The movies have not been all that kind to Stephen Sondheim.
His early Broadway hits, for which he supplied lyrics only, West Side Story and Gypsy, became classic studio musicals (with West Side Story being a movie for the ages and Gypsy being an interesting movie with some good work by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood).
But once Sondheim emerged as SONDHEIM, cinema got a little tricky. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) cut about half of the songs, and let’s not even talk about the movie of A Little Night Music (1978). His incidental music for Stavisky and Redsis lovely, but Sondheim is best when he’s pairing music and words.
Sondheim did win an Academy Award for “Sooner or Later,” one of five songs he contributed to the 1990 Warren Beatty version of Dick Tracy, so he has some film pedigree (compared to his seven some Tony Awards, but Sondheim’s theatrical pedigree has never been in question).
Given the Sondheim-cinema track record, lowered expectations might be considered acceptable for the new Sweeney Todd movie from the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp team (this is their fifth collaboration after Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Well, I’m here to tell you that heightened expectations are OK. I saw Sweeney Todd last week and was delighted and horrified – a good reaction for Sweeney.
The thing that amazed me most is how faithful Burton is to Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Broadway musical (which is in turn based on a Christopher Bond play). You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but this Sweeney is a full-blown movie musical with as much (if not more) singing than talking.
Earlier this fall, the Bay Area got a taste of the Sweeney Broadway revival, which pared down the orchestrations so that the actors could play their own instruments. That stage version had its merits (attention to Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, for one), but oh, the lush, glorious orchestrations in the movie (courtesy of Jonathan Tunick), conducted by Paul Gemignani.
Those massive, bone-rattling movie theater sound systems are put to wondrous effect as Sondheim’s dark, chilling score pours out of them. This is one thing movies can do better than Broadway – a massive orchestra playing so loudly you feel every instrument and note.
Most discussions I’ve had about this movie Sweeney have begun with one question: How are the voices? And my answer is: fine. Not great. Not Broadway. But fine in the context of the movie. Depp’s Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who wields straight razors and slices necks like a jungle explorer clearing a path, has an appealing pop-rock voice with touches of early David Bowie.
Depp’s co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, isn’t quite as successful. Her wispy vocals don’t really register. In fact, Bonham Carter is miscast. Her Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who turns Sweeney’s victims into deliciously greasy meat pies, is simply too sexy. No matter how much dark makeup they slather on her eyes, no matter how gaunt and pale they make her, she’s still sexy.
An older, more desperate Mrs. Lovett makes more sense in the context of the story. She’s smart enough to know how to woo Sweeney and desperate enough to do horrible things simply because she has run out of options. Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is just too young and hot to be at the end of her rope.
Still, she looks great, and because Burton’s approach has so much to do with creating a sinister gothic look, looking good is half the battle.
The supporting cast is stellar. Hard to go wrong with Alan Rickman (as the creepily sexy Judge Turpin) and Sacha Baron Cohen (as Signor Adolfo Pirelli), both of whom appear to be having a great time being bad. Jamie Campbell Bower is an impressive Anthony (and he’s only 19), and Jayne Wisener (another youngster at 20) is an angelic Johanna (though in her early scenes she looks a little like one of the big-eyed aliens at the end of Close Encounters). Special mention must be made of seemingly older-than-his-years Ed Sanders as Toby. He’s all of about 14 years old, and he more than holds up his end of the movie (which is fairly significant). He and Bonham Carter are wonderful together on “Not While I’m Around.”
When making holiday plans to slice and dice with Sweeney, keep in mind that this musical is rated R for very good reason. The blood flows like pub ale, and Sweeney’s specially rigged barber’s chair is incredibly violent. Even though the gore is self-consciously theatrical, it still packs a wallop. This is the bloodiest movie musical since Can’t Stop the Music.
At long last, Stephen Sondheim’s genius has been captured on film in a way that doesn’t cheapen or apologize or dumb down.
Here’s a Sweeney Todd behind-the-scenes teaser to whet your whistle.
When does a movie become theater? The easy answer is when it’s adapted a la Hairspray, The Lion King, The Producers and the like.
But there have been rare instances when movies become theater, usually when music is involved. I’m thinking of the rock band Spinal Tap, which, after their mockumentary became a hit, toured like a real band. Same is true of the “folk singers” in the genius Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. I remember going to the Warfield to see the entire cast reassemble, in character, for a concert. The fictional becomes real – or if not real, exactly, then three-dimensional.
