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Sondheim on adapting musicals to the screen

Twelve hours and seventeen minutes of continuous Sondheim (interrupted only by the occasional plea to the audience to get out of the theatre so that others can enjoy the free event). What bliss could be greater, even if it meant getting up at 3 AM in the morning to tune into the internet broadcast? I'm not the world's greatest Sondheim fan, but if I'd found out about this concert earlier I would have seriously considered jumping on a plane to New York. Though I guess it would have meant springing a thousand bucks in donations to morally justifiably secure a seat for the entire day. So maybe not.

Not going to talk about the performances very much - suffice to say, all were motivated by love and respect (or at least the desire for some exposure), though some weren't quite as polished as others. I'm looking at you Ms Angela Lansbury, goddess of the theatre that you are... but not just at you.

Most interesting to me were the panels, most involving Sondheim himself. Jason Robert Brown, Richard Maltby and Georgia Stitt talking about why Sondheim's lyrics work was much enlightening. Joss Whedon skirting the line separating rampant fanboy and obsessive stalker was fun, given how he must have plenty experience himself these days on the admiree side of the fame fence.

But Sondheim talking about why none of the filmed works of his musicals have worked provided the most food for thought and the justification for posting this entry into the Creativity section of the blog.

Sondheim unequivocably considers all of the adaptations of his own works to be unsuccessful. Granted, there were only two real ones I think - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and A Little Night Music (neither of which I've seen); the others were all tapes of the stage productions. But he goes further:

It's very hard to make a movie out of a musical play I think and I don't think I'ver ever seen one that I think worked, not just of my own. There's something about the reportorial quality of a camera that is antithetical to what happens on a stage in a musical, which is when the audience's imagination goes. And even when they are proficient - as there are parts of West Side Story which I think are proficient - it doesn't have the same kind of ... it doesn't let the audience go, you know. "There's real streets but there's colour coordinated wash, I don't know where I am," you know?

On the other hand, he is optimistic about the adaptation of Sweeney Todd, curently in pre-production, because:

John Logan [who, like Joss Whedon, is a musical theatre fan] has found a way of making it so it's his own animal, without destroying the animal. [...] Sam Mendes who's going to direct it knows and loves both media, and understands he the difference between the two. He understands that you don't just make a movie by changing it so much that it's "cinematic", a word I don't much like, and at the same time he knows the difference between the stage and [the screen].

Sondheim, who as an audience member prefers movies to theatre (though not as a writer), is not adverse to making cuts to his score for the purposes of adaptation - he can put his "movie hat on" for that purpose - and makes a fascinating observation about one of the differences between the two forms:

It's harder, though, to use songs in a storytelling form in movies - and I include TV in that - because a single close-up can tell you all you need to know that you don't have to sing. Good, bad or indifferent, [in] the movie A Little Night Music, I begged Hal [Prince] not to have them sing the entire "You must meet my wife" because a simple statement from him [Frederik] and one look of dismay on her [Desiree's] face tells you all you need to know, and the joke is over. On stage you can take three minutes and sing it out, and in opera you can take fifteen and sing it out... and they do. But the whole idea of time, of movie time, of screen time (whether it's TV or movie) and stage time: two entirely different things. That's one of the things that makes it so hard to translate a stage play into a musical.

As he says later:

Lyrics are what hold things up on the screen. It's explaining something and explaining it with muuuuuuusic, so it goes on.

Whereas score, sans lyrics, can comment on the characters without the need to consume such screen time.

Food for thought given that one of the creative works I'm most proud of is a very faithful (and of course unauthorised) stage-to-screen adaptation of Les Miserables.

Chicago worked partly because Bill Condon didn't write a literal adaptation, he made it his own animal, while breathing new life into the animal. Phantom of the Opera didn't work... arguably partly because the adaptation was so direct (even though I liked that aspect). Now I'd argue that the form of Chicago - post-modern vaudeville pastiche - lends itself much better to innovative adaptation than the straightforward romanticism of Phantom, but still...

Much of the power of a musical theatre play is attained through the visceral nature of having a live performer singing in front of you. Time does indeed change when watching a show - the audience becomes more generous in granting their attention for extended periods. This is - as Sondheim stated - true for musicals and truer still for opera... possibly because, as he also said, opera (and rock) is much more of a performer-centric experience.

Movies can also hold our attention: through acting performance, through action sequences, through production values and special effects. I'm not sure if they can do it through song and dance to the same extent that stage shows can.

And while I was aware of this constraint and tried to work around it in my screenplay, there's no denying it's much more Phantom than Chicago.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 25, 2005 1:36 PM.

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