From Screen to Stage Is All the RageDate: 15 April 2002
Movies & movie stars are leaving the sound stages behind them & setting up on stage in the West End. Mark Shenton investigates a growing phenomenon.
The movies (and especially its stars) have lately become all the rage on the stage. The theatre was once the place where you went to hear original stories originally told by actors with greasepaint coursing through their veins. Now, increasingly, the trend is to go to the theatre to be re-told stories you already know via the movies. Familiarity breeds content, with audiences purring contentedly all the way to the box office - or so the producers hope, in the sometimes mistaken belief that a recognisable title, rather than necessarily a good show, is all that's required.
Living, Breathing Creatures
It's even better when this new breed of theatre show features the kind of actors you're already familiar with, but from less lifelike forms - either shrunken to the dimensions of a television set, or blown up for the big screen, but in neither case, living, breathing creatures until now. The proof that they're actually alive is reckoned to be enough to justify the leap from the fiver at your multiplex to the twenty-fiver (or more) you'll spend at the theatre.
Such proof may indeed be proffered by the London premiere of Proof at the Donmar Warehouse in May, with Gwyneth Paltrow starring under the direction of John Madden, who directed her Oscar-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love. And in a reversal of the process, you'll subsequently be able to go back to the multiplex when Paltrow stars in Madden's planned movie version of the play.
In the Flesh & Altogether
But if seeing stars in the flesh is what counts, seeing them in the altogether is an added bonus. Witness the Donmar's previous star sensation, Nicole Kidman, whose brief nude scene in the 1998 production of The Blue Room had no less an organ than the Daily Telegraph excitably exclaiming that the sight was "pure theatrical Viagra".
But nudity or not, can a film star - better used to the close-up demands of film - hack it in the long-distance reach and technique required of theatre? English actors, traditionally trained and apprenticed in stage skills long before they make the crossover to Hollywood fame and fortune, usually have no problem. Among recent incumbents to travel that route, Jude Law (currently back on stage at the Young Vic in Dr Faustus), Rachel Weisz, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, Damian Lewis and Jeremy Northam have all benefited for their theatrical grounding.
But Hollywood actors, hoping for a quick burst of West End glory, sometimes come unstuck. In the wake of Kidman's sell-out appearances here, one producer had the bright idea of bringing over Darryl Hannah to star in the West End in a production of a limp sex comedy, The Seven Year Itch - and had audiences itching to get out of the theatre. Amidst reports that she needed to be hypnotised out of stage fright, the nascent stage actress only looked a sensation rather than provoking one.
Thus a star vehicle proved to be no more than cynical opportunism, designed to draw in an audience who simply recognised the name above the title, rather than a casting decision based on an actor's suitability to illuminate the material.
Ditto the art of adaptation. It's what you add - and just importantly sometimes, what you strip away (and not merely items of clothing) - in the transfer of a property from one medium to another that ultimately proves its mettle.
London and New York have just exchanged a couple of shows to prove these points. The West End has sent its totally unnecessary stage adaptation of The Graduate to Broadway. This quintessentially American movie was pointlessly adapted for the stage and a string of celebrity actresses that started with Kathleen Turner showing her all and ended here with Linda Gray (from TV's Dallas) doing the same.
For what it was worth, the nudity lasted approximately 30 seconds in very dark lighting. In adding a full frontal moment only hinted at on screen, however, the play actually diminished rather than heightened its impact. Elsewhere, it also reprised the film's key moments, almost invariably with less success. (Turner is now reprising her West End turn on Broadway, with two more up-and-coming movie stars for company, Jason Biggs as her lover and Alicia Silverstone as her daughter - the West End offered unknowns in those roles).
Reviewing the result in the New York Times, Ben Brantley commented that it turns the film's plot "into what is essentially a long-running dirty joke. Nearly everything seems as flat and two-dimensional as construction paper, as if this were The Graduate: The Board Game." He went on, "All this felt less offensive in London, where you could shrug the play off as another instance of those wacky English people making fun of those wacky cartoons called Americans."
Heart & Soul
Meanwhile, Broadway has sent the West End its musical adaptation of The Full Monty - that quintessentially British film comedy relocated from Sheffield to Buffalo for the stage, accompanied by a rousing new rock score and a finale which does indeed fulfil the show's title. Taking the opposite route to The Graduate, the musical's nudity is even briefer - maybe three seconds flat - and blindingly bright back lighting means you see even less. But in other ways, at least you see more, or at least something different, to the movie: the stage show expands on the world created there into something that makes theatrical sense and gives it a real life of its own. That's partly thanks to the addition of some terrific songs, but also the fact that it has a palpable heart and soul.
Too often, the theatre simply seeks to reproduce a movie on stage. In the 1990s, Trevor Nunn's adaptation of Sunset Boulevard openly acknowledged its debt to the movie and proved its failure to equal it: it recreated an onstage car chase scene by simply playing the original movie behind it. But at least Andrew Lloyd Webber's typically lush theatrical music underscored the proceedings with something that heightened it to a sometimes operatic pitch. Still, the show ultimately stood or failed by the presence of the diva playing the doomed movie star, Norma Desmond; and became unsustainable as a result. Few who played it had the acting chops required to compete with the memory of Gloria Swanson in the film, or the vocal requirements of the added musical score.
Sunset Boulevard was, however, an accomplished piece of adaptation. So, in a different vein entirely, was The Witches of Eastwick, which both honoured and expanded John Updike's novel and its subsequent film by giving it a new and riotously enjoyable context: musical comedy.
It's pointless to provide the identical context. Stage versions of such screen musicals as Singin' in the Rain and High Society - both attempted on both sides of the Atlantic - failed each time in separate productions because they both sought to compete with perfection. They were bound to fail. Ditto Saturday Night Fever, Fame and Footloose, variously adapted for the West End and Broadway stage: not because they were perfect films (they weren't), but because the stage added nothing to the experience.
Broadway is currently lining up adaptations of films as diverse as An American in Paris, Hairspray, Moonstruck, Urban Cowboy and The Color Purple. Meanwhile, this week sees the launch of the West End's most expensive such enterprise yet, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The star of that show - the presence of Michael Ball notwithstanding – is the automotive title character, which, true to the movie, takes flight on the Palladium stage.
Meanwhile, London theatreland also has another influx of real-life movie stars attempting to take flight on its stages in the next few months. Add to the aforementioned Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna (in Up for Grabs) and the trio of Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix (taking over from another Hollywood trio in This Is Our Youth). Will they find the wind beneath their wings? Theatregoers will be the judge.