During the Mighty Wind show, the New Main Street Singers took the stage, and someone, spotting Parker Posey, shouted out, “Parker, I love you!” Posey didn’t acknowledge the shout in any way, so the shouter re-phrased using her character’s name: “Sissy, I love you,” and Posey, whipped her head around, a big smile on her face, and waved madly at her fan.
Another movie character recently stepped off the big screen for a concert in San Francisco. On Monday, fans and media attended a screening of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from super-hot Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), who co-wrote and produced.
The movie bundles every music biography cliché you can imagine and skewers them all gleefully. The humor is broad, dirty and silly – it’s sophomoric in the smartest way.
John C. Reilly is Dewey Cox, a kid from hardscrabble Alabama who is born to sing. He rises through the ranks – taught by African-American blues and soul men, schooled by peers such as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Drugs and alcohol, of course, play a big part in Dewey’s dark period, and then the ‘60s flower, and next thing you know he’s in India with the Beatles (played hilariously by Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman).
Jenna Fischer of “The Office” is Dewey’s lifelong love, Darlene, and their duet, “Let’s Duet,” is a musical highlight. Music plays a huge part, obviously, but the skill with which the songs are executed (great pastiche songs in all the right styles, with assists from Apatow, director/co-writer Jake Kasdan), Dan Bern and Marshall Crenshaw, among others) is a huge part of the movie’s success.
Reilly is a real singer – you only need to see him perform “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago or hear him duet with Woody Harrelson in A Prairie Home Comapnion to know that – and a sincere and sincerely funny performer. He carries the movie with effortless skill.
I can say with some authority that Reilly is a real singer because, as good as he is in the movie, he was equally as good in person. After the screening on Monday, fans walked down the block to the Great American Music Hall, where the marquee proudly proclaimed, “Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers: The Cox Across America Tour.” (If you think the last name Cox was accidental and won’t be joked about in every conceivable way, think again.)
Reilly performed for about an hour with a four-piece band (he played guitar and harmonica), and he never broke character. He was Dewey Cox, outfitted in a black-and-red bolero outfit seen in the movie when he’s performing “Guilty as Charged.”
Because the song stylings move from ‘50s blues and rock ‘n’ roll to ‘60s folk and psychedelia, Reilly really gets to show off his skills as a singer. He’s a little bit Roy Orbison, which is a great thing to be. His live high notes weren’t quite as pristine as his movie high notes, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm and humor.
The best song in the movie is the title song, “Walk Hard,” though I’m awfully fond of the nearly dirty “Let’s Duet.” Dewey’s posthumous tribute to himself, “(Have You Heard the News) Dewey Cox Died,” is probably something every famous singer/songwriter wishes he/she wrote, and his anthemic plea for the rights of little people, “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” is a hoot.
Reilly is a theater veteran (A Streetcar Named Desire on
Broadway in 2005, Tony nomination for True West opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, lead in the musical version of Marty), and his comfort onstage shows. He’s great onscreen, but in his Dewe Cox guise, he knows how to give good theater.
In the spirit of the film, let me just add that he rocks out with his Cox out.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is in theaters Dec. 21. Here are two trailers. The first is for all audiences. The second is rated R. Choose appropriately.
OK, I know this isn’t local, but I’m still excited about it. And it’s in our state and time zone, so technically it’s local.
Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles recently announced that it will host the world premiere of 9 to 5, the Broadway-bound musical based on the 1980 movie starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
Here’s the really good news: Dolly has written the music and lyrics for the show — her first-ever musical.
The show opens next fall, Sept. 3 through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The book is by Patricia Resnick, co-author of the movie, and Joe Mantello (Wicked) is slated to direct.
The cast includes Allison Janey (The West Wing) as in-charge Violet Newstead (the Tomlin role). Stephanie J. Block (Wicked, The Boy from Oz) will be fumbling office worker Judy Bernly (the Fonda role). And Megan Hilty (Wicked yet again) will be country gal Doralee Rhodes (the Parton role).
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to write a musical, and now I have the chance to not only make Doralee sing, but to bring all of Patricia’s wonderful characters to life on stage through music,” Parton said in a statement. “I think I’m gonna like it around here.”
Last night I attended a screening of Disney’s big holiday movie, Enchanted, and I have to say, I was pretty charmed by the notion of a classic Disney animated feature turned on its head and morphed into a modern-day, live-action musical.
The trailer gives you a pretty good idea what the movie’s all about:
The songs are by the Academy Award-winning dynamic Disney duo of Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and Alan (Beauty and the Beast) Menken. The pair previously collaborated on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And though there aren’t enough songs for my taste, there are two — a huge, joyful production number in Central Park that ends in a veritable festial surrounding Bethesda Fountain, and a romantic waltz at a ball sung by Jon McLaughlin — that make me anxious for the CD (slated for release Nov. 20, and the movie comes out Nov. 21).
