Musicals: some shows don’t belong on the big screen

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The very eagerly awaited big screen adaptation of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is set for cinematic release later this month. Leading a tribe of a-list film stars, including Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, is Ben Platt, reprising the titular role that he originated in the Tony-award winning Broadway musical. The reviews available thus far have been overwhelmingly critical. The Guardian‘s Adrian Horton writes that 27-year-old Platt’s unsuccessful makeover into the 17-year-old Evan is “so distracting it basically renders the movie unrecoverable”. The negative reception of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ has opened up fresh debate about how well stage musicals can realistically be translated onto the big screen.

Whilst scathing reviews about a long-awaited screen adaptation of a well-loved musical are disheartening to read, they were not unexpected by those of us familiar with the stage musical. The stage version deals well with a somewhat fragile plot, in which the socially awkward protagonist embeds himself into the family of his deceased classmate, whilst simultaneously spearheading an online mental health awareness movement. If this sounds like a bizarre plot for a film, that’s because it is. I can only imagine too well the awkward translations of the darker and more questionable elements of the plot onto the screen, where they will not be able to hide behind the emotion of live theatre. 

An article about film adaptations of stage musicals can’t get away with not mentioning the atrocity that was the 2019 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’. “Is Cats the worst movie ever?” quickly comes up as the most commonly searched question if you begin typing anything related to this film into Google. For those who were somehow lucky enough to escape the terrifying ordeal that was Tom Hooper’s take on ‘Cats’, I can only summarise it as a frankly disturbing, plotless overload of CGI, that I’m almost certain has become the stuff of many nightmares. The original stage musical itself divides the theatre community, since it is based entirely around song and dance without any tangible plot. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that it is at least visually enchanting as a stage performance.

Some things that are written for the stage are best left on the stage.

Nobody would ever dream of sitting down and writing, from scratch, a film that completely lacks a plot. I doubt that anybody would even write a film with a plot like that of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, with so many questionable elements that are simply impossible to adequately address in the 2-something hour length of a film. This appears to me to be the exact reason why so many film adaptations of musicals are flops: films are an entirely different medium to the stage, and, in many instances, something that is emotional and charming (‘Dear Evan Hansen’), or visually astounding and impressive (‘Cats’), on stage simply does not come across well through the medium of film. Some things that are written for the stage are best left on the stage.

The crucial difference between ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and many of the movie musical ‘flops’, is, in my eyes, the more straightforward and less questionable plot.

Of course, there are also some incredible film adaptations of stage musicals. The 2002 adaptation of ‘Chicago’, for example, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003, with its superb casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger as the two leading ladies. Its excellent direction and choreography have earned it its rightful status as a cult-classic movie musical. ‘Chicago’ is very much a feel-good show: easy to watch, with iconic characters and songs, and a plot that is straightforward in a way that the story of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is not. Even shows with much darker elements have been successfully adapted for the screen- take ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, another Lloyd Webber classic, as an example of this. Again, the crucial difference between ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, and many of the movie musical ‘flops’, is, in my eyes, the more straightforward and less questionable plot.

It strikes me that there are certain stage shows that belong precisely there, and not necessarily on the big screen. It is understandable that there is a desire to create film versions of popular stage musicals- both the idea of being able to enjoy theatre ‘on demand’, and of course the potential bank to be made from these big-name musicals, are very attractive. However, directors should consider very carefully whether the plot of a musical is one that would lend itself well to the medium of film. If this is not the case, a fact which unfortunately appears to be true of many musicals, then the magic of these shows should be reserved purely for the theatre.

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