"Hamilton" mania has once again gripped the popular culture, this time due to Thomas Kail's dynamic film of the original Broadway production — now available on Disney+ — that played to packed houses all over the country until the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. It's going to be a while before we can venture back to the theater, but in the meantime you can take a stroll through film history and revisit Hollywood adaptations of Broadway's biggest hits. Sometimes the movie recaptures the magic of the stage show; other times, the filmmakers fail their source material. Here are 25 films that tried to bring the glory of live theater to moviegoers.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historical musical has been packing Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre since August 2015, and while it’s dark now due to the coronavirus pandemic, when the lights go back up on the Great White Way it’ll likely be jammed full of theatergoers once again – even with a filmed version of the show being made widely available to Disney+ subscribers. Miranda also promises a full-fledged, non-stagebound movie at some point in the not-too-distant future, though he wants to first give audiences the opportunity to see the show in its intended format.
Jonathan Larson’s East Village riff on Puccini’s “La Bohème” was the “Hamilton” of its day. When it played to packed houses at the New York Theatre Workshop in early 1996, the producers rushed to bring the show to Broadway –— and when there wasn’t an open Broadway theater to accommodate its transfer, they refurbished the long-dormant Nederlander Theatre, where it played for 12 years. They were in less of a rush to bring the production to the big screen, however, which allowed this very specific depiction of a very specific time in Manhattan to go from cool to ice cold. Christopher Columbus’ film bombed at the box office in 2005. The show is probably best known to most people nowadays via Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet parody in “Team America: World Police." But those who were in the city when the show broke still hold “Rent” dear.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most popular musical was a global sensation from the moment it premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre on London’s West End in 1986. The Broadway production opened two years later, and even The New York Times feared theater critic, Frank Rich, had to concede it was irresistible entertainment. One of the show’s main selling points was its dazzling stagecraft, which was obviously lost when Joel Schumacher unveiled his film adaptation in 2004. The two-decades-too-late movie retained the stage musical’s cornball zeal, but the leads (Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum) lacked chemistry; ergo, the longest running show in Broadway history did only middling business at the worldwide box office.
The ABBA-infused jukebox musical had been going strong on Broadway for two years when Meryl Streep checked it out in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001. She was so uplifted by the show that she played a pivotal role in spearheading the big-screen adaptation, which lit up the box office in the summer of 2008. Though “Mamma Mia!” concluded its 5,758-performance run in 2015 (the longest ever for a jukebox musical), the film spawned a sequel, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," which also made a boatload of cash.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s celebration of bad behavior in 1920s Chicago got a steamy revival in 1996, starring starring Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking (who also choreographed “in the style” of her mentor Bob Fosse), and it’s still going strong 9,692 performances later (which makes it the longest-running revival in Broadway history). Rob Marshall gave it a star-studded, razzle-dazzle film adaptation in 2002, featuring Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Audiences and the Academy went wild for it, turning it into a box office smash and a Best Picture winner. Fourteen years later, former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George made his Broadway debut as Billy Flynn. We’d like a movie of that production, thank you very much.
Before Jersey Mike’s there was “Jersey Boys," a jukebox musical about the rise and fall of the 1960s pop quartet The Four Seasons. Nostalgia-mad Baby Boomers flocked to the Broadway production when it opened in 2005 and kept it running until 2017. The exuberance of the show was deadened by director Clint Eastwood in his distended, dimly lit 2014 film version, which did not come close to matching the success of its source material. It might be the sleepiest movie musical ever made.
“Do you hear the people sing?” Indeed! In 42 countries and 21 different languages! Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s rousingly tuneful take on Victor Hugo’s French Revolution epic might be the most globally beloved musical of all time. Though the show has been unable to stick on Broadway since the initial production closed in 2003 (after 6,680 performances), it constantly tours, which is helpful if you’re a fan of the show and need to bleach Tom Hooper’s tone-deaf film adaptation from your memory. Yes, Anne Hathaway earned her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream," but Hooper’s foolish insistence on filming the numbers without a click track rendered the film ungainly and uninvolving. It was still a hit because “Les Misérables” will always be a hit, but it didn’t feel like “Les Misérables."
