing well. This paper will be looking at what makes a movie adaptation of a musical critically and financially successful, with successful defined as the movie being critically acclaimed and returning its money. How  this paper will achieve this by going through movie adaptations of stage musicals through the years and comparing them to others, while also exploring audience reaction, censors, casting and acting quality, how closely the adaptation stays to the musical, and the main message.

So what are some key terms that are important for this paper, and what limitations and advantages are there to both mediums of stage and film. Two terms that you might see are diegetic and non-diegetic, both of which describe how the message of a song relates to the story of either the musical production or the movie adaptation.  Diegetic means that the event happens in the story. In the case of musicals there are usually more non- diegetic numbers meaning that the characters aren’t actually singing in the universe of the show, an example of a non-diegetic number is “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. Another term that will be used a lot is censors. Censors are people who review the film and see if there is anything that audiences might find too disturbing.

There are advantages to both movies and musicals and there are also limitations to both.  Musicals have the advantage of playing off the audience and being able to format the show around the reactions. But, musicals also have the limitations of not being able to change sets quickly and not have as detailed set sometimes like movies can have. Movies have the advantage of having a grander scale to work with such as using real locations and being able to use a sound stage. However, the movie has the disadvantage of not being able to play to the audience and can’t have the intimate connection that live theater has.

In the 1950s Cole Porter’s stage musical, Kiss Me Kate, was adapted to the screen. Although the story of the stage musical and the movie are very similar, there is one element that is toned down for the movie adaptation of Kiss Me Kate: the overt sexuality. Many of the songs in stage production version of Kiss Me Kate are provocative, which  lead to some being cut in the movie adaptation. The song “Too Darn Hot” was removed from its original place in the stage production and added to a later scene in the movie adaptation.  This new version was sanitized and had little to do with the original message of the song from the stage production. Another change in the movie adaptation was the removal of people saying ‘bastard’ throughout the show. Surprisingly, the movie kept one of the most controversial scenes of the musical, which is when Fred spanks Lili.  With some of the riskier scenes and lyrics omitted, the movie couldn’t make its mark and suffered a loss at the movie box office.

Another 1950s movie musical that the censors worried about was the movie adaptation of the stage musical Carousel. While Kiss Me Kate had to deal with many changes to avoid censors, Carousel had to change one large plot point to avoid the wrath of censors. Kim H. Kowlake says “…After World War II, as the United States became the richest and most powerful country in the world (average household income tripled between 1944-1955), the musical theater confident turned its attention to pressing domestic social issues, including racism and prejudice…”  In the stage musical, Billy, the male lead, is part of a failed robbery and as the authorities chase him he gets trapped in a corner. Seeing no way out he pulls his knife out and kills himself. Now the events of the movie are very similar, until the actual death. Billy, cornered, climbs on top of shipping crates with his knife out, then the shipping crates soon collapse and Billy accidentally stabs himself. The censors were kind to the movie adaptation of Carousel however, since Unlike Kiss me Kate, Carousel was very successful being a hit in the box office. The reason that Carousel was more of a success was because it wasn’t a complete sanitized version of the stage musical, and other than the one plot point, didn’t shy away from risque subject matters.

In the 1961  one of the most famous movie adaptations of a stage musical was released: West Side Story. This movie adaptation is so recognizable, that even if someone doesn’t know the storyline, they know the famous snapping that happens in the movie. This might be a rare case were the movie adaptation is probably more famous than the stage musical that it is based on. The movie and the musical have the same storyline. The movie adaptation of West Side Story only changed the order of songs from the stage production, but why was this done? One of the lyricists, Stephen Sondheim, did not like the original order of the stage musical soundtrack. One change to the order of songs was “Maria” and “Tonight”. In the musical the two songs are performed together, however in the movie they are split up by the song “America”. This was done because the two songs are both love songs and Sondheim thought that there needed to be break between the two. Although these changes occurred, the movie was a smash hit and was nominated for 11 oscars, winning 10 of them.

