By Branyan Towe
Film adaptations of musicals have certainly come a long way over the years. These adaptations have a wide range in quality. Some have been Academy Award winners. Some are considered to be among the worst films ever made, and others are simply okay.
This year happens to be one of the richest for movie musicals in recent memory, with films such as “In the Heights,” “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and “West Side Story” set for release. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the biggest movie adaptations of all time and see where they went right and wrong. I’ll also be discussing three of this year’s newest releases and the expectations for each of them. As someone who loves musical theater and film, I’m excited to look into the past and dive into the future of movie musical adaptations.
Let’s begin our reflections on the past with a film that has ties to a 2021 release…
“West Side Story” (1961)
This film and “Grease” served as my introduction to musicals and movie musical adaptations. The story will always hold a special place in my heart, but that being said, rewatching this critically acclaimed classic has become more complicated for me over the years. Even though it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture, earning the most wins for a musical to date, it is, in my opinion, incredibly dated. As Carolina Moreno and Riley Arthur of HuffPost note, most of the Puerto Rican characters in the film were portrayed by non-Latino actors. One key exception to that is Rita Moreno, who is superb as Anita, and I look forward to seeing her again in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (2021). While the dancing, the musical numbers, and the supporting cast are excellent, the film doesn’t have strong leads. Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) aren’t memorable outside of their song duets, which they aren’t even using their own voices for. Combine that with the questionable casting decisions of the time, and it really hurts the film overall. It’s still good, and I can understand why people still love it, but the upcoming remake has a chance to be even better arguably for a whole new generation.
“Mamma Mia!” (2008)
Entering into the modern era, it’s likely that you either love or hate this adaptation of the ABBA jukebox musical. Personally, I think the sequel released ten years later, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” is better than the first film. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy this. In fact, there’s a lot that I like (Amanda Seyfried, for example, I think has the best song performances in the entire movie, especially during the “Lay All Your Love on Me” duet). The filmmakers did a fantastic job of capturing the look of the stage musical for a film. The numbers are bombastic and exciting, even sometimes a little too much so. One of the biggest criticisms that I and critics like Jordan Mintzer of Variety had with the film at the time of its release was the casting of inexperienced singers. As Mintzer notes, “Thesping is all-around pro, although some stars, especially the bouncy and rejuvenated Streep, seem better suited for musical comedy than others, including Brosnan and Skarsgard.” While Pierce Brosnan is a favorite actor of mine, due to growing up with him as James Bond, I would rather do just about anything instead of listening to him sing. Despite the criticism, “Mamma Mia!” was a smash hit, grossing $600+ million against a budget of $52 million. After rewatching it again, it’s easy to see why: it is fun and mostly harmless outside of a handful of poor singing performances. You could certainly find a worse movie musical to watch on any given night.
Speaking of worse, I give you the last theatrically released movie musical adaptation before the release of “In the Heights” in 2021. I’m going to be honest here, I wasn’t a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” prior to seeing this film (I honestly don’t know many who were), and what I saw on the big and later the small screen did not help the musical’s case. I did at one time hope that this film would be good or at least make a ton of money for Universal Studios so that they could bankroll into a potential adaptation of “Wicked,” which the world is eagerly awaiting. The reality is that “Cats” is so bad that it’s actually good, effectively making it “The Room” of movie musical adaptations, and the critical panning it took reflects that. However, I think the singing performances, particularly those of Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift, are solid once you get past the nightmare-fueled CGI that has haunted us ever since we saw the first trailer.
Now it’s time for a look into the upcoming slate of movie musical adaptations scheduled for release this year, starting with a recently released project…
“In The Heights” (2021)
Already in theaters and streaming on HBO Max
Most are aware that “In the Heights” was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame and is directed by Jon M. Chu, director of “Crazy Rich Asians.” You’ve likely seen the film’s two male leads, Anthony Ramos and Corey Hawkins, before. Ramos was a part of the Original Broadway cast of “Hamilton,” and Hawkins portrayed Dr. Dre in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton.” The female leads, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera, are relative newcomers. “In the Heights” is Grace’s first film role, and Barrera is perhaps best known for her leading role in the Starz series “Vida.” Having seen the film, I can offer my opinion that all four do a fantastic job, backed by superb musical numbers, a solid supporting cast, and vibrant visuals. Currently, “In the Heights” holds a 96% critic rating and 95% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is also generating some very early Oscar buzz despite its poor showing at the box office recently.
“Dear Evan Hansen”
Scheduled for release on September 24th, 2021
Even though we’ve only gotten one trailer for the film adaptation of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul’s 2015 Tony Award-winning stage musical, it certainly got people talking. The most considerable criticism came from the fact that lead Ben Platt is a 27-year-old man playing a 17-year-old boy. As Allison Shoemaker of The AV Club points out, it’s easier to suspend your disbelief with theater than it is with film. Personally, when I watched the trailer, I simply couldn’t get past this clearly grown man walking around the high school like a student. It wasn’t like “Billy Madison,” where the lead is an adult that goes back to school. The character of Evan Hansen is a teenager. Perhaps if I were a bigger fan of the musical, I could suspend my disbelief just enough, like with “Grease,” but I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Despite that, I am looking forward to this film, which features an exciting cast, including Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, and Amy Adams. If there is one plus about Platt reprising his Tony award-winning role, it is that Evan Hansen’s songs should sound amazing due to his incredible singing voice.
“West Side Story”
Scheduled for release on December 10th, 2021
We end things back where we began with a story that will, as Screenwriter Tony Kushner told Vanity Fair in 2018, not retell the original 1961 film but rather take more cues from the Broadway musical on which both films are based. Director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” is easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. As I mentioned, I think this remake has a chance to be better than the original. This is due not only to it being closer to the source material, as Kushner explained but also due to the sheer number of cast members involved in the film with musical theater experience. I believe that the best way to make a movie musical adaptation is with theater actors, and the critical success of “In the Heights,” which also features several actors with stage experience, may be a good sign for “West Side Story” The teaser trailer does remind you of the original film at specific points. Still, the shots are extraordinary, and everything pops, setting this new version apart. Another positive that the film has going for it is newcomer Rachel Zegler in the role of Maria. She’s been pegged by many (including here at Next Best Picture) as an early contender for a Best Actress nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. Only time will tell if she goes from posting song covers on her YouTube channel to Oscar glory. With so much seemingly working in its favor, I cannot wait to see how this adaptation turns out when it is released in December.
What are your favorite movie musical adaptations? Which are you looking forward to most in 2021? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Branyan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @BranyanTowe