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What does it take for musicals to succeed on screen?

We assess some of the latest big-screen offerings

Taylor Swift in the Cats trailer
(© Universal)

Earlier this week I watched Luke Sheppard's wonderful Hope Mill revival of Rent – sat on my sofa, phone in hand, typing notes as I went. The show – brilliant, as our critic Matt said when he saw it live – successfully hopped from three dimensions to two – videographers The Umbrella Rooms preserving all the stage magic that must have wowed Manchester audiences.

It also provided a brilliant platform for new performers to really own their moment in the spotlight – Tom Francis (making his professional debut) gives perhaps as good a Roger as there could ever be, while Kayla Carter (another debut) brings the house down with a solo in "Seasons of Love".

Considering that he's directed two multi-award-winning musicals of late, (& Juliet and In the Heights), the fact Sheppard hasn't been nominated for a major directing nod yet feels like an injustice that needs to be corrected – his neo-Brechtian take on Jonathan Larson's classic, with the cast orbiting the stage and transforming a story about New York bohemians into an existential epic, is must-see viewing.

The company of Rent
© Pamela Raith

But the relationship between stage and screen has been as fruitful as it has been fractious. Not every show survives the formal transformation to digital like Rent, Southwark Playhouse's The Last Five Years or the Disney Plus Hamilton manage to.

But let's put aside the captured shows (more on that another day) and think about those pieces that are adapted for film – shot on set, scripts re-written, original numbers added – the whole Hollywood treatment. Why do some jump so seamlessly onto the silver screen, and why do others fall short?

To answer the question, we need to look at one of the most epoch-defining big screen musicals of the last decade – Tom Hooper's version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. It's odd to think how Cats was released less than a year ago (2020 has been long) – since then it has steadily cruised at around 20 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Audience reception has been, at best, divided.

I remember asking Hooper about the CGI aspect of his film last Christmas during a Cats junket. Rather than an ambush (as he had every right to assume it could have been), I was genuinely interested in how a director transitions artistically from a gruff, rough, organic Les Misérables (which Hooper directed back in 2012) to a digitally slick, neon-coated Cats. The two felt worlds away from one another.

A lot of it comes down to the "theatricality". One of Cats' errors (coming from someone who first saw a version he has contractually sworn never to talk about) was that it strayed too far away from its stage origins – the CGI experience created a veneer of artificiality between elements such as Andy Blankenbeuhler's choreography and the audience.

At times you couldn't tell if you were watching Blankenbeuhler's work or that of some tech wizard in a darkened room – it was as if the piece wanted to disown its West End progenitor (fake fur, melodrama and iconic costumes and all) rather than embrace it.

It was slightly bewildering watching Cats after Les Mis – a massive, nearly unrecognisable formal shift. A few bad decisions were made during the production of Les MIs (as one vocal expert has already done a banging job highlighting), but Hooper's unbroken shots were not one of them – it was these tender, still solos that gave actors a chance to actually act – revel in the fact thay they had a "stage" to themselves, ready to hold the audience's attention.

No one is going to the musical Cats pining to see actual cats

Given his experiences on the sweaty, muddy, very practically-shot The Damned United, The King's Speech and John Adams (of "Sit down John, you fat mother-f*****" fame) – it's clear to see that Hooper is not as experienced with CGI. Even reports from those who worked on Cats show someone demanding a lot in a significantly short period of time – and not much of it paid off.

Which is a shame – because if Hooper had decided to stick at the Les Mis formula that he is clearly very comfortable with, it might well have come off a whole lot better. Imagine a CGI-free version of Cats that honoured the show's stage origin – leotards included. No one is going to the musical Cats pining to see realistic cats. Heck, Hooper could have even just taken over the Palladium and shot it all in an empty auditorium – giving Blankenbeuhler the chance to show off his clear prowess. Bring back that theatricality mentioned earlier.

If you compare it with Chicago, arguably one of the best musical films of the last 30 years – you can see this in action. Director Rob Marshall (who has gone on to helm Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns) really knew that he had to maintain a key theatrical language to make the film gel – injecting a seedy, smoke-filled stagey-ness into each passing number.

"They Both Reached for the Gun" and "Razzle Dazzle" are the obvious examples. In both, Marshall stays true to Bob Fosse and makes the easy comparison between court proceedings and choreography – filled with carefully plotted gestures and sequences. Billy Flynn the attorney is also Billy Flynn the theatre director – making his case with his material, just as Sheppard did with his take on Rent. Chicago wasn't just a hit with the Oscars – it became, back then, the highest-grossing musical film of all time.

The Prom
© Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon

It's been 18 years since Chicago and the world has changed a lot since then – we've had Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, Rock of Ages, Annie, Into the Woods, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!. Many – especially Cats or Into the Woods – have succumbed to that same slick CGI / neon gloss – a garish over-saturation that feels too far removed from the fragile, entirely human beginnings that many of those films had on stage.

There's no chance here to give an assessment on The Prom until the film's embargo lifts (having caught it a few times now) – but it's important to see Casey Nicholaw, who injected joy into the frothy fun Broadway production, return as choreographer for Ryan Murphy's film.

With In the Heights, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, West Side Story set for release next year (with more Netflix pieces, such as Tick, Tick...Boom! perhaps appearing imminently) – we might perhaps be on the verge of musical films coming home after the over-indulgence of Cats – channelling the best of their theatre roots.