The Future Of Musicals On Film: Are We Headed For A Broadway Comeback?

The box-office success of musicals adapted for film has fluctuated over the last decade. The film adaptation of “Les Miserables” has grossed more than $148 million domestically, and more than $293 million in foreign theaters. Does the success of “Les Miserables” indicate a triumphant return to film for musicals, or is it just a fluke? By looking at some of Broadway's most-loved musicals and their success as films, we can try to predict the future of the once successful film genre.

The Producers (2005)

The stage version of “The Producers” is buoyed by crisp dialogue and the absurd boldness of making Hitler funny. In addition, the chemistry between Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick is palpable. “The Producers” swept up an astounding 12 awards of the 15 it was nominated for in the 2001 Tony Awards, and seemed perfect to adapt to film. According to The Numbers, the film adaptation of “The Producers” from 2005 cost $45 million dollars to produce, and in a sad but ironic twist, made less than $33 million worldwide — making it a successful flop about an attempted flop. The film version of “The Producers” seems to be trying too hard to squeeze out laughs, and is essentially the stage version without consideration for the fact that the exaggerated expressions and gestures of the actors aren't 20 feet away, but practically 20 feet tall on screen. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon described the effect as being at an IMAX watching a 3D film, without the glasses.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

“The Phantom of the Opera” is the longest-running Bronadway show in history and has been produced in 27 countries around the world. On the other side of the coin, the film version was a flop. The film version of “Phantom” cost $70 million dollars to produce but brought in a paltry $51 million domestically. How could one of the most successful ventures in entertainment history fail so badly in film form? New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described Joel Schumacher's adaptation as swollen, vulgar and lacking in genuine romance and spectacle. Additionally, the script never seems to come together right. While Hollywood directors seem drawn to memorable musicals, it seems they rarely know what to do with them.

Rent (2005)

“Rent” was an astounding success on Broadway in 1996, after playing off-Broadway in 1994. With a decade-defining soundtrack, “Rent” tackled taboo issues such as AIDS, heroin addiction and homosexuality, and ran for more than ten years. The film adaptation of “Rent” came out almost a decade later in 2005, and much of the hard angsty edges had worn away, as American culture had become more comfortable talking about the issues “Rent” initially addressed. Additionally, director Chris Columbus chose to cast the original actors from the Broadway production, who, unlike their characters, had aged almost 10 years. Rotten Tomatoes aggregated rating for “Rent” is an underwhelming 46 percent, citing weak direction and an inability to connect to the film's crippling failures.

The Future of Musicals in Film

Looking over a list of Broadway tickets from Telecharge, it's evident the Broadway musical continues to draw tremendous audiences, but the facts suggest that the fiscal success of film adaptations such as “Les Miserables” are by no means an indicator of musical theater's return to the success it knew in 1930s Hollywood. Production of a Broadway musical is an expensive venture. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers reports the average cost as being between $5 million and $20 million, but the costs are dwarfed by the production of a Hollywood equivalent. While “Into the Woods” and “Annie” are slated for film releases in 2014, the facts don't shine brightly on either of them. Film directors rarely know how to handle adapting musicals, and stage directors rarely know how to handle the subtleties of film. Perhaps the sun will come out tomorrow for “Annie,” but Hollywood seems far from a new musical film renaissance.

The above article was a reader submission.
Gregory Shelf
Greg is an aspiring guitar player and Broadway musical fanatic. He freelances part-time so he can afford to take himself to every new show that comes to town.