If you chant “Bloody Mary” three times, you can summon Bloody Mary. And if you say Swiper the Fox’s name three times, he is banished. So what happens if you and a friend chant “Swiper, no swiping” and “Bloody Mary” at the same time? Would both be summoned? Banished? Would you summon a different entity entirely or a black hole? I think what happens is what happens when you combine any two things that work well on their own, like movies and musicals: a convoluted mess.
“The Death of the Movie Musical” was the title of an article on Buzzfeed, and the gist of it was that Hollywood was overwhelming of the aforementioned opinion that musicals and movies no longer mix. To those who agree with this article, you are wrong. Musicals and movies mix and Hollywood knows it; the problem is not that Hollywood hates musicals, but rather that Hollywood is making the wrong ones. Hollywood is making “Cats.” And this is a huge mistake.
The musicals Hollywood chooses to adapt are those which already boast resounding success on the stage. “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King,” “Into The Woods.” All the classics of theater have been adapted for the screen. What a mistake. Movies should instead be made from all the other musicals that are not big names, starting with the bombs. Do I want to see a movie version of “Chicago?” Not really. Do I want to see a movie version of “Holla if You Hear Me?” Hell yes. Do I want a movie version of “Evita?” Pass. How about “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark?” Take my money now. A cinematic “Guys and Dolls” can go take a hike, because the odds that I see it live from a high school, amateur, regional or touring company are high. But where am I going to see “Via Galactica,” if not on the screen?
I was made aware of this issue in a very innocuous way, when I was assigned to do a project on the musical “Wild Party.” The synopsis on Wikipedia caught my interest. It was based on a poem, like “Cats,” but promised far more plot and about the same amount of sex. But when I went to the library the next morning, I was sucked into a black hole of fruitless database searches and hounding the librarians for a copy of the movie. The tragedy? There was no movie. There is no movie version of the musical, leaving me high and dry (and scrambling for a date night plan B). Where am I ever going to see this properly, if not in musical form? Is someone going to revive this show very few people have heard of? Is a high school going to put on a show about orgies, domestic violence, drugs, partying, pretty much everything about which high schools hang posters warning kids away from?
This is the problem with Broadway (among other problems): only mega-successful properties are sustainable. But instead of picking up the slack, regional theater and Hollywood exacerbate this representation disparity by producing, for the most part, the hits and only the hits. When the shows that migrate out of Broadway into local theaters and local cinemas are the big behemoth shows that run for years, the smaller shows with smaller engagements are effectively erased. We all know that if we want to see “Phantom of the Opera,” there will damn well be some touring company or some high school drama director happy to oblige you. But for the sake of our culture, and for my own personal sanity, we have got to be better about preserving through film the shows which will not spawn revival after revival, the shows which run their engagement and then move on. We need to preserve not just the shows with through-the-roof production values, with scripts and scores that appeal to the widest possible audience — often “dumbing it down” for the tourists and international audiences who make up a hefty chunk of Broadway’s revenue — but also the wacky shows with niche appeal, the mediocre shows that fizzle, the shows without big names attached, the shows without an iconic, wordless and instantly recognizable poster, the shows that were kind of weird and based on a poem and, most of all, the bombs. If there is one area in which Broadway can beat any other medium, it is in the sheer audacity and watchable-ness of its flops. This is what needs to be immortalized in film. Broadway bombs will save the movie musical.
Of course, I thank Lawrence’s non-denominational deity every day for the website BroadwayHD. This is like Opera on demand, the streaming service to which Lawrence has a subscription, but cooler — and therefore, without a Lawrence school account. It is nowhere near comprehensive, but it does have high quality recordings of recent broadway shows.
(If halfway through this article you found yourself thinking, “Wait, didn’t the ‘Lion King’ movie come before the musical?” then please log on to Facebook, post “Liam Wood is a half-brained fool,” and please be sure to share a link to my article.)