A Fine Romance: Adapting Broadway to Hollywood in the Studio System Era

When “Sweeney Todd” was finally released as a movie musical in 2007, twenty-eight years after its debut on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim said “everyone who has attempted to translate a stage musical to film has underestimated the distance between the languages.” Geoffrey Block largely disagrees, in “A Fine Romance: Adapting Broadway to Hollywood in the Studio System Era” (Oxford University Press, 368 pages), which focuses on twelve stage musicals and their (first) screen adaptations, from “Show Boat” (which made its Broadway debut in 1927, and was released as a movie in 1936) to “Cabaret” (which made its Broadway debut in 1966, and was released as a movie in 1972.) Specifically (to reprint the list from the book):

(The number in parentheses after the stage show is the number of performances it ran on Broadway; the number after the film is its running time.)

Block, a musicologist and historian whose previous books include ”Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from ‘Show Boat’ to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber,” believes that musicals on stage and film “do in fact speak a common language.”

Any language changes with the times, and given the rise of “livestreaming” and the persistence of “digital theater,” this seems a good time to look at the history of the relationship between stage and screen.  “A Fine Romance” is not geared to the casual reader; it’s an academic book, full of charts and appendices and digressions. It seems to assume we’ve just seen each of the stage musicals and all of the movies under discussion, offering minutely detailed inventories of changes from stage to screen with so little orientation that we’re sometimes not even given a straightforward plot summary.  Still, one can extricate some worthwhile observations from Block’s dense survey. 

For the first decades of sound pictures, most of the adaptations of Broadway musicals were far from faithful to the original Broadway shows.  There were many reasons for this.

Movie musicals (movies in general) were kept to under two hours; stage musicals are generally more than two and a half, and are in at least two acts, divided by at least one intermission. So adaptations had to cut material, and be reworked so that there wasn’t a cliffhanger in the middle.

Broadway leads were replaced with better-known Hollywood stars, because the films needed to attract a larger audience. The technology inherent in the film medium (but not possible on stage at the time) also played a role: Some songs, for example, were dubbed. There were frequent film montages

The Hollywood Production Code meant you could be more open about controversial issues and taboos on stage than on screen — a complicated business that Block revisits numerous times. It was the opposite dynamic in the case of “Cabaret,” which was created after the dissolution of the censoring code. The 1972  film made the male lead Brian (portrayed by Michael York) bisexual, which was not mentioned in the original 1966 Broadway musical, for the character (then named Clifford and portrayed by Bert Convy.) As producer Hal Prince later explained about the stage omission: “Putting Nazis on the stage in a musical seemed like a big enough step at the time.”

There were also less-than-admirable financial reasons for the infidelity.  The eight major movie studios had lyricists and composers under contract, and it was lucrative for them to have their in-house employees write new songs for the film adaptations, in place of those by the original Broadway composers, because it meant the studios owned the rights to those songs, and could make additional income through radio broadcasts, recordings and sheet music sales. George Gershwin’s musical “Strike Up The Band,” when it was turned into a 1940 musical, retained only its title song.

“Show Boat” was an early exception. Director James Whale, better known for helming Frankenstein and other horror movies, was committed to make his film “as nearly as possible a transcription of the stage version,” according to Oscar Hammerstein who wrote  the libretto of the original and the screenplay for the 1936 adaptation. Even here, though, there were changes – one to try to correct the ending, which the stage musical had altered from its original source, Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name. Then, because actor Paul Robeson’s song Ol’ Man River went over so well, Hammerstein and Whale also gave him another song to sing in the movie, a duet with Hattie McDaniel (Queenie) called “Ah Still Suits Me.” Block argues this broke new ground in showing an affectionate Black marriage – the only one of the five couples depicted in the show (all the other ones white) that are not beset with marital problems. This, Block argues, went some way in diluting the stereotyping in the stage version. On the other hand, there was another new song, this one for Irene Dunne as Magnolia, “Gallivantin’ Around” which Dunne performed in blackface.

Starting in the 1950s, movie musicals became much more faithful to their sources on Broadway, for several reasons, largely because movie studios felt the pressure of new technology. A wider audience was now acquainted with the stage musicals thanks to easily available original cast recordings, and the advent of TV pushed the movie studios into making the movie musical an event that would draw viewers from their homes. This was the beginning of what Block calls the roadshow musical, expensively produced films with limited national engagements — among them, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, My Fair Lady and the Sound of Music. But it began with “Oklahoma!”

Besides the myriad ways “Oklahoma!” was groundbreaking as a stage musical, the film version, released 12 years after the show’s Broadway debut, offered something new as well: A new wide-screen technology, Todd-AO 70 mm . Rather than using a soundstage, the film was also shot mostly outdoors in Arizona (which Block says looked more like turn of the century Oklahoma than Oklahoma did.) The film adaptation was also longer than the conventional two hour cap, and they spared little expense. It cost $6.8 million (“staggering” at the time, Block says; it only made $7.1 million)

 Although only one main actor was cast from the Broadway version, there was no dubbing. All but a handful of the songs were retained, as were the dances.

Block cites other critics as finding fault with “Oklahoma’s” fidelity to the stage version, accusing the movie of “staginess.”  Block labels this as misguided, and quotes a 2020 essay by Jesse Green: “the best adaptations today relish the theatricality of their sources and try to enhance it.”

In many of the film adaptations in what Block calls the Age of Fidelity, the major change was not in song selection, but song order, which Block enumerates in “West Side Story” and especially Rodgers & Hammerstein’s and Joseph Fields’ 1958 “Flower Drum Song,” arguing in the latter “in nearly every case, the film’s reordering and revised narrative constitutes a dramatic improvement over the stage original.”

After “Cabaret,” Block writes, most of the film adaptations of Broadway musicals have made money, but few have gained critical acclaim. One exception, “Chicago” in 2002, is one of the ten musicals to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (The only Oscar winner that Block focuses on is “West Side Story.” If it’s not always clear why he has chosen the dozen he’s selected, in fairness, he does mention “Chicago” in passing, as well as the other Oscar winning movie musicals, most of them film adaptations rather than original films. He also mentions many, many other film adaptations, easily searchable in the index.)

“A Fine Romance” ends with a list of new film adaptations of musicals released in 2021 (when he presumably had to send his manuscript to the editor) — “In The Heights,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Tick, Tick…Boom,” “West Side Story.” He makes a one-sentence observation that suggests volumes about the stage-to-screen relationship yet to be written: “They also became instantly available for streaming.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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