Sunday, July 27, 2008

Movie Musicals I Can't Help Loving

I've spent the majority of my life in the theatre. And like many theatre folk, I started by doing musicals. These days, I'd rather do a cutting-edge absurdist piece by Nicky Silver or a classic by Shakespeare or Shaw. But every now and then, I still love a good musical. They don't always work on film, but when they do, look out. Here's a list of the ones I can watch over and over again.
The Wizard of Oz - Yes, it's gay cliche, but who cares? Victor Fleming's lush Technicolor movie is a beloved classic for many reasons, least of all the wonderful songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y Harburg. At least three other uncredited directors, including King Vidor and Mervyn LeRoy, worked on the movie, and Shirley Temple was originally wanted to play Dorothy (thank goodness contractual obligations prevented her from doing so). A box-office failure in '39, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become the single most loved movie musical of all time.
Sweet Charity - Bob Fosse directed this adaptation of the Neil Simon musical about a dance hall girl (a polite term for prostitute) who dreams of doing something better with her life. Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, Stubby Kaye and Sammy Davis Jr. lead a terrific cast (which includes a very young Ben Vereen and a very Continental Ricardo Montalban) in this very mod 1969 musical. Adapted by no less than Frederico Fellini, the script may seem tame by today's standards, but it was scandalous back in '69. Pure cheese and great fun.
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - Vincent Minelli directs this Alan Jay Lerner musical about Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand), a psychic with a five pack-a-day cigarette addiction. Loud, crass and absent-minded, Daisy visits psychiatrist Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) in an effort to be cured of smoking through hypnosis, so she can make a positive impression on her boring fiance's employer. While she's under, Chabot discovers that in a previous life, Daisy was the fascinating 19th century psychic Melinda Tentrees. Unsurprisingly, Chabot is soon smitten with Melinda, though he practically despises Daisy. Released in 1970, this quaint, old-fashioned musical explores the concepts of ESP and past lives in an amusing and romantic way. Lerner's songs are both lovely and at times, hilarious and "La Barbra" gives one of her best film performances. On a Clear Day... also features a small, non-singing performance by a young Jack Nicholson as Daisy's step-brother Tad. A terrific movie to watch with a loved one on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Moulin Rouge - Australian auteur Baz Luhrman (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet) reinvented and reinvigorated the movie musical in 2001 with this dazzling tale about the young playwright Christian (Ewan MacGregor) and the consumptive chanteuse Satine (Nicole Kidman) with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Complicating matters is the jealous Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to whom Satine has been promised by the Moulin Rouge's owner, Harry Zeigler (Jim Broadbent) in exchange for backing Zeigler's new musical, "Spectacular Spectacular." Combining modern songs from the likes of David Bowie, The Police and Elton John with original numbers and a plot as creaky as an old boot, Moulin Rouge proved that the movie musical was far from dead, paving way for films like Chicago and Hairspray. A romantic dream of a movie.
Cabaret - Bob Fosse again, this time with a screen adaptation of Kander and Ebb's musical version of John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera." Liza Minelli (daughter of Judy Garland and Vincent Minelli) plays Sally Bowles, an American singer working at the Kit Kat Club in pre-Nazi Berlin. Joel Grey plays the club's omnisexual MC and Michael York is the handsome British bisexual with whom Sally falls in love. The movie's 8 Oscars included Best Actor (Grey), Best Actress (Minelli), Best Director and Best Picture. Smart, sexy and chilling, Cabaret never lets us forget the horrors about to befall Germany and the world. An astounding Broadway revival of the show featured the amazing Alan Cumming as the MC, in a performance even more decadent than Grey's.
Chicago - More brilliance from Kander and Ebb (my favorite Broadway team), this time directed by Rob Marshall. Based on a 1930's potboiler, Chicago is the story of Roxy Hart, a woman who kills her philandering boyfriend and exploits the judicial system to advance her career as an entertainer. Marshall wisely turns the show's musical numbers into the fantasies in Roxy's head, making them more palatable for modern sensibilities. Renee Zellwiger is Roxy, Catherine Zeta-Jones is co-inmate Velma Kelly and Richard Gere is publicity-seeking lawyer Billy Flynn. Add an appearance by the show's original star, Chita Rivera and a star-making turn by Queen Latifah as "Mama" Morton; some expert choreography and commentary on the nature of fame, and you have one of the best film adaptations of a musical ever made.
Hair - How do you adapt a musical with no plot? If you're director Milos Forman (Amadeus), you do it with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then unknowns Treat Williams, John Savage, Annie Golden (late of Broadway's "Xanadu") and Beverly D'Angelo are part of the excellent ensemble in this anti-war musical, brought to the screen nearly a decade after it appeared on Broadway. James Rado's and Jerome Ragni's excellent rock score is mostly intact, though the show's anarchistic style is supplanted by a story about a young man's brief adventures in Hippiedom before he enlists to serve in Viet Nam. Ren Woods (Xanadu; Brother from Another Planet) sings a rousing version of the show's opener, "Aquarius," and Nell Carter and Laurie Beechman (both, sadly, deceased) are hilarious in the number "Black Boys/White Boys." On a bizarre trivia note, Hair is the first film to show urination on screen. On another bizarre note, Hair is the first movie I saw on a straight date.
So, what movie musicals do you love? Let me know. I'd love to hear from you.

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