Life Upon the Wicked Stage (is often quite different from the movie)

Over the years scores of plays have gone the route from stage to screen.  Being a self-confessed musical geek the musicals are of especial interest to me.  Of the nine musicals that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture five have followed this route: West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and Chicago.  Gigi went from screen to stage and An American in Paris became a stage musical for the second time earlier this year.  My Fair Lady is the only one of the first group to be named both Best Picture and also win a Tony for Best Musical (though Chicago was later awarded a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical). As a general rule there are always re-writes and changes made as these productions transition.  In recent years a popular change (sometimes an addition of sorts) is to include a “new” song in the movie score.  The reason for this is that the original songs included in the stage production are not eligible for “Best Song,”  In movie production company’s quest to nab Oscar nominations this has become standard practice.  Evita played it well and actually won Best Original Song for Webber and Rice (You Must Love Me).  Another change that involves music is several of the original production’s songs being removed altogether, or rearranged as to their order (West Side Story rearranged several of the songs and assigned a few to different characters.  “America” is sung by the Puerto Rican ladies in the stage production but is sung by the ladies and the men in the movie.  The difference causes the song to become perhaps even more comic and certainly more bitter).  Chicago’s director Rob Marshall should be given a great deal of credit for coming up with a concept that allowed what many had considered an project that could not be presented on film.  Ironic considering that the original Broadway director was Bob Fosse who had turned Cabaret into a multiple Oscar winning movie and famously won the Oscar for Best Director over Francis Ford Coppalla’s work on The Godfather.  Marshall came up with the idea of filming Chicago from the point of view of Roxie Hart.  Basically this meant that the movie was all about what Roxie was witnessing and she became the audience’s “eyes.”  It also meant that the duet between Velma Kelly and Matron Mama Morton “Nowadays,”  had to be excised as the scene takes place outside of Roxie’s presence.  Technically it should have also meant that “Mr. Cellophane” should have been removed also.  Thank goodness he left it in.  It is my favorite song from the show and gave John C. Reilly a showcase that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Part of the reason that My Fair Lady is the only one to win both “Best” awards may be that quite simply it is the one that stands virtually unchanged from stage to screen.  It is in many ways a filmed stage play.  The sets are pretty intimate with only a few instances where the action is “opened up” to try to take advantage of the more extensive area that a film set can offer.  My Fair Lady, for all of it’s accolades also gathered some criticism over casting.  Audrey Hepburn was certainly not the first non-singing actress (or actor for that matter) to star in a movie musical.  Deborah Kerr was dubbed (by perhaps the best “ghost” of all time, Marni Nixon) for the role  of Anna in The King and I (and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress).  Ms Hepburn was also dubbed by Ms. Nixon.  Marni did quite well for herself as far as Oscar winning movies in the early 1960’s as she also dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story and had a small part in The Sound of Music, for once not dubbing for someone else.  The irony here is that she appeared opposite Julie Andrews.  Julie was part of the casting controversary for My Fair Lady.  Julie had created the role of Eliza Doolittle (garnering a Tony Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Musical along the way).  When Hollywood brought the multiple award winning stage musical to the screen they decided, as they often do, to use an established movie star.  Rex Harrison reprised his role as Professor Higgins but even though he was a known movie presence, he was not at the time a person who could, as we say these days, “open a movie.”  Hepburn already had an Oscar to her name and in fact was an excellent choice, except that she did not have the musical chops for the role.  Once again, this was a situation that  Hollywood began dealing with the second that “talkies” became all the rage (a large part of the plot of the quinintesential Hollywood musical, Singin’ in the Rain deals with the many pitfalls of popular stars who had voices that did not fit their image, not just singing voices but all around).  In the ultimate payback (though in fact Julie Andrews from all accounts is too much of a lady and simply too gracious a person to have thought of Hepburn as “the enemy), not only did Hepburn not receive an Oscar nomination but Julie was nominated for her title role in Mary Poppins and went on to win.  A star was born.  To further extend the “more bankable star” irony, the next year Julie starred as Maria von Trapp in the screen adaptation of The Sound of Music, a role that was created on Broadway by Mary Martin.  Mary is one of the most honored stage actresses ever.  She was also 22 years older than Andrews at the time.  Their ages probably were not the main consideration however since the stage musical had been presented barely 6 years previously.  To paraphrase Woody Allen in Radio Days “there are a lot of great stories about musicals and I have collected hundreds over the years.”


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