Here’s the problem with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”: It sucks. Based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, it’s one of the hit-making composer’s least enjoyable musicals. The narrative structure of the piece is essentially built around the performance of its one good song: “Memory." In other words, it’s like going to see The Kinks in concert and having Ray Davies tease “Lola” for two hours, except he fills in the rest of the set with Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music." That Amazing Alexander sketch on "SNL" where everyone is hypnotized into saying his show is better than “Cats”? It’s funny because everyone knows “Cats” stinks. In any event, Tom Hooper, the tentpole Tommy Wiseau, made a film version last year, and it made the Broadway show look like “My Fair Lady."
Speaking of “My Fair Lady”, a case could be made — or, rather, has been made — that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is the greatest musical of the 20th century. It remains the only musical to feature “On the Street Where You Live," so this math checks out. The George Cukor-directed film version is pretty spiffy, too, but all due respect to Audrey Hepburn (and her singing double, Marni Nixon), it would probably be more fondly remembered had Jack Warner allowed Julie Andrews to reprise her role as Eliza Doolittle.
This 1891 musical comedy by Charles H. Hoyt traffics heavily in Asian caricature, which is why it hasn’t been revived since the Taft administration. But history is history, and it was one of the longest-running shows of early Broadway, which made it prime material for a big-screen adaptation in the silent film era (where the music was performed live in the theater). It’s significant for featuring Hollywood’s first Asian-American star, Anna May Wong, and for being one of many silent movies that has been lost forever.
This Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical about a Russian Jew desperate for his increasingly independent daughters to observe “Tradition!” was a surprise Broadway smash in the 1960s and became an excellent movie under the direction of Norman Jewison in 1971. Topol took over the role of Tevye from Tony-winner Zero Mostel, and though he did not win the Best Actor Oscar that year, he is now considered the definitive interpreter of the character.
Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliant drama about a Chicago family awaiting a $10,000 inheritance payout after the death of the patriarch was a groundbreaking achievement for African-American theater in terms of content, commercial success and casting. Lloyd Richards established himself as one of the all-time great theatrical directors on the strength of this production, but the film version, which featured most of the original cast (including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Louis Gossett, Jr.), was handed off to white studio workman, Daniel Petrie. It’s a fine film (the material and cast are just too strong for it not to work), but it feels more respectful than impassioned.
Ask theater buffs which historic show they’d give anything to hop in a time machine to check out, and the majority will probably answer the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire." Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden directed by Elia Kazan. This was ground zero for the method-acting era, and the height of Williams’ power as a psychosexually attuned playwright. Kazan’s 1951 film is a bang-on classic, but the decision to cast aging movie star Vivien Leigh (who’d starred in the West End production) as Blanche over Tandy is one of the great “what ifs."
Eugene O’Neill did not live to see his finest work staged on Broadway (starring Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards and Bradford Dillman) — which is another one of those time machine productions theater nerds dream about. This semiautobiographical play about a toxic American family, much like the one you might not want to admit you came from, earned a blue-chip film adaptation from director Sidney Lumet in 1962. Robards was the only remnant from the original cast, but the replacements were hardly chopped liver (Katharine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell and Sir Ralph Richardson). The nearly three-hour run time serves the material well, but Lumet’s “Playhouse 90” approach leaves you wishing you’d seen the stage version.
August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays is a towering document of African-American life in the 20th century. Before his untimely death in 2005, Wilson completed 10 plays, one for each decade, and they are all essential works. Some, of course, are better than others, and it’s hard to top his Pulitizer Prize-winning 1950s drama, “Fences," which focuses on the family of a hard-working garbage man whose bitter experience as a pro baseball prospect during the sport’s segregated era leads him to thwart his son’s dreams of obtaining a college football scholarship. It’s a searing drama that, almost 30 years after its Broadway debut, received an A-plus film adaptation from director and star Denzel Washington.
The signature Rodgers and Hammerstein smash established the narrative structure of nearly every popular musical released over the last 75 years and ran for a then unheard of 2,212 performances. The show toured for a decade and received a Broadway revival before Fred Zinnemann’s technically audacious 70mm roadshow adaptation made its way through the nation’s most extravagant movie houses. The 35mm prints were eventually struck, which allowed the film to play in more theaters, but the ambitious release strategy hurt its box office. It’s a fine movie, but more than maybe any other musical, it belongs to the stage.
Arthur Miller’s first major theatrical success (he won the 1947 Tony Award for Best Author) was rushed to the big screen, resulting in a good adaptation that nevertheless cries out for a more visually expressive rendering. Elia Kazan earned a Best Director Tony for his steering of Miller’s drama about a family dogged by their father’s negligent shipping of defective airplane parts during World War II, but producer Chester Erskine moved forward with workman Irving Reis at the helm of the movie. Burt Lancaster and (especially) Edward G. Robinson are terrific in the movie, but it feels like punches are being pulled.
