Theater and film viewers often argue over whether special effects, ultra-realistic settings and more affordable ticket prices make up for shabby vocals and characters trapped behind the pre-recorded restraints of the silver screen.
What seems to be a recent increase in adaptations of staged musicals to movie versions of popular shows like “Les Misérables,” “RENT,” “Hairspray,” “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Book of Mormon,” which is likely on its way to becoming a major motion picture, has created a buzz between theater and film viewers on the UCLA campus. It has opened the discussion to whether or not these adaptations should occur, and if so, what makes them successful retellings.
Students and professors on the UCLA campus explored the benefits of staging these shows the way they were originally written versus the bonuses that translating them into a film medium can provide.
“I think the benefit of film over theater is that the advertisement gives you this sort of anticipation,” said Jack Shulruff, a first-year theater student with a specialization in acting. “Going to a movie you have such an idea of what you want, going to a play you can’t even imagine what you’re going to see.”
Despite the hype millions of dollars of advertising can provide, Shulruff said he still prefers the insane spectrum of live emotions that the theater can explore, making it easier for him to feel instantly connected to the actors on stage than those in a movie.
“There’s no way to fully capture what’s created on stage in the same medium as film, simply because the theater is just a different kind of seeing space. The theater has live people and live action, living and breathing,” Shulruff said. “There’s a different electricity in the room because the people in front of you are yelling or crying. There’s a certain honesty that comes with seeing a live production that allows for the story to be more empathic.”
Dr. David Gorshein, who teaches play reading and analysis at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said this movie musical trend is not actually a new thing, but stretches back to the beginning of film history with classics like “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music.” To him, what’s more surprising is the recent success of these stories, which he attributes to economics.
“It’s easier to bank on a story that is familiar and has worked before, and also bank on a trend,” Gorshein said. “Recently, film producers have been banking on the success of these adaptations because it allows for a sort of safer bet. Audiences already have a type of emotional connection. It makes it easier than investing, producing and creating new characters, new stories and new terrain.”
Gorshein said he enjoys the film adaptations of the work so long as they actually attach elements of the work, or rethink the work for a different performance experience.
“‘Les Mis’ works because it transcribes the stage show into a really powerful experience,” Gorshein said. “In the movie version they show you the actual moon, the shot of Jean Valjean on the mountain, these sort of realistic elements work in film. The issue for film critics is that they expected to have the same experience watching the film as they did in the theater, but the film allows for a different look than it does in the theater.”
Third-year musical theater student Kimberly Moore disagrees. She said staged shows have a certain magic and malleability between performances that you can’t get in an edited feature film with multiple takes and auto-tuning.
“Stephen Sondheim doesn’t need his musicals remade into crappy movies,” Moore said in reference to the movie version of “Sweeney Todd.” “Just show what he originally did and it’s great.”
Despite this strong sway toward keeping the authenticity of a theatrical piece, Moore said she thinks movie musicals can be a good thing, so long as they culture Americans.
“I think no matter how people get exposed to these musicals, people need to know them. So if you’re not going to go all the way to Broadway or your local equity house to see the show, then fine, we’ll put it on Netflix for you,” Moore said. “I know they made ‘Sweeney Todd’ into a Johnny Depp movie, which was weird, but they also videotaped a 1980s version of it. There’s the benefits of the movie, but filming a production live is a great alternative.”
Some students and professors argued that movie musicals and other stage adaptations to film were good because they make the pieces more accessible to people who might not have the opportunity to see a show in the theater because of monetary or location issues.
“Any time I see a show about musicals like ‘Glee’ or ‘Smash’ I just go ‘hallelujah, more work for my students!’” said professor Nicholas Gunn, who teaches ballet at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “I mean, how many people get to Broadway? This work gets out there to millions of people and then it’s there. It’s there forever, which is fantastic.”
Second-year musical theater student Brady Stanley was one of those people who benefited from the increased exposure to musicals that film adaptations provide.
“Watching movies wasn’t my first exposure to performing because I had been dancing all my life, but it was certainly my first exposure to big musicals,” Stanley said. “I thought, ‘My god that looks like so much fun.’ In a way, because I had never been to the theater, it was a huge catalyst for me. Later that year I did my first musical and I’ve done it ever since.”
One of the concerns that many of the theater students and professors still voiced was whether or not these massively produced productions were good representations of the original work. Kevin Doherty, a third-year musical theater student, found the movie version of “Les Misérables” lacked the gusto of the original, staged musical.
“I think the film is really great, but I don’t think it accomplished what the staging did. ‘Les Mis’ is really dependent on the music,” Doherty said. “It’s so music-based that even the costumes relate to the music somehow. Although this film is really bold, and I really liked the movie, I don’t think it was as effective as the staged show because it was written for stage.”
Ultimately, what it seemed to come down to for everyone was a respect for the stories and the mediums through which they are told.
“I don’t have a problem with movie musicals,” Doherty said. “But I think that film and stage are two very different mediums and sometimes you have to respect the boundaries of them for artistic purposes.”