Amy Adams plays Giselle, a gentle (and somewhat simpleminded) lass who has Snow White’s woodland cottage and affinity for all creatures great and small. In her hand-drawn animation bliss, she has Ariel’s red hair and Belle’s taste in clothes. Her Prince Charming (Edward, actually, played by James Marsden in his second musical of the year after Hairspray) is more taken with himself than with Giselle, but every prince needs his princess.
Of course Edward’s stepmother, the Queen (Susan Sarandon chewing the scenery), has a problem with a potential new queen, so she and her bumbling sidekick (Timothy Spall) figure out a way to kick Giselle out of animated fairy tale land and into the harsh reality of Times Square.
Soon Prince Edward, the sidekick and, eventually, the queen herself, end up in the real world, where people, doggone it, just don’t spontaneously burst into song.
Giselle is saved from a downpour by handsome lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey, naturally), single dad to an adorable princess-deprvied daughter (Dad wants her to have strong women role models like Marie Curie and Harriet Tubman). Of course they think this beautiful redhead is absolutely bonkers, but they both fall for her charms.
Robert’s somewhat harsh girlfriend is played by Idina Menzel (the Tony Award-winning star of Schwartz’s Wicked), who doesn’t even get to sing a song, which is a shame.
There’s a lot of charm in this movie — not the least of which is a computer-animated chipmunk named Pip that nearly steals the picture — and the “let’s make fun of musicals while loving them at the same time” tone works well .
That said, I have reservations — and they’re cynical and very non-fairy tale in spirit. I can just hear the Disney corporate meetings that concocted what amounts to a giant commerical for its new line of princess toys and princess costumes and princess birthday party kits and princess everything under the sun. The princess business is already booming, and this movie is sure to kick it into even higher gear (I hear there are already Macy’s tie-ins).
I’m all for girl-power, feminist-revisionist fairy tales, and when, at the end of Enchanted, it’s up to Giselle to save her mister in distress, it should be a lot more triumphant than it is. There were so many opportunities to be clever and smart here, and Adams’ utterly captivating performance (sincere and silly in equal measure, knowing and hearfelt and, yes, enchanting) could have take the movie to a much more finely etched portrait of female empowerment and charm. But the script (and the heavy-duty special effects) ultimately disappoints.
And may I chime in with all the 10-year-old girls and complain that we don’t get to see the final, most important wedding (there is a wedding, but it’s not really the one we want to see). And there should be a great final musical number, not a soundtrack song by Carrie Underwood.
Here’s the official Enchanted Web site. There are film clips and behind-the-scenes glimpses.
I need to get the embarrassing details out there here at the start: The first versions of Beatles songs I ever grew to love were – gulp – on the double-album soundtrack of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1978 disaster starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, George Burns, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Yes, it’s true. I didn’t hear John, Paul, George and Ringo’s “Strawberry Fields” first. I heard Sandy Farina’s. And I loved it.
Eventually I came to my senses (ie, I grew up) and heard the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and actually enjoyed it more than Steve Martin’s.
Which brings me to my current fascination: the movie musical Across the Universe.
This is a safe space to talk about musicals, of course, but there is some real theater cred at work here in the person of director Julie Taymor, the Tony Award-winning director of Disney’s The Lion King.
In case you don’t know what Across the Universe is, it’s the story of the 1960s, from the carefree early days (the last vestiges of the fabulous ‘50s) to the war-torn, protest-filled, assassination-laden end of the decade. And it’s all told using Beatles songs sung by the actors.
Think of Grease, Hair, Tommy (and even High School Musicalcomes to mind in a gymnasium scene involving basketballs) and Moulin Rouge and you’ll begin to get Taymor’s fantastical approach.
I loved this movie. I’ve seen it twice and fallen hard for the soundtrack (the complete double-disc version on iTunes rather than the abbreviated single-disc version on store shelves). You either get on board for this and let Taymor and her cohorts dazzle your mind and heart or you just sit there thinking: This is stupid. Give me my Beatles CDs and I’ll just slit my wrists now.
Clearly I was in the former category. It’s hard not to dig a movie that recasts “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as a lesbian cheerleader’s heart-rending ballad directed to a fellow cheerleader. T.V. Carpio is the actress playing the role, and she’s fabulous.
