A moment I barely noticed in the 2019 Broadway production of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” jumped to me with a new resonance in the HBO movie Spike Lee.
That’s when Byrne, in his introduction to “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” described the audition performed by Detroit School of the Arts students. Without changing a word or a note, the high school students turned the number, which in Byrne’s original version appears as a restless monologue about being flooded with otherness, into a cheerful choral invitation.
“I liked their version better,” says Byrne, seemingly amazed at the mutability of the material: The piece was the same, but had “a completely different meaning.”
I knew what he meant; After all, I was watching an even more elaborate translation, in which a concert organized as a Broadway musical was turned into a television movie captured live on cable. And while Lee’s sleek and exuberant adaptation includes a lot of photos of the Hudson Theater audience pounding and dancing in color, now it was, like, “Everyone’s coming to my house,” the same, but totally different.
Theater lovers are getting acquainted with this feeling. Nowadays, it seems that everyone comes to our house – and leaves with the furniture. I haven’t seen so many shows on Broadway in decades, whether it’s musicals (“Hamilton,” “The Prom”) or plays (“What the Constitution Means to Me,” “The Boys in the Band.” , “Outside Mullingar”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Ass”) or unclassifiable offers such as “American Utopia”, taken over by Hollywood, slipped through the camera lens and turned into a movie.
The tightening is certainly more subtle now than before. The lyrics are rarely butchered to avoid upset as they once were; I expect Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story”, scheduled to be released in December 2021, to restore Stephen Sondheim’s original rhyme for “buck”, which had to be modified for the 1961 film.
Not even the countless songs are thrown away like dead plants from fire escapes. (The 1966 film version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” dropped at least half of Sondheim’s 14 issues.) Musicals – and, in a way, plays – are now filmed from cause of their music, not in spite of it.
Of course, you expect the hands-off treatment from the Disney Plus live capture of “Hamilton”, which in its content, if not effect, was an almost replica of the famous stage version. But even “The Prom,” though not a blockbuster on Broadway, came out of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix translation with all the songs and then some.
This does not mean that these works are unchanged. Compared to the stage version, Lee’s “American Utopia” feels bigger, higher – sometimes literally, with his photos above.
“Hamilton,” on the other hand, with its frequent close-ups, especially of female characters, is a much more human-scale story on screen than it seemed to be on Broadway. The rotating handheld cameras suggest the intimate chaos of the lived experience in a way that no choreography framed for a proscenium could. Whether this is an improvement may depend on the preference of personal or formal history; I like both and I refuse to choose.
The movie “The Prom” was certainly personal, in part due to Murphy’s biographical connection to the book of stage music, by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. Like the character Emma, Murphy grew up in Indiana, had an unfortunate outing and could not get the desired date at his ball.
The show seemed to alternate between telling that story and satirizing four narcissistic Broadway performers who, in need of good publicity, decide to help Emma, whether she likes it or not. In the film, however, three of the four thugs feel like secondary characters, despite being played by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells.
The fourth, played by James Corden, has a much more emotional force – not to mention a mother on screen mentioned only briefly on stage – that the film is as important about healing its own gay scars as it is about the fact that Emma ends up dancing with her girlfriend.
I understood and I was really moved by this choice, but take a lot of fizz from the material, replacing it with syrup. And the distribution, although stellar, cannot compensate. I continued to hope that the original senior Broadway performers – travelers, including Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber and Angie Schworer – would come down to the film as the Broadway characters in the story descend to Indiana to show how do what.
The object of reforming a piece with stars for the screen was common; I just need to say the words “Lucille Ball is Mame” to make the noise of music theater fans. The excuse is always money: it takes big names to sell enough tickets to make up for the film’s huge budgets. I’m not sure if Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan are that kind of name, but their appearance in the screen adaptation of “Outside Mullingar”, called “Wild Mountain Thyme”, is the least of the film’s problems.
The most is John Patrick Shanley, who wrote both versions and, catastrophically, directed the film. (His direction of the film version of his play “Doubt” was better, but so was the raw material.) Exaggerating all that is wrong with “Outside Mullingar” – his bizarre twist on the plot, his encyclopedia of Irish clichés – he stifles the little spark of what was good in her: the story of a man so closed with shame that love can find almost no way in.
Following what was the scene-screen protocol, Shanley also made the mistake of “opening” a story that would be better closed. Placing Blunt and Dornan in tourist photographs of rural Ireland does nothing more than material film than the addition of a useless character played by Jon Hamm, associated with an even more useless one, makes him richer. This is a case where the filmmaker does not respect the player’s material, which is particularly strange, given that Shanley is both.
Today’s best adaptations don’t feel like rescue missions or charity changes; they enjoy the theatricality of their sources and try to improve it, not disguise it. Joe Mantello’s powerful Netflix rendition of “Boys in the Band,” based on the 2018 Broadway production, makes a few poetic forays into the backstory, but especially as the play, it stays in one place in one evening. . Compression makes everything tick like a time bomb.
That’s how I felt about the huge and extremely pressurized performance of Viola Davis as a blues singer Ma Rainey in Netflix’s otherwise inappropriate adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s black ass”. Her expressionist makeup is modest compared to her emotional makeup: she is a woman who knows that her voice is the only capital she has in a world ruled by racism.
Whenever director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson approach August Wilson’s original story and his claustrophobic setting – a Chicago studio where Ma is about to record with her band – the film maintains the tension. of the piece. But this power dissipates when it goes out of context, as if the context were necessary in a plot whose themes of appropriation and resistance are as relevant now as they were in 1982, when the play was written – or , in this regard, in 1927, is set.
The best scenes in the film – such as the one in which Ma insists that her nephew be allowed to present an introduction to the song, even if he stutters – use the camera as a marker, emphasizing the structure of the plot. These moments do not try to simplify or, worse, overlap that argument, trusting that film, contrary to his reputation as a brighter but less intellectual brother of the theater, he is able to offer complex verbal ideas, like Wilson.
But is it a movie? Most of these recent adaptations have been made for streaming services, with economy and aesthetics completely different from those of the studios that made the classic ones. People who saw the 1972 film “Cabaret”, to name an almost universally admired film transfer of a musical, saw it on a screen even bigger than the proscenium at the Broadhurst Theater, where it had originally run on Broadway. But most people who see “Prom” today will see it on devices that fit in their lair or in their palm. No wonder his story was pumped up.
The best recent adaptations make it a little more subtle. Instead of increasing the action, I bring it closer, pulling us to the edge of the boiler and then throwing us inside.
For me, this was especially true of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck’s play about lives lost in the shadows of our fundamental legal document. Marielle Heller’s captivating live capture for Amazon doesn’t change the subject at all, but it does reverse the angle. We are asked to place ourselves in Schreck’s consciousness instead of ours – just as Viola Davis asks us to understand what it means to be Ma Rainey and that Spike Lee, in “American Utopia”, forces us to see the world through David. Byrne ant eyes.
In the theater, we are our own rooms and publishers. We see what we choose, frame it as we like and enjoy the right to keep shooting at a distance. The paradox of the best film adaptations is that we love them because they did the opposite: they put us on stage with the story and don’t give us a word to say.