Unlike West Side Story, a movie adaptation that had major changes to the songs were A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line was at the time probably the most successful musical stage production of its time. When the original Broadway production closed it had been  the longest running broadway production at the time. Soon the movie version of A Chorus Line was underway with the original director attached as the director for the film. However, when his idea for the movie, that being showing actors audition to be in the adaptation of the stage play, was reject, he soon left the project. Other directors were considered for the job, but all declined, because they thought that A Chorus Line was too beloved and would not translate well to screen. Soon, Richard Attenborough was attached and the movie was made. One of the first changes that was a complete disservice to the stage musical, was to have a main character. One of the great ideas of the stage musical was there was not central character that the story focuses on, instead every character is explored in depth to understand why they are the way that they are. Another change was cutting three songs and replacing them with different songs that were considered inferior to the original. One song that was cut was “Montage” and replaced with the song “Surprise, Surprise”. “Montage” was a beautifully complex number that goes into depth and backstory of the characters in the show. What is “Surprise, Surprise” about you may ask. Well to put it frankly, this song is about sex. Another song that was cut and replaced was “The Music and the Mirror”, it being replaced with “Let Me Dance for You”.  The largest butchering of the song was “What I Did for Love”. In the the musical the song was lead by Dianna and soon had the other chorus members joining in towards the end and was a beautiful song talking about the things that we do for love. In the movie version it is sung as a generic love song for the main character and her failed relationship. Vincent Canby says in an article about the film “Having recognized this, and the impossibility of finding any cinematic equivalent, Mr. Attenborough has elected to make a more or less straightforward film version that is fatally halfhearted.” A Chorus Line received mixed reviews, and was hated by the fans of the original musical. So why did West Side Story, which changed the score, succeed while A Chorus Line failed? Because, with West Side Story the changes to the score benefited the movie, while with A Chorus Line made changes that were thought to be not beneficial to the story and was a disservice to the stage musical

One of the most  financially successful adaptations of a musical was the adaptation of The Sound of Music. This was interesting because the movie received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Some critics thought that it was too sentimental and that there wasn’t interesting shots in the movie. But, the audiences disagreed. The film is one of the most commercially successful films of all time. It was so successful in fact that the time it was re-released in theaters 4 years after the initial release of the film and still earned a profit. The movie was very successful and is celebrated as a classic to this day. This is an odd case were the audiences ignored the critics reaction. This is probably because family’s thought that the movie had a wonderful message, and fans of the original liked it.

Then there was an adaptation that changed so much from the musical that it was based on. That movie adaptation was Cabaret based on the musical of the same name. The movie makes several changes to the story that it is based on, including characters. The first is the character of Sally Bowles, she was drastically changed form the stage musical. First off, was changing her to being american rather than british like she had been in the musical. Also, Sally is presented as being a good singer, were in the musical she was actually quit ameture at singing but thought she was good at it. Another character that was changed was the character of Cliff Bradshaw who in the movie is renamed to Brian Roberts, and is now british instead of american. He is also presented as being openly bi-sexual, unlike the musical where it was never presented that he might be. Other than that there is a newly added sub-plot that wasn’t in the stage musical, but the sub-plot was in the book that Cabaret is based on. Journalist Stephen Talks on this subject, saying “In adapting the stage musical Cabaret for the big screen, screenwriter Jay Allen relied heavily on original source material (John Van Durten’s play and Isherwood’s stories)…” One of the larger changes is the musical numbers. In the stage musical there are both diegetic and non diegetic musical numbers, but the movie has just diegetic musical numbers. There are also added songs that weren’t in the stage musical that the original composers wrote for the movie. Such as “Don’t Tell Mama” was replaced with the song “Mein Herr”. Some of the songs from the movie would actually be added into later productions of the stage musical. Although everything seems this movie would fail, it was actually a success. People praised the film for being not a happy go lucky musical like ones before, and instead was dark and thought provoking. The musical has been described as the musical people who hate musicals.

