Warner Brothers announced today that they have purchased the rights to adapt the Tony award winning hit Memphis into a blockbuster film. With Les Mis: The Movie on the horizon (catering both to film audiences in its trailer and to die-hard theatre fans with its promise of singing recorded live on set) and its distinctly Oscar ready release date (Christmas Day), studios are inevitably anticipating an overwhelmingly positive reception for this long awaited adaptation. I have no little doubt that Les Mis will be as delicious as a slice of Marie Antoinette’s proverbial cake, but is it really necessary in light of the three other concert recordings which have been released over the past 25 years?
The movie musical can be served up three ways. First, there is the original movie musical, popularized by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and, of late, Zac Efron and Brittany Snow. Then there is the straight from stage videorecording, most beneficial to the Sondheim cannon, having granted generations to come the gift of seeing Angela, Mandy and Bernadette’s original performances in their iconic roles. And then there is that wildcard, the musical-to-movie adaptation. The adaptation has seen its share of hits (Sound of Music, Chicago) and more than enough flops inspiring the decline of the genre since its heyday in the mid twentieth century. But perhaps the relative instability of successful return is not the only factor preventing musicals from making the leap to screen.
For almost fifteen years, Rentheads wondered when their paean to 90’s Bohemia would be made into a film. They had all seen it multiple times and were willing to pay again – but the movie only came out ten years later, when the director of Home Alone and the first Harry Potter helmed the original cast (now mostly in their late 30s) in a tepid attempt to Hollywoodize a piece whose charm lay in the exposed seams of the original theatrical production. The movie flopped: the fanbase didn’t care for the adaptation, and mainstream audiences just plain didn’t care.
Then there’s the issue of Wicked. The biggest Broadway cross-over-into-pop-culture success of the past 25 years (since, well, Les Mis) is still swimming in green with multiple national and international tours across the world, nevermind selling to 100% houses consistently on the Great White Way. So what are they waiting for? By 2014 (when the rumored movie is supposed to take flight meaning we likely won’t see the film hit theatres until 2015 at the earliest), ticket sales will have dropped, in much the same way Rent’s did. Have they learned nothing from Rent? Audiences care now. You can’t guarantee that they will by the time the movie needs to be made in order to increase business.
So as Memphis makes its way to the soundstage and Les Mis its way into Cineplex nationwide, I’m compelled to ask: Why? Why are you turning this musical into a movie now? Like any piece of art, content isn’t sufficient – context is equally as important. Most audiences under 35 will flock to Les Mis because they didn’t see the original, and they’ve all heard “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” more times than Valjean escapes Javert. But Memphis? Does anyone really care? And can’t those who do simply watch the filmed stage version of it released a year and a half ago?
Editor’s Note: In his original article, Nathaniel mistakenly said that the Rent movie had been released in 2010. This has since been corrected in the version above.