So is Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy and Jim Sturgess as Jude, the young lovers – she from upper middle-class America, he from lower working-class Liverpool – caught up in the changing tides of the storm-tossed decade. Both sing beautifully (she’s got a sweet vibrato, and he sounds like Ewan MacGregor).
The best scenes are the most theatrical: Sturgess singing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (a truly fabulous song I didn’t previously know, which gives me renewed interest in exploring the ENTIRE Beatles back catalogue) in a bowling alley. In terms of movie musical bowling alley scenes, it’s much better than “Score Tonight” from Grease 2.
Other highlights include a frat-boyish “With a Little Help from My Friends,” a dynamic “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” with some great dancing and masks (with Taymor, of course there are masks) and a soul-stirring gospel “Let It Be” that takes place during the Detroit riots.
How remarkable is it that this year we’ve had two wildly different, wildly enjoyable movie musicals (the other one being, of course, Hairspray)? Across the Universe certainly isn’t for every taste, but musical lovers – and you know who you are – will eat it up.
And to all those Beatles purists out there who can’t stomach the notion of actors (and Joe Cocker and Bono and Eddie Izzard) covering Beatles songs, I have this to say: I was introduced to the Beatles through a terrible movie, and made my way eventually to the lads from Liverpool. Across the Universe, which is a whole lot better, more intelligent and artistically alive, will lead a whole new generation to discover for themselves why the Beatles are so extraordinary and so phenomenally timeless.
Finally, “Let It Be” is sung, primarily, by Carol Woods, a veteran stage performer who just happens to be the best thing in Blues in the Night, the hit musical revue now at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre. She’s the best thing in the show, and you shouldn’t miss her.
Here’s the trailer:
There are more clips and sound bytes at the official site here.
Summer has finally arrived, at least it has for me. Living in the cool-to-cold, foggy Bay Area, I seek my summer thrills in movie theates (sorry, but the thought of outdoor summer theater in the Bay Area fills me with dread — except for California Shakespeare Theater, whose skills transcend the cold).
I found summer in Hairspray, the hilarious, joyful movie version of the Broadway musical, which is in turn based on an original 1988 John Waters movie. Forget recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations like Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera. They don’t even begin to compare to the thrills of Hairspray, which manages — and this is really something — to not feel manufactured. It feels clever and sharp and well constructed, which makes it feel less like a shiny product and more like an engaged and engaging work of art.
Way back in the summer of 2002, I remember listening to the cast album of Broadway’s Hairspray straight through (this was before my iPod put my life on shuffle) and immediately went to the computer and bought a ticket for the show, then planned a trip to New York around it.
I’ve been a fan since, and the show is among the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. There’s just something about the energy of the cast and the audience having a great time and dancing to the same beat.
The movie, frankly, made me nervous. Director Adam Shankman didn’t seem the obvious choice to guide the movie or choreograph it on the basis of his previous film work such as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember and >Bringing Down the House. Well, it turns out Shankman was exactly the right man to bottle the exuberance of the show and translate it into a movie that seems like a movie much more than stage-bound show.
Little details abound in the movie that make it worth seeing more than once, and the performances are, for the most part, stellar. I was thoroughly unconvinced by John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the previews, but he quickly won me over with his Baltimore accent, which quickly turns charming (and has me calling everyone “hun.”) Young Nikki Blonsky is a real find as Tracy, the plucky teen dancer who inadvertently helps integrate Baltimore television in 1962.
It turns out that Michelle Pfeiffer looking more gorgeous than ever, is a crispy comic actress; Christopher Walken is made for quirky musicals; Zac Efron proves more than a pretty face as Linc Larkin; James Marsden lights up the screen as Corny Collins; Allison Janney as a religious nut mother steals every scene she’s in (which isn’t many); and if they ever make The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, I elect newcomer Elijah Kelley, who plays Seaweed here, for the part.
I must admit a little disappointment in Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle. Latifah is a delightful screen presence, no question, and she looks great here. But she’s lacking the emotional heft the role needs. Maybelle is a deeply soulful woman with a tremendous zest for life. She’s sensual and spiritual, and those aspects don’t really come through in Latifah’s performance, pleasant as it is.
Screenwriter Leslie Dixon has made some smart choices in adapting the musical for the screen, and genius songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have augmented the Broadway score with some good new songs, including “Ladies Choice” and “Come So Far (So Far to Go).” I noticed at least four songs in the credits (all Shaiman-Wittman compositions) that are not on the movie soundtrack CD. What gives? Can we expect a Vol. II if the movie’s as huge a hit as it deserves to be?