Then there was a golden age musical, Hello Dolly, that ended golden age musicals. This film had a rocky production, the first problem was Carol Channing having a contract to play the lead like she had on stage. However, when the film went into production five years after the premiere of the stage musical, she had been replaced by Barbra Streisand. This lead to Carol suing and winning the suit against 20th Century Fox. Once again, songs are cut to minimize the run time, but other than that the plots stay the same. The casting of Barbra Streisand was a bit controversial not only for the breach in contract with Carol, but because the character of  Dolly is supposed to be a middle aged woman and not young like Barbra. All though the movies was reviewed favorably, some thought that the film felt flat and not cinematic. The box office had a similar fate to the reviews, although the initial box office was strong it soon became a box office failure. However, the movie returned the money barely. The movie also received 3 Oscars, and was nominated for 4. Though this movie seems successful and it is by the definition of this paper, it is this movie also that made movie musicals fall into obscurity.

Another movie adaptation that was like Hello Dolly but wasn’t as well received was the adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. The development of the movie version of Phantom of the Opera started back in the 80s with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford set to reprise their roles that they had originated on stage. But, soon Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman got a divorce and the film was put on the shelf. But, in 2002 the production started development, and Joel Schumacher was attached to direct. Hugh Jackman was considered for the role of the Phantom, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, and soon Gerard Butler who had no previous singing experience. Two other actors were considered for the role of Christine before the role eventually went to Emmy Rossum. So how did the movie translate this classic love story? By having actors who could barely sing the sweeping complex score and adding nonsense that didn’t need to be there. Also having the Phantom’s deformity downplayed was not a great choice. Phoebe Hoban in the New York Times writes “Thus the Phantom, whose face when unmasked onstage sports a seriously nasty right side, on screen looks downright handsome, and even when unmasked is hardly hideous.”  In the musical there is this framing device before the overture is played and the chandelier lifts up above the audience. The reason this was done was because Andrew Lloyd Webber though that it was rude to start a musical with a loud bombastic overture so he put a prologue before. Other than that it shares no narrative significance, but for some reason the movie decides to keep cutting back to this narrative device. There was also is an added sword fight in the graveyard between Raoul and the Phantom. It ends with Phantom on the ground swordless and with Raoul about to stab him before Christine yells for him not too. This scene makes a line from the final lair scene when the Phantom utter “the world showed no compassion to me” but that begs the question if Raoul sparring the Phantoms life wasn’t an act of compassion what is? Other than the that the musical doesn’t stray far from the story line form the musical. But, the movie’s largest problem is that it isn’t filmed in an interesting way. Many of the shots hold on the characters in wide and mid shots and holding there for a long time. One of the greatest scenes in the musical is when the Phantom has just killed someone and Christine and Raoul go to the top of the opera house. Christine is convinced she heard the Phantom but it is left up if she did or not because as the audience we don’t see him. But, in the movie there is a shot of the Phantom when Christine thinks she hears him, leaving no room for interpretation. The film was financially successful, but received generally negative reviews. These two movies had seemed to fail, because they were filmed too flat and felt like a filmed stage production, and wasn’t cinematic enough.

It would seem that musical adaptations would have to stay faithful to the musical that it is based on, but Cabaret strayed away from its source material and was still successful. So then musicals can make drastic changes to the musical. Well a Chorus Line did that and was a massive failure. Then what is it what seems to make a successful adaptation of a musical? Well it seems to be to make a successful adaptation musical you must stay true to the original intent and message of the musical. Also, make it cinematic and don’t fall in the trap of making it seem as a filmed stage version. Rebecca Keegan says in a Time article “The 2005 movie version of The Producers looked almost exactly like the hugely successful broadway show. Which was exactly the problem.”


Tropiano, Stephen “Cabaret”

H. Kowlake, Kim “Theorizing the Golden Age of Musical: Genre, Structure, Syntax”

Keegan, Rebecca Winters “What Makes a Modern Movie Musical Sing” Time, 17 May.  2007.

Hoban, Phoebe “In the ‘Phantom’ movie, Over-the-Top Goes Higher” New York Times. 24 December.


Canby, Vincent “Film: Attenborough’s ‘Chorus line’” New York Times. 10 December. 1985.

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