Matt’s Top 5 Musicals: The Filmed Stage Versions
Here are my top 5 musicals from stage to screen.
With my recent return to the musical theater world and the Tony awards being right around the corner, I thought an article about film versions of musicals was appropriate. But I’m choosing versions people tend to not keep on the forefront of their minds. No, I’m not talking about the best picture winner in “West Side Story” and “Chicago” or the wonderful film versions of Rogers & Hammerstein’s greatest works.
I’m talking about the filmed stage versions of musicals, or at least that’s what I like to call them. They are exactly like how they sound. The live production is put on and the cameras are rolling, allowing you to experience broadway at any time. Now, some of you might be asking how these versions should matter or how/if they could be better than their “blockbuster” counterparts. Well, as someone who has worked in live theater for nearly a decade now, I swear to you that a live production of a musical/play can hold just as much emotion and beauty as some of the greatest Hollywood films.
If you still don’t believe me, then these five filmed stage versions of musicals are surely going to change your mind. Not a fan of live theatre or musicals altogether? I still say give these a shot. I didn’t truly fall in love with theatre and musicals until I was 18-years-old, and I know others who were even older, so there’s no time limit for falling in love with something as wonderful as live theatre.
In all honesty, these filmed stage versions give you a much closer glimpse into the detail and hard work that goes into putting on a musical production. Seeing one live lets you exist within the incredible atmosphere that comes with going to a show, but these filmed stage versions allow you to get up, close and personal, giving the viewer a heightened advantage over those sitting in the seats at the theatre.
I’ll also do an article about my favorite film versions of musicals, but for now lets get back to the roots. Anyone who’s interested in production, lighting, dancing, singing, acting, scenic design, scenic artistry, stage hands, directing, sound design, make-up and costumes can learn a thing or two from each of these selections.
Ah, the musical everyone says is “not that great… It’s just about a bunch of cats doing cat-like things.” Well, in a nutshell, that statement is absolutely true. If you’re looking for something you can sink your teeth into plot wise, then I’m sorry to say this show isn’t the one for you. Sure, there’s a story, but the true nature of the show is about what cats do on the night of the Jellicle Moon. At the end of the night, one cat will be chosen to be reborn again. That’s when we start to meet all the other cats that have come to the Jellicle Ball, and one of them is picked in the end in extremely emotional fashion.
There are many deeper roots that span throughout this show and its characters, right down to the very definition of what it means to be human and have life, but where this show really shines is in its staging, choreography, costumes and make-up. Masterful hard work and hours upon hours of practice pumps through the vibrant veins of this production. This particular production is different from the others on this list because the music isn’t live and the voices are dubbed, but it’s still a live performance since it was filmed on one stage inside of a theater, using the space accordingly and honoring the proscenium/fourth wall.
Some of the songs you may find are a bit too goofy and somewhat annoying, but as the show progresses you start to understand the true beautiful nature of the show and how much of it lies within the music. The songs “Memory,” “Grizabella: The Glamour Cat” and “Old Deuteronomy” are just a couple of prime examples of what I’m talking about. If the music doesn’t impress you, then the costumes, make-up and choreography surely will. This productions is absolutely superb with a slight upwards inflection on the whole word. Very few shows and productions can reach the same heights that this incredible piece of art reached.
Another dancing show, but this one has a clearer story and a more recognizable heart beating deep down beneath the lively exterior. I heard a lot about this show, especially the year it won the Tony for Best Musical. I knew the music but wasn’t too familiar with the story or the overall context of the show, so to say I was excited when it appeared on Netflix is an absolute understatement. I was finally able to check it out and give it a shot, and what I received is nothing short of brilliant.
If you’re looking for a fun show that will cause you to shake your booty and shed a few tears, then “Memphis” is the perfect show for you. Just when you believe it’s just going to be a dance show with a bunch of blues and rock-n-rolls songs, the show hits you with a powerful story that helps the music and the characters reach their true and deep meanings. I was blown away by how much fun I had, but I was even more surprised by how touch and moved I was after curtain call began. It’s a great show with excellent writing and choreography. Whenever it comes into town, it’s always bumped up to the top of my list.
#3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Most of you know the Tim Burton version of this film starring Johnny Depp. To be honest, I actually do enjoy some aspects of the movie. The artistic design is great and the costumes are wonderful, but the casting is all off and a lot of the original music was cut out. Yes, do what you will with a musical so it can fit the standard 90-120 minute runtime of a movie, and sometimes it works out, but most of the time the film adaptation completely misses the entire of heart of the original show. Tim Burton’s did this very well, in my opinion.
