November 1, 2005

Musical Chairs

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I’m not an actress or a singer, but I have a profound respect for tap dancing. Show me a timestep, a chug-shuffle or a paddle and roll, and I’m yours. Musical theater never fails to amaze me: the sequined costumes, exquisitely choreographed dance numbers, uplifting storyline and silly, exaggerated humor guarantee two and a half hours of buoyant entertainment.

Perhaps my love of Broadway can be attributed to The Sound of Music, the 1965 feature film that shattered the box office and made Julie Andrews a star. The Sound of Music reminds me of sick days home from elementary school, wrapped in layers of fleece blankets, drinking marshmallow-adorned instant hot chocolate, pleading with my mom to have another day of attentive care and movie marathons. Though I could lie and say I was a kid who loved Ghostbusters, Labyrinth or Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, you would more likely find me perusing the musical section of the audiovisual room in the basement of my public library amongst a hotbed of senior citizen activity. I rented The King and I, Bye Bye Birdie, Meet Me in St. Louis and Hairspray while fighting off silver-haired, bespectacled grandmas in my wake. Yes, I was an artsy little nerd. Not much has changed, but now at least my love of musicals can be put to good use. Coupled with the urgent need to write a column for tomorrow’s paper, my discerning eye will be put to the test in an attempt to critique the recent as well as forthcoming array of musicals adapted for the silver screen.

It all started with Chicago in 2002. Chicago earned over $300 million at the box office and spawned a whole new generation of cinematic musicals seeking to recreate the luscious visuals and staggering financial success Rob Marshall achieved in his feature film directorial debut. But Chicago is more than just a pretty spectacle; the acting, dancing, cinematography, direction and script were top notch. Audiences delighted in this tale of violence, seduction, wiles and corruption. When it comes down to it, Chicago captured viewer’s hearts (and wallets) because it was snazzy and charming, two adjectives that most certainly do not pertain to 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera. Though Renee Zellweger, as Roxie Hart, is deceitful and cold-hearted, we embrace her – but doe-eyed, pretty little Emmy Rossum as Christine Daae? Well, you kind of just want her to shut up.

Phantom of the Opera failed where Chicago succeeded; though both productions were over-the-top, glitzy visual feasts, Phantom is schmaltzy and pretentious where Chicago is cutting-edge and sleek. The eye-popping colors and bright lights of the dance numbers in Roxie’s mind stand in stark contradiction to her bleak reality. However, in Phantom, viewers are not afforded that same rich contextual layering and scenes just drag on. Plus, at 143 minutes, the film is very, very, very long. I could hardly sit still. And I knew all the words to the songs.

As many girls I know are aware, Rent is coming out next month. I’ve heard ooing and ahhing every time the commercial is played on television, and I watch a lot of television. And judging by the show’s (almost) 10-year Broadway run, it seems as if the film is poised for commercial success. But will it be good? By casting the original group of actors in the roles they defined a decade prior, director Christopher Columbus of Harry Potter fame, may be attempting to re-create the nostalgia and magic the theater production evoked in its inception. Now I know this might not be a popular statement, but I don’t think this film will come near to replicating the emotional warmth of the Broadway production. In part due to film’s limitation as a medium, but more likely due to changing times: the whimsical and free love associated with New York City in the ’90s is long gone. In its wake lie Banana Republics and Starbucks. Kids aren’t afraid of AIDS; in fact, it seems so removed and preposterous that some don’t even use condoms. In today’s day and age, even the description of the characters as “Bohemians” seems antiquated. Though Rent may no longer be a contemporary, provocative or controversial story (Angel back then? Groundbreaking. Cross-dressers today? Commonplace.), the film, in aiming to evoke the same warm fuzzy whimsy of its theater predecessor, will most likely strike a cord with young, alienated viewers everywhere. But, as a stand-alone piece, Rent is unlikely to leave its mark in cinematic history.

What’s up next? The Producers, a Broadway adaptation based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 film, is being remade. The 2006 incarnation will be the first feature film in history to be based on a theater production that is based on a film. Complicated stuff but the results, I predict, will be spectacular. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are a flawless duo and will undoubtedly sizzle with wit, humility and sass. Since Destiny’s Child is history, Beyonce Knowles will star in 2006’s Dreamgirls. With a cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, this film, adapted from the 1982 Broadway production that is loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, will likely fill the void created by Chicago’s tantalizing promise of the possibility for grand, ornate, full-blown cinematic musical productions in the 21st century. For now, I’ll have to settle for Natalie Portman’s tap dance in Garden State; if I get really desperate, I may even turn to Susan Sarandon’s fancy footwork in Elizabethtown. Since Rent seems to be seeped in goopy nostalgic sentimentality, and with The Producers and Dreamgirls oh-so far away, it looks like I’ll be taking a trip down memory lane to the main branch of the Great Neck Public Library. Watch out Nana.

Archived article by Dara Gordon