The film musical Cats bombed at the box office, an epic flop that will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. When director Tom Hooper approached the content, it appears that the spectacle of the onscreen mutations took centre stage over the execution of the story line. The attention he hoped the movie would receive is certainly not the kind he is getting.
The obvious, but simple, question is, how did the onscreen adaptations of one of the most successful musicals of all time fail?
There need not be a complicated answer: it simply did not translate for the cinema going audience.
The first problem is the narrative, which is hard to follow for newcomers to Cats. The stage show is a concept musical, with what little dialogue there is is used to convey themes and messages more than an actual plot. Unlike other film musicals such as Mamma Mia there is no storyline that flows with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, audiences feel they are getting a scattered series of situations. The second problem, and one which raised red flags since the release of the first trailer, is the overpowering CGI. It destroyed the organic textures from the stage show, and turned the characters into outlandish creations. At times those characters become unnerving, losing the very humanity and emotion that audiences need to connect or relate to. In an unprecedented move, word has spread of another cut with even more CGI due for release. While that may improve (or disimprove) one area of the movie it will not fix it as a whole.
The following are five musicals which started life on the stage and translated into box office hits. With themes of love, loss, sex, fear and death, they show a diversity and humanity within the musical genre of cinematic greats.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This homage to sci-fi classics finds Brad and Janet stranded on a stormy night, entering a castle for shelter and into the world of the unconventional transvestite Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). This movie is the very definition of cult! A celebration of diverse sexuality at a time when LGBTQ+ communities were fighting for acceptance. Richard O’Brien both followed and built his dream, first as a stage production in 1973 and later as this bombastic, good-time B-movie in 1975. In a move to keep the flow of the stage show, the original actors who starred in the stage musical continued their parts onto the big screen. This led to a continuity, and the movie became the most successful musical adaptation of all time. At its very core The Rocky Horror Picture Show is entertainment, which begs the audience to participate from the first breath of “The Time Warp”. In this way the plot becomes secondary to the enjoyment.
2. West Side Story (1961)
Based on the 1957 Broadway hit, West Side Story crossed over perfectly to cinema audiences, winning ten Academy Awards including Best Picture. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins captured perfectly a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 50’s Manhattan as two rival gangs. the Sharks and the Jets, battle it out for dominance. The sister of Sharks leader Maria (Natalie Wood) falls for the Jets co-founder, and now retired Tony (Richard Beymer). As Tony is reluctantly brought back into his former gang, the tension of love over war becomes prevalent. Set for a reboot in late 2020 in the hands of Steven Spielberg, whether it will succeed as it did in 1961 has yet to be seen.
3. Cabaret (1972)
A sexually-charged dive into decadence, Cabaret centres on an aspiring novelist who falls for a self-destructive singer. All this set to the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Berlin. Cabaret follows the tale of Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) who works at the Kit Kat Klub, and becomes friendly with British author Brian Roberts (Michael York). The pair become the basis of a love triangle with playboy Maximilian Von Heune (Helmut Griem). Based on the 1951 play I Am a Camera, Cabaret remains an intelligent musical, as the cast use musical numbers to express their emotions while exploring their inner consciousness. Indeed, that acclaim led to eight Academy Awards, including Best Director for Bob Fosse and Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, only failing to win the Best Picture Award due to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
4. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Starting life as a joint venture concept album in 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice turned a 2000-year old biblical story into a rock opera. A year later this concept made its Broadway debut, with a narrative that focuses on the untold relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. Following hot on the heels of the counterculture zeitgeist Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar spoke to a 1970’s audience, serving as a commentary on contemporary political struggles. In 1973, it became a critically acclaimed movie, so much so, that director Norman Jewison showed the film to Pope Paul VI who stated “I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film. I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity.”
5. Les Misérables (2012)
Opening in December 2012, this film adaptation of Les Misérables proved how Cats director Tom Hooper knows how to translate a Broadway hit into a cinematic masterpiece. Becoming the biggest opening for a musical outing, Les Misérables captivated audiences with its powerful cinematography reflecting the scale of the stage performance perfectly. With the use of both superb casting (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway), and atmospheric settings, Les Misérables captures those intimate, human moments perfectly. Anne Hathaway’s performance earned her an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and an Actors Guild Award. Hugh Jackman would have further success in the musical world with The Greatest Showman, demonstrating what Les Misérables got right. Unfortunately, however, the director himself was unable to follow with another work of genius.