One year before George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” tapped into the Baby Boomer nostalgia market, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1958-set musical recalled the nascent days of youthful rebellion that would eventually give way to the social upheaval of the 1960s. “Grease” is a lot tougher than its reputation suggests, particularly the song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do," which hints that bad girl Rizzo might’ve terminated an unwanted pregnancy. Randal Kleiser’s blockbuster film, which capitalized on the supernova stardom of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, doesn’t shy away from these ambiguities. It’s an enormous amount of fun, but it’s not just fluff.
Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about tenement living in Manhattan was a Broadway smash, which led to a King Vidor-directed film adaptation two years later. Shot by George Barnes and cinematography wunderkind Gregg Toland, the movie traded out most of the Broadway stars for screen idols like Sylvia Sidney, William Collier, Jr. and Estelle Taylor. A towering work of naturalism at the time, it now plays awfully quaint. But the yearnings of these cash-strapped folks still resonate, however faintly. It’s worth a watch to get a sense of how city life was being depicted in the immediate run-up to Black Tuesday. The whole country was about to change.
After establishing himself as one of the finest TV comedy writers in America via his work on “Your Show of Shows” and “The Phil Silvers Show," Neil Simon transitioned to the theater, where he found immediate success with “Come Blow Your Horn," “Barefoot in the Park” and the Broadway blockbuster “The Odd Couple." The classic comedy of contrasts about a neatnik journalist and a slovenly sportswriter earned Simon his first Tony and made millions when it became a film starring Walter Matthau (reprising his Tony-winning role from the stage) and Jack Lemmon. A long-running sitcom starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall premiered in 1970.
Meredith Wilson reached back to his Iowa childhood to deliver this immensely relatable depiction of a small town in the Midwest that falls under the spell of Professor Harold Hill, a traveling huckster who promises to turn their children into a first-rate marching band — while planning to skip town the minute the instruments are delivered. It’s infectiously wholesome entertainment that took Broadway by storm in 1957 and, five years later, became a box office smash with Robert Preston reprising his Tony-winning performance as the up-to-no-good “professor." Over half a century later, it’s still one of the most frequently produced musicals in regional theaters across America.
Composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into an urban American tragedy featuring groundbreaking choreography from Jerome Robbins. It lost the Best Musical Tony to “The Music Man” but was a big enough hit on Broadway to merit a big-screen adaptation — which hit the same year as the film version of “The Music Man." Both musicals were nominated for Best Picture, but Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation (for which Robbins earned a co-directing credit) took home the trophy this time. Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited update, with a revised book by Tony Kushner, hits theaters this December (if theaters are open by then).
Charlie Smalls’ exuberant 1974 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” gave a criminally ignored and drastically underserved black audience the joy of watching a classic tale retold via its culture and experiences. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and the Broadway soundtrack was a top seller. “Ease on Down the Road” quickly became the cool version of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road." Conditions were perfect for a blockbuster film version in 1978, especially with the casting of superstars Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne. But director Sidney Lumet’s flat visual style sapped the movie of all its verve. The film was a financial disaster and unjustly led Hollywood studios to steer clear of other all-black productions.
“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch… Again!” The emotional and physical agony of auditioning for a Broadway show was examined under the Schubert Theatre spotlight in the initial, singularly sensational production of Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s “A Chorus Line." A Tony- and Pulitzer-winning triumph, it graced the Great White Way from 1975 to 1990, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history until “Cats” overtook it a few years after it closed. So why was the eagerly anticipated film adaptation, directed by no less than Sir David Attenborough, such a dud? He basically took the “Hamilton” approach and filmed the stage production, but the theater legend is curiously incapable of conveying the live-wire energy of a Broadway show.
Every generation gets its defining Broadway production, and while we’re waiting to see whatever blossoms from the turmoil of the last several years, it’s not a bad time to marvel once again at how emphatically Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado nailed the 1960s counterculture with “Hair." The show captured the fear and anger of young people a) being asked to die for their country in a foolish war, b) fighting for their civil rights and c) trying to escape it all via mind-altering substances. It was a unique live experience felt doomed to die on the big screen, but Miloš Forman managed to capture its spontaneous essence with his critically acclaimed 1979 adaptation.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.