Stage-to-screen adaptions: Is there a right way to do it?

Film-to-stage or stage-to-film… whichever way an adaption goes it is always a point of interest for theatre fans. Transferring a story from one medium to another carries many challenges with it and, in the case of turning a stage musical into a big-screen production, it can be very difficult to earn the approval of the theatre fans who, most often, are fiercely protective of the original show.

There have been numerous stage-to-film adaptions over the years and one of the biggest successes was the recent film adaption of one of the most beloved musicals ever, Les Miserables. Released in December 2012, the film was directed by Tom Hooper and featured such Hollywood stars as Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway, along with many from the musical theatre world. Samantha Bark reprised her role of Eponine in the film, which also included a cameo from Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop and many past and present cast members of the West End stage production. One of the biggest difference between this and previous adaptions of musicals is that the vocals were recorded live on set, with the cast singing through the scenes rather than acting to pre-recorded soundtracks. Overall, the film was very well-received and won an assortment of awards, as well as the hearts of theatre fans – which one could argue is a far more difficult achievement.

A film version of Jersey Boys, the musical based on the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was released on 20th June 2014 and has been getting the thumbs-up so far, and in January 2015, Disney are set to release a film adaption of Into The Woods. Following the success of the Les Miserables film, there is also talk of further adaptions with musicals Wicked and Miss Saigon said to be receiving the big-screen treatment.

Turning musicals into films is nothing new of course. Before Les Miserables, such stage musicals as Chicago, Hairspray, The Phantom of the Opera, Rock of Ages and Dreamgirls have been adapted for film, and while some didn’t really benefit from stepping away from the stage (the less said about Gerard Butler’s singing in Phantom the better), most have been relatively well received by theatre fans.

Last night I went back to watch one of these older film version of a musical, one which I hadn’t seen before. I was curious to see if an adaption made in the past decade would be able to hold its own in the environment of today’s high standards, so I settled down to watch the film adaption of Rent.

The rock musical based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme premiered on Broadway in 1996 following a successful Off-Broadway run and was as big a hit there as it was its earlier showings. Created by Jonathan Larson (who sadly passed away the night before its Off-Broadway debut), it depicts one years in the lives of a group of impoverished Bohemian-types struggling to survive in New York City under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. It quickly gained critical acclaim and went on to win four Tony Awards, the success of the show leading to subsequent national tours and further international productions. Various versions have been seen here in the UK since the original Broadway production, with some of the most recent being the 2007 Rent: Remixed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, the Greenwich Theatre staged a revival in 2012 and a concert rendition toured in 2013 in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

Rent has secured its place among the classics and even has its own fan following known as ‘RENT-Heads’, so many were excited by the news that it was to be immortalised on the big screen. The film musical of Rent was released in 2005, nearly ten years ago – so how did it fare?

Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay for the film, which largely stays true to the original story told on stage. Under the direction of Chris Columbus though, the grittiness of the stage musical has been toned down which results in a film that seems to have somewhat lost the edge that made the original musical so popular. A number of songs from the show have been cut from the film, and as with Les Miserables, which is also a sung-through musical, the songs in the film are broken up with added dialogue. One of the most notable aspects of the film though is that most of cast were comprised, not only of musical theatre performers, but of those who had featured in the original Broadway production. Six of the main cast reprised their roles in the film, including Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen), Adam Pascal (Roger Davis), Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel Dumott Schunard), Idina Menzel (Maureen Johnson) and Taye Diggs (Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin III).

Tracie Thoms joined as lesbian lawyer and Maureen’s girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson, while Rosario Dawson gave a great turn as HIV-positive dancer and heroin addict Mimi Marquez, who is the love interest of Roger. The casting choice split opinions between those who approved of seeing the original cast members reprising their roles and those who felt that, ten years down the line, they were too old to play the characters. There are times when watching the film that their age distracts from the events of the story a little, but actually having actors who can sing more than makes up for this, in my opinion. Many other stage-to-film adaptions went the route of favouring famous names over vocal ability and the end product suffered for it, so the film version of Rent surely has to get a big thumbs-up for making the music in a musical the priority here.

Rent is certainly not the best film adaption of a musical that’s ever been made, but by no means is it the worst either. If you look at fan comments concerning the film, the main gripe appears to be that Columbus played it a little too safe and gave fans a tamer view of the experience of living with HIV/AIDS in New York City’s East Village during that time. As I said earlier, theatre fans can be overly protective of shows and it is impossible to please everyone when adapting a musical for the film.

Most people have their thoughts on what should and shouldn’t be done in a film adaption, but really, I think it ultimately depends on the particular musical in regards to how it should be transferred to the big screen.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 3rd July 2014

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