Monday, January 20, 2020

How Hollywood Wreaks Havoc on Broadway Musicals --- Flies Higher Creating Its Own


LATEST EXAMPLE of how Hollywood can turn a Broadway smash into a 5-star bomb is Cats, based on the Broadway phenomenon, and declared by one of its hissing critics (20% Rotten Tomatoes) , “catastrophic.”  I saw the bloated stage show once, and once was more than enough.  And, no I am not a knee-jerk Andrew Lloyd Weber hater – I saw Phantom of the Opera five times. 

FROM THE WOBBLY  get-go, musicals are like rambunctious children refusing to grow up. And even when they manage to bust Broadway and grab a few Tony's on the run, chances are, most of them that make it back to revival row will be subjected to “rethinking” and “re-imagining,” by self-appointed experts, who are just as likely to convert  good-enough material into ground breaking drivel.   And then there is Tinseltown – beware!  All that money, all those lavish sets!  All those interfering stars and marketing hustlers behind the scenes pushing a stage darling into an overwrought embarrassment  — everything that a musical does not need.  The producers of Cats promised "astonishing new technology." Can you spell   o v e r  - p r o d u c e d? 

 It's About the Songs, Stupid!

WHENEVER I GO near a movie adaptation, I best try forgetting that I ever saw the original stage show. But with The  King & I,  how can I not be shocked by the criminal absence of three Rodgers and Hammerstein gems -- I Have Dreamed, My Lord and Master, and  the comic masterpiece,  Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?  High Treason! Worse yet,  we are made to  suffer through a tediously long middle section, devoid of song, about Anna and the King  getting ready to host their English visitors, which feels more like a period piece in  minuet-land, all of which leads to a tiresomely repetitious 14-minute-long ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas.             
The Shocking Truth About Maria

I AM NOW going to movie musicals, or they to me, with but one default expectation: Just entertain me and keep all the talking down to a bare a minimum. This new attitude was hastened by disclosures in recent years of how the The sound of Music is almost a total fairy tale.  Did you know that the real Maria could not play a guitar? That the real Maria did not teach those Trapp darlings how to sing Do-Re-Mi? That the real Maria did no fall in love with the Captain, and that the real Maria  was hated by the Captain’s real-life oldest daughter?  

  Climb Every Mountain – At Your Own Risk
OH AND YES, among other shameless fabrications, had the family actually  followed the dictates of Climb Every Mountain and escaped over those singing hills,  they would have ended warbling out their favorite things in the backyard of one Adolf Hitler.       

IN FACT,  by one account, the Trapp boarded a street car for Italy; by another, they walked out of town.  I will give Oscar Hammerstein II a pass on this almost fraudulent  glorification.  He  did not write the libretto, but composed more great lyrics under the cloud of a cancer diagnosis.  One of Broadway’s true giants would be gone, only nine months after his last musical reached Breakaway. 

AND THEN CAME the movie, which only made the musical sweeter and longer.  And the critics  even nastier.  They tossed out the score’s two most sophisticated songs, numbers that had given the original work a little dramatic relief — How Can Live Survive? and No Way to Stop It.  With Oscar gone, Dick composed two ditties of his own, one, the atrociously awful Something Good.  By then, the critics were onto this flimsy con job,  Pauline Kael calling it a “sugar coated lie,“ Bosley Crowther,  “romantic nonsense and sentiment.” Judith Crist deemed the film suitable  for  "the five to seven set and all their mommies.”

                          Cary Grant's Cole Porter Charade

ALL OF THESE revelations have given me a reformed disposition to enjoy, guilt-free, whatever Hollywood may have to offer, however flagrantly untrue.  Creating from scratch, Tinseltown  would whip up a string of captivating originals through the 1949s-1950s.  

SO LET US advance to another fairy tale (pun not intended) masquerading as a true-to-life bio, the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Back in 1946, had the producers even wanted to, a Hollywood code would have disallowed them from depicting any element of Porter’s well-known homosexuality.  And so the film focuses on Porter’s platonic relationship to wife Linda, with whom he spent much time abroad traveling museums and sites, oddly not shown here.

WHAT DOES Night and Day do right?  Plenty.  First and foremost, this bright winning treatment in rich technicolor from Warner Bros. keeps those fabulous Porter songs rolling steadily along, the haunting title tune, a recurring motif that I never tire of hearing.  Glib supporting players include Monte Wolly, Eve Arden,  and Mary Martin.  Cary Grant’s charm is a pleasure unto itself.  

ALL OF WHICH makes this treat so much easier to love than De-Lovely, the 2004 film about Porter that in its own way may be  just as much fairy tale, working overtime to build up a great heterosexual love between Cole and Linda.  Director Irwin Winkler's  straining overreach can't help itself -- speculatively, Porter experts would argue  --  from having Cole impregnate Linda, who soon after miscarries.  In fact, the real Linda did suffer a miscarriage.  But she was a social climber and lesbian who latched onto Porter's rising star, and pursued her own affairs with women while Cole pursued his, relentlessly -- not a one of them significantly fleshed out here.  No wonder the film split the critics (48% Rotten), Rex Reed libeling it  "phony .... wooden, artificial, contrived." 
Another white wash? Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as Cole and Linda
"De-Lousy" -- Los Angeles Times
BACK TO Cary Grant. To its credit, Night and  Day effectively dramatizes Cole’s tragic fall from a horse, and this scene  brought tears to my eyes, knowing that, through dozens of operations  on his right leg to merely save it,  he would yet turn out more marvelous  songs.  Kiss Me Kate gave us, in my view, his greatest ballad ever, So In Love.  (I have never known a piece of music and a circus aerialist to connect so thrillingly as when Ringling star Gerard Soules flew to the  pounding pulse of this mesmerizing number.)  A noteworthy Cole  Porter 1950 flop, Out of This World, supplied an abundance of the man’s magic, including a song dropped on the road to opening night, From This Moment On, which Frank Sinatra and others would later immortalize: Two more Broadway  hits, in Can Can, and Silk Stockings, kept Cole Porter’s name alive in the l950s.                                              

Frank Sinatra’s Nearly Perfect Joey 

FRANK SINATRA'S  Pal Joey on screen is so good, I have bought the DVD.  Purists complain of its botching up the original, in which, in the end, Joey walks off alone; this, they rightly argue, marked a realism that distinguished Pal Joey from others of the day.  In the movie, Joey walks off arm in arm  with Linda English (Kim Novak in perfect form). And, all the years, later, I say – so what.  I have grown to like the sunnier ending, and, besides, how could anyone dump Kim Novak?  The witty, worldly screenplay does not flinch from  making clear the kept nature of Joey’s relationship to Vera Simpson (Rita Hayward)  All players are superb.  And what a sublime treat  are the songs of Rodgers and Heart, especially those crooned by Sinatra, then at his vocalizing prime.

Through the heather on the hill ... 
Never was a movie musical more enchanting
WITH THE exception of Pal Joey and Brigadoon, none of my other other favorite movie musicals are Broadway adaptions, which usually run well over two hours — Sound of Music at 174 minutes  may be longer on film than on stage. South Pacific at 166, My Fair Lady at 172.  One thing my favorites have in common is that they all clock in under two hours, thank you: The Band Wagon, Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Holiday Inn. Joey wraps up in 114 minutes, Brigadoon in 108, Singin’ at 103. 

HOLLYWOOD MAY have learned that telling the truth won’t get you a crowd.  A recent big screen hit was Hugh Jackman’s historically empty The Greatest Showman, another high-flying fairy tale makeover with a winning modern score,  that at least in one respect meets my criteria: Only 105 minutes long.

And that’s entertainment!