I hope when Oscar time rolls around next year, the Academy remembers that in the summer of 2007, there was a major flash of celluloid happiness called Hairspray.
Excitement is mounting for the movie version of Hairspray, which opens July 20.
I know several people who have seen early screenings of the movie and they LOVE it, so push all thoughts of lousy Broadway-to-movie musicals aside (hit the skids Rent, back to the basement Phantom, off to summer stock Producers).
First up is a clip of Zac Efron as Link Larkin singing a song written for the movie, “Ladies’ Choice.”
So many interesting tidbits floating around the theater world this week.
First off, they’re actually going to make a movie of Mamma Mia!, which seems logical because the show has made a gazillion dollars around the world and shows no signs of slowing down. And who doesn’t want to rock around the movie theater to groovy ABBA tunes. But has anyone considered that the show, enjoyable as it is, might be a tad, I don’t know, slight?
And Meryl Streep is set to star as the owner of an inn on a Greek island whose past — in the form of her soon-to-be-wed daughter and three men who may be the daughter’s father. Streep and slight don’t mix.
I’m not complaining. I’m a big fan of Ms. Streep’s singing, so bring on Meryl Streep, dancing queen. One of her co-stars, by the way, is Pierce Brosnan.
In other news, 17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe has apparently successfully broken out of his Harry Potter bondage. The enterprising actor, who has grown up as the lead in the Harry Potter movies, proved that he has more than a wand to offer the world when he took to the London stage in Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
Amid all the kerfuffle about Radcliffe’s lengthy nude scene, news of his being a remarkably good actor has sort of gotten lost. But we may get to judge for ourselves. There’s all sorts of buzz out there about the production, which also stars Richard Griffiths (muggle Uncle Vernon in the Potter movies) and Jenny Agutter (who was also in the 1977 Equus movie), coming to Broadway in 2008.
Producer David Pugh told Playbill.com that he “hopes the show will reach Broadway next year.”
Musical sequels traditionally haven’t fared too well: Bring Back Birdie and Annie Warbucks, both flops, spring to mind.
Undaunted, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, writing on his blog (he has a blog? get out!), says: “I am considering writing a sequel to Phantom of the Operabased on an idea presented to me over a decade ago.”
Oh, joy. Let’s start preparing ourselves for more music of the night.
And finally, what would a theater news roundup be without mention of Xanadu: The Musical? Kerry Butler, the appealing actress who starred as Penny in Hairspray on Broadway and in the Magic Theatre’s musical version of The Opposite of Sex in San Francisco (pictured at left, Butler with David Burtka), will play Kira (the role played by Olivia Newton-John in the 1980 movie).
The Academy Awards came and went without making much impression. Ellen DeGeneres was fun, just as you’d expect.
The nicest surprise to me was the best foreign film winner, The Lives of Others. Fantastic movie. Deserves every prize there is.
Enjoyed watching best supporting actress winner Jennifer Hudson wipe the floor with Miss Beyonce during the Dreamgirls best song medley. Glad none of those songs won because they’re just not as good as the songs from the original show. Sad that Randy Newman’s “Our Town” (a fine, sad song from Cars about the death of the American small town) didn’t win, although I can’t begrudge Melissa Etheridge anything.
Loved Ellen’s line: “Without blacks, gays and Jews, there’d be no Oscars…or guys named Oscar for that matter.”
If you were watching the Academy Awards instead of “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” well good for you. If you’re not reading Seth Rudetsky’s weekly wrap-up on Playbill.com, you’re missing out. Go there now.
Here’s a sample of Mr. Rudetsky’s (right) brilliance (and whey he’s so much more fun than the actual show:
First of all, from the low cut-ness of the negligees the girls were spilling out of, I thought it was going to be a medley from Boobs: The Musical (which actually played the Triad Theatre). Zowee! Also, they cut the “Fongool” lyric. I know it’s an Italian curse, but nevertheless I felt gypped. I was sitting on my couch saying out loud to no one, “Where’s the fongool?” Not unlike the time I saw the “Evita” movie and was in a rage asking, “Where’s the aristocracy?” (“All my descamisados expect me to outshine the enemy, [the aristocracy]. I won’t disappoint them!”) Why did Madonna cut that lyric? And, on a related note, didn’t the real Eva Peron have a vibrato? Why didn’t the movie version?
Apparently this week there was singing, dancing and acting by all the potential Sandys. Now aren’t you glad you didn’t watch. Oh, and the special guest was Frankie Avalon.
The cuts were: Kate Rockwell and Kevin Greene. Next week – can you believe there’s a next week? — it’s all about the Dannys.