The recent resurgence in movie musicals was put off for a bit last year when only two films were widely released that could be categorized as musicals – Burlesque and Tangled. However, that brief downturn does not imply that this age old genre is going away by any means. Recently film adaptations have been announced of hit Broadway musicals including Gypsy with Barbara Streisand, Annie with Willow Smith, and Rock of Ages with Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin. There have also been rumors that recent Broadway hits Next to Normal and The Scottsboro Boys will be produced by Rob Reiner and Lee Daniels, respectively.
This year alone will bring us film versions of 2008 Tony Award winner In the Heights and the 1983 Off-Broadway hit Mama, I Want to Sing! In my showtune obsessed mind, however, this is not nearly enough. There are dozens of classic musicals that have never been adapted to feature film (other than a recording of the stage version) and are due for the celluloid treatment. Here are my suggestions for ten classic and contemporary musicals that should be made into feature films:
10 Musicals That Should Be Movies
10) “Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim
Ideal Director: Alexander Payne
Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant satire that sympathizes with some of the greatest assassins in history would make an excellent movie. It was revived on Broadway as recently as 2004 with a cast that includes Michael Cerveris, Dennis O’Hare, and Neil Patrick Harris. Many of those principles would do well in the film version as many have since established themselves as recognizable personae in both film and theatre. This would be a slightly different project for Alexander Payne, whose previous works include Sideways and About Schmidt, but he has proven his ability to make otherwise despicable characters feel sympathetic so he should be able to do so for the assassins. If any one can get an audience on John Wilkes Booth’s side, it’s Payne.
9) “Avenue Q” by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Ideal Director: Terry Gilliam
I have always thought this 2004 surprise Tony Award winner was better than Wicked, it’s main competition. It is a hilariously absurd parody of Sesame Street, the Muppets, and the hidden sexuality and political undertones of children’s television shows. Ideally the film would be directed by Jim Henson, were he still alive, but instead it would be great in the hands of someone equally familiar with absurdity and puppetry. Gilliam might go too far with the silliness, but it would be an undoubtedly fascinating take.
8) “Les Miserables” by Schönberg and Boublil
Ideal Director: Baz Luhrman
Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I could find of the dozens of film versions of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, none were of the musical. It’s due time for somebody to adapt this classic tale of Jean Valjean rising to overcome the oppression of poverty and if anybody could successfully bring it to the big screen, it would have to be someone with musical directing experience. The eccentric director of one of the greatest musicals of the past decade would do nicely with the epic-scale “Les Miserables.”
7) “Company” by Stephen Sondheim
Ideal Director: Woody Allen
You will notice Stephen Sondheim appropriately reappearing several times on this list as very few have been bold enough to attempt to remake his works on film. However, this rather simple musical about the difficulties of marriage and one man who stays single while all his friends settle down would work well. I am actually surprised that in the 40 films of Woody Allen’s career, he has never attempted a musical. He would do nicely with an ensemble musical like “Company” and the Woody Allen/Stephen Sondheim combination may cause my theatrical and cinematic obsessiveness to combine for a dangerous mixture.
6) “Falsettos” by William Finn
Ideal Director: Gus Van Sant
This character and song driven musical about one man’s journey to find himself would be great in the hands of director Gus Van Sant. There are not many characters and the settings are not expansive, which would allow for Sant to hone in on the individuals and bring them to fascinating life. He would also nicely handle all the dark humor.
5) “Caroline, Or Change” by Jeanine Tesori, Tony Kushner
Ideal Director: Spike Lee
I saw a revival of this musical during a Kushner fest at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and found it to be a brilliantly written analysis of conflicting cultures. A Jewish boy in New Orleans develops a friendship with the family’s African American maid and the two work to understand each other despite obvious socio-economic differences. It’s the type of film that would earn its lead an Oscar nomination and allow for some technical brilliance.
4) “Pippin” by Stephen Schwartz
Ideal Director: Todd Haynes
Dozens of high schools from around the country butcher this musical about the royal son of Charlemagne on an adventure to find himself every year. However, Todd Haynes of Far From Heaven and I’m Not There fame would do this musical nicely and brilliantly play up the subtle (and non-subtle) sexuality. Good casting and a creative concept could make this already great musical even better.
3) “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim
Ideal Director: Mike Leigh
Many of the songs in this classic Sondheim musical have become anthems for aging Broadway stars including “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind.” It has a bittersweet sentimentality that would be best suited for a small production with limited spectacle. At the current stage in Mike Leigh’s career he would be the perfect candidate to direct this intimate musical portrait of crumbling marriages and regrets from a life long-lived.
2) “The Light in the Piazza” by Adam Guettel
Ideal Director: Jane Campion
The novella that this musical is based on was adapted for film in 1962, but the 2005 Broadway production has never been put on screen. This classically romantic musical set in 1953 would be perfectly suited for the great Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star). Campion would use her excellent eye and brilliant instinct to infuse the music with even more romance and create a film that is both a visual and aural treat.
1) “Sunday in the Park With George” by Stephen Sondheim
Ideal Director: Julian Schnabel
I am hopeful that if/when my all-time favorite musical finally gets adapted for a film version, it will get the detail and care that it deserves. The music, lyrics, and book for “Sunday in the Park With George” allow for such visual creativity that I am actually shocked it has never been attempted in the incredible visual-reliant medium of film. Who better to adapt this story about artist George Seurat and how he inhabits his famous portrait than a real-life visual artist. Julian Schnabel got his start as a painter and his films always delicately pay attention to the framing. If his unpredictable inventiveness meshes well with Sondheim’s work, it could potentially create magic on celluloid.
What musicals would you love to see adapted for the screen?