This version here, starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, is really the only version of “Sweeney Todd” you should watch from now on. The casting is perfect, all the music is there and the set is absolutely gorgeous. Plus, this production has the show’s original ending, which is much more heartbreaking than Tim Burton’s version. It’s fun to watch as true stage magic comes to life while you watch Sweeney kill people with his silver razor blades and then disposes of their bodies via his handy-dandy barber’s chair. As a technical theater kid, I eat that kind of stuff up and love seeing how all the nuts and bolts work.
Still, even if you’re not like me, it’s an absolutely beautiful show despite the grim and gloomy palette and design. Take the journey with a sorrowful protagonist whose story ends as a gritty, bloody tragedy. Tears may strike you during songs like “Not While I’m Around” and during the show’s final moments in the cellar. This version absolutely blows me away, and it gets better each time I watch it. Plus, George Hearn’s acting and Ms. Lansbury’s control of her character are enough to keep you intrigued during the two hour and thirty minute runtime.
#2. Into The Woods
Okay… so let’s talk about the latest film adaptation of this show. I knew it was going to be a disaster after I saw Disney got the rights and were leading the charge. I admired Disney for a few moments because I believed this was the sign that they were finally going to start making darker, more adult-rated content. But then again, this was “Into The Woods,” which has some extremely R-rated subtext throughout the whole show, so I really couldn’t see Disney doing it for real. Yes, “Into The Woods” is an R-rated show, in my opinion. Don’t believe me? Well, have no fear, because there’s a filmed version of the original broadway production. Therefore, you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about.
“Into the Woods” is a story basically about facing your fears, breaking your daily routines and experiencing something new, all of which are illustrated with sexual innuendos and dark themes. The best way to compare the film and stage versions is this: Disney ripped the heart out of the show, creating something that was all flash, glam and song, but no meat for audiences to sink their teeth into. Relationships that are built in the stage show are nearly nonexistent in Disney’s version. Songs that sounds so brilliant and hold so much subtextual meaning in the stage version never come across in the Meryl Street headlined-filmed. Actually, this little rant has inspired me to write an article(s)comparing film versions of musicals to their stage versions. So, I’ll save the rest of my rant for later.
The thing that really impressed me about the stage version of the show is how simple it is. The music and characters are not simple at all, do not get me wrong, but what I’m talking about is the production’s sets, costumes and props. Yes, they all look great and fit the show wonderfully, but thy aren’t the most extravagant things in the world. I believe this was done on purpose because the creators wanted audiences to pay more attention to the story, characters and music; the very things musicals are all about. They did so in excellent fashion with this one. I felt like Disney threw too much flash in, which distracted you from what was really going on in the story.
With genius staging and near-perfect casting, this one is hard to go through without falling in love with it. All the way from the wolf costume that has a dangling male sexual organ to the heartbreaking moments of the second act, these fairy-tale characters do their jobs masterfully and win your heart ever time.
Check this one out… do not watch the Disney movie.
#1. The Phantom of the Opera: The 25th Anniversary Performance
This is the ultimate production a theatre kid like me can drool over. Everything in this production is broken down into a perfect note and then sang out from the deepest depths of the diaphragm. I’m not kidding you, this is honestly one of my favorite movies to watch at anytime. I’m not the biggest fan of the classic/operatic style when it comes to this show, but there’s enough of a mixture with rock-n-roll and other styles for me to ignore my dislikes.
This particular production is a massive show that takes place on a massive stage inside of a massive hall. Everything is massive and should be massive, because this cast and production needed enough space to wow audiences and knock their socks off. You’re able to get up, close and personal with ever character, understanding their arcs and point of views. You’re able to see the brilliance that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stile created back in the late 1980s. You’re literally able to live and breathe everything that is “Phantom of the Opera” and how timeless of a show it is.
This is my favorite for the one simple reason: it hits every emotion inside my body each time I watch it. If the character arcs aren’t tugging my heart strings or tickling my funny bone, then the gorgeous music is filling me with hope and despair and the ending is making me cry my eyes out. It has everything a musical theater kid could ask for, and when I say the ending makes me cry, I blubbered like a baby during my fifth time watching it. If you’re not a fan of the music, then take the time to enjoy and respect the detail of the costumes, set and lighting. You’ll surely find something you’ll enjoy while observing, I guarantee it.
Musicals can be very upbeat and jolly, helping the audience tap their feet and leave with happy faces. Yet, musicals can also be very somber and ignite some deep emotional fire that you forgot existed. Seeing one live is an experience in itself that everyone should encounter, but these five filmed versions of the shows do them just as much justice; maybe even a little more. You may not be able to check out a show on Broadway, but these can keep you company until then.