There are two upcoming movie musicals that, for a long time, I’ve wanted to make into motion pictures, should someone with money be willing to give me the funds to make them — Into The Woods and The Last 5 Years. I’m both nervous and excited to see how directors Rob Marshall and Richard LaGravenese, respectfully, have interpreted the material I hold so close to my heart. I am especially nervous for Into The Woods, given Marshall’s less than impressive track record. If someone is going to screw up something I cherish, it should be me.
Of course, there are far more than two musicals I have a deep connection to. Some have already been made into films, like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Les MisÃ©rables, but there is a vast collection of musicals I have thought could make fantastic films, but have never been made. The reasons for the lack of an adaptation could be failed attempts at getting it off the ground, the show not being popular enough to put money behind, or just no one has ever thought to make it.
Well, I have taken it upon myself to help some producers out there looking for properties ripe with cinematic potential. And if they wish to hire me for it, even better. What follows is a list of ten musicals that would make for excellent films. These are not necessarily my top ten favorite musicals, though some would make that list. These are the ones deserving of a shot on the big screen and yet have never made it. These would all be first timers.
If this list accomplishes anything, it gets at least one person to check out one of these shows. Musical theater is a niche I wish could reach more people. Maybe I highlight something that intrigues one of you and opens you up to something you thought you did not like. That would be terrific. With that said, let’s get on with the list.
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
BOOK, MUSIC, AND LYRICS: RUPERT HOLMES
This is one I hotly debated putting on the list, mainly because it would require a highly complex distribution strategy. If you are familiar with the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, you will know this was the final novel by the author and is unfinished, as Dickens died before completing it. The story concerns John Jasper, a choirmaster, who falls in love with one of his pupils named Rosa. She is betrothed to Jasper’s nephew, the titular Edwin Drood. Rosa, herself, has fallen for Neville Landless, a man who traveled to England from Ceylon with his twin Helen. When Drood goes missing, everyone becomes a suspect.
Writer Rupert Holmes constructed the show in the style of an old British musical hall performance. The performers play second-rate performers performing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, making for a lighthearted, comedic take on the story. Also, because Dickens died before writing an ending, Holmes decided it would be too presumptuous of himself to figure out what Dickens intended, so he, instead, leaves the ending up to the audience. They vote on who they think Drood’s murderer is, who the secret Detective Datchery is, and who the two lovers are at the end of the story, making for a different show every night.
The reason I say a highly complicated distribution plan would be needed for this show’s film is to preserve that unpredictable essence the show has. Much like they did with a film like Clue in 1985, you would have to ship different endings to different theaters all around the country at random. That way, the audience walking in will not know which ending they will be getting each time out. The show makes it possible for hundreds of different endings and randomizing them across every theater could make for a really fun time.
Like I said, I debated putting this one on the list for this very elaborate reason, but I decided to go with it because the show is too much fun to ignore. The unpredictability of it is always fun. The score is filled with lively, clever songs appropriate to its period, and the final number, “The Writing on the Wall,” is one of the most rousing musical theater songs ever written, ending with a spectacular belted E that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. I, typically, do not go for the crowd pleasing shows, but this one is too effervescent to dislike.
Music Highlights: “A Man Could Go Quite Mad”, “No Good Can Come From Bad”, “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead”, “The Writing on the Wall”
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
BOOK, MUSIC, AND LYRICS: FRANK LOESSER
Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics to two of the most popular shows of all time in Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Both have had numerous Broadway revivals, had film adaptations, and How to Succeed… even won the Pultizer Prize for Drama, something only eight musicals have done (two other winners will appear later on this list). I adore and have appeared in productions of both those shows. However, Loesser has much more than just those two shows and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to show for himself.
The Most Happy Fella, based on the 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard, is one of the most lush romances ever put on stage. Tony Esposito, in 1927 Napa Valley, is an older Italian immigrant who is taken by the beauty of a waitress he dubs Rosabella. He leaves her a letter and a beautiful tie pin, and the two strike up a correspondence over the mail. When she asks for a picture of Tony, he is told by his sister Marie he cannot send a picture of himself, as he is too old an unattractive, so he instead asks the young and handsome farm foreman Joey, who is about to leave Napa Valley, for a picture to send. Tony and Rosabella agree to get married, but problems arise when Joey decides not to leave town and Tony gets into a bad car accident.
It cannot be overstated how gorgeous the score for this show is. I am typically not one to respond to a massive, sweeping, melodic score, but Loesser’s material never makes the emotions sentimental, making the music even more powerful. The songs feel like they are coming from an honest, romantic place inside every character. The themes are resonant without being simplistic. The show deals with love in a serious way rather than as an idealist. In an era where boy meets girl and lives happily ever after was what most musicals were doing, this takes it the other way.
The show had the misfortune of premiering in the same season as My Fair Lady, which is a juggernaut, and I think the memory of it is hazy because of it. I find it to be a superior show in its take on what love is and the complexity of the music. The Most Happy Fella is often cited as one of the closest-to-opera musical theater has to offer. The show is big, bold, sincere, and beautiful. When your body of work includes two of the most successful shows ever, it is easy for a gem like this to get swept under the rug. It deserves a higher place in history.
Music Highlights: “Somebody, Somewhere”, “Joey, Joey, Joey”, “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance”, “My Heart is So Full of You”
THE WILD PARTY
BOOK, MUSIC, AND LYRICS: ANDREW LIPPA
The year 2000 had a Tombstone/Wyatt Earp situation in the musical theater world. Two musicals premiered, one on Broadway and the other off-Broadway, based on the 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The one on Broadway, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, was a flop, and the show itself is not fairly memorable. The off-Broadway production, with book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, however, is an exciting look at the roaring 1920s, narrowing the central focus of the poem to a highly volatile love square.
Queenie looks for danger and excitement in her love life. She initially thinks she has that with Burrs, a rather aggressive vaudevillian clown. However, that aggressiveness turns into abuse Queenie no longer finds titillating. In order to get some of that excitement back, she plans a party to find a way to publicly humiliate Burrs. When their friend Kate, the self-proclaimed “Life of the Party,” arrives with a mysterious new man named Mr. Black, Queenie finds a new target for her sexual exploits. Drinks get pounded, jealousy rages high, and the close-knit drama is gripping.
This is one I think could make an easy transition over to film. The story is fairly simplistic and mainly serves as acting showcases for its four lead performers. They all have big numbers of comedy and heavy drama. Love triangles and love squares have existed on film since the very early days, and they can make for some terrific films if handled properly. Here, the square gets even more intense, as its participants are confined to a small space. Finding a director who can capture all of the bombast could make for an exciting picture.
The original cast recording, featuring Julia Murney, Brian d’Arcy James, Taye Diggs, and Idina Menzel, is a recording I listen to constantly. The success of the film would depend heavily on finding four actors who could perform at the same level or higher than those gifted actors and singers. The extremely high keys of the songs for the two lead women certainly limit the selection pool for those roles, but if a group of four individuals can match what Murney, James, Diggs, and Menzel did, you have a lively, intoxicating film.
Music Highlights: “Raise the Roof”, “The Life of the Party”, “Let Me Drown”, “Make Me Happy”