Not the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

downloadNot the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

Having once written a diatribe against “revivals” that are no such thing, I began to  consider how Hollywood treated some of our Broadway musicals in the past. Here the early record is even more lamentable.

When Hollywood found it could speak in the late 1920s, it seemed natural to turn out musicals. And musicals came in two varieties: those that already existed as stage plays and those that had to be created entirely for the films. When it came to the former, the title the audience saw flashed on the screen often bore little resemblance to the show they might or might not have seen on the stage.

download (8)Among the first musicals to be “adapted” for the screen was the 1926 “The Desert Song” with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg. Only three years later it became a film with John Boles, Carlotta King and Myrna Loy and kept almost all the great songs from that score. It appeared again in 1944, updated to bring in Nazis; but I cannot find any record of what songs were retained. A more familiar version appeared in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and again kept most of the score. So “The Desert Song” did not do too badly at least two out of three times.

On the other hand, “Rose-Marie” certainly underwent several changes. The 1924 production had book and lyrics by the same two who gave us “Desert Song,” while the score was shared between Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart. In 1928, it showed up as a vehicle for Joan Crawford (!) with background music but no singing. It is the 1936 film with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that is THE “Rose-Marie” for thousands. Casting MacDonald led to changing the title character from a backwoods singer to a Canadian opera star, while the plot was twisted to make Eddy the Mounty her love interest. A few songs were kept, others by different composers were added, and some Puccini and Gounod were jammed in for Jeanette to show off. And in non-singing roles are James Stewart as the brother and David Niven (you will have to keep from blinking to catch him).

downloadIn 1954, this musical appeared yet again, in Cinemascope no less, with Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Ann Blyth, and Burt Lahr. Again only a few songs were kept, but Friml himself was called upon to write some new melodies to lyrics by Paul Francis Webster; while two others supplied Lahr with an hilarious lament called “The Mounty Who Never Got His Man.” (And let us not forget that fabulous spoof of this musical and all the others like it, “Little Mary Sunshine”!)

So with three musical films of “Rose-Marie,” we still do not have the version that lasted 557 performances in its original run. “The product as advertised” strikes again!

51P17QNDXEL._AA160_Of course there were times when no one really expected to see what the title promises. When “The Bohemian Girl” came out in 1936 with a certain comic team, we all knew that the Balfe original would rest on its Laurels nor would any one be so Hardy as to complain. Two songs and one chorus were kept (one being, of course, “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls”) and the plot bore only the most fleeting resemblance to the original. (With Ollie married to Mae Bush, how could it be otherwise?)

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“Babes in Toyland” was given the alternate title of “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

The same goes for the Laurel & Hardy vehicle “Babes in Toyland,” which managed to keep several of the songs to be warbled by Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry in the 1934 vocal style. The unfortunate Disney remake in 1961 was pronounced “dismal” by the critics, even with such high-toned singers as Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello! But by that date, how many in the audience really knew the original score?

Typical Hollywood disdain was shed upon the Rodgers and Hart “On Your Toes.” When it opened in 1936 on Broadway, it stunned audiences with its two integrated ballets, the second of which is the immortal “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” and the hit song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Its stars included Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva and 31MsGdteLeL._AA160_Monty Wooly. Ironically, this show had been offered as a film for Fred Astaire, who waltzed out because he would not have had the chance to wear his top hat and tails! When the 1939 film came out, audiences saw a different plot, heard snatches from one of the ballets that was dropped from the film, enjoyed only three of the many songs, and the rest was pretty dull. Eddie Albert was no Astaire.

51KHnklpSTL._PI_PJStripe-HD-Only-500px,TopLeft,0,0_AA160_Soon things got a bit better with fairly faithful screen adaptations of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “How to Succeed in Business,” and too many others to list here. More recent is “Chicago,” which presents other problems but certainly remains fairly close to what people saw on Broadway.

To end with a trivia question, can you name a Cole Porter Broadway hit that retained only one song in the film version?

When Composers are Victims of Their Own Success


DixieWhen Composers are Victims of Their Own Success 

There comes a time in some composers’ lives that they create a piece that is tremendously popular (a Good Thing, surely) but that causes them considerable grief afterwards.

I have already in past articles mentioned how Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” was so well received that critics said of his next show, “Can-can,” that is was not up to Porter’s standards. Did he, by any means, regret having written “Kiss Me Kate”? Of course not.

Pietro Mascagni

Take the case of two men who became “one-opera” composers. Pietro Mascagni wrote his “Cavalleria Rusticana” between 1888 and 1890 for a contest. There is a story that he was so unsure of the work that his wife mailed it in without telling him. And that is the one of his 17 or so operas that has stayed in the repertory. Yes, occasionally his “L’Amico Fritz” is performed for the sake of its only popular number, “The Cherry Duet,” and “Amica” has been recorded on a DVD as a curio.

The same can be said of Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1892), which has overshadowed all his other works. Perhaps his “La Boheme” would still be regularly performed had not Puccini’s version made it impossible.

Did either composer regret having made one big hit and no other? Certainly they regretted the latter, just as certainly not the former.

But the history of music abounds in works that were regretted by the composer, often for the most ironic of reasons.

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Daniel Emmett

Daniel Emmett helped originate the Minstrel Show, something of an embarrassment for the more sensitive folk today. As a lad, he had a talent for writing new lyrics to old tunes, one of his earliest successes being “Old Dan Tucker.” In 1830 or 1831, the minstrel troupe of which he was a part needed a song for the final segment, the Walk-around, and Emmett was asked to dash one off overnight. He did and the song was so popular that other minstrel troupes asked for permission to use it. It was granted but the composer/lyricist lost the copyright by doing so.

Years went by and the tune was turned into a quickstep, thereby increasing still more its exposure and popularity. But then the Civil War came and the Confederate Army (or Rebels, depending on one’s inclinations) took it up as a stirring Southern quasi-national anthem, often sung to altered lyrics. It is said that Emmett claimed he was sorry he ever wrote that “damned” song.

Oh, the title? “Dixie.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff often stated that he grew to hate his too-popular “Prelude in C sharp minor” because he could not give a concert any place in the world without having to play it for an overly enthusiastic audience. Satirist Anna Russell once gave a performance and omitted her spoof-analysis of the Ring Operas for just once. When reprimanded for doing so by an audience member, she replied that she thought that people knew it too well and were becoming bored by it. She never omitted it again.

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The girl who sang the song that was almost cut

Though she was not the composer, I sometimes wonder if Judy Garland ever dreaded having to sing “Over the rainbow” during any of her acts. If she did, there is no record of her ever saying so. [Ironically, the song was nearly dropped from the film because it “held up the action.”] That is the trouble when a success makes one wish a song or a routine had never caught on quite as much as it did.

At times, it is not a just single work but a new kind of work that might lead an artist into a blind alley. For example, while working on “Oklahoma!” Oscar Hammerstein II stated that he just couldn’t go on writing the typical love song forever. True, Larry Hart before him did write anti-love songs such as “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” And so Hammerstein took a leaf from “The Mikado” and let Curly and Laurie sing a “negative love song”: “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” lest “people will say we’re in love.”

That done, he had to provide a similar one for “Carousel” and came up with a “conditional love song”: “If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way….” [Compare Gilbert’s “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in the tender tone.”]

However, Hammerstein was bright enough to find other ways to express love without cliché or negativity (especially in “The King and I,” where love between the leads is quite impossible). Still, let us not forget “The gentleman is a dope” from the excellent but almost never performed “Allegro,” which turns the “he is wonderful” lyric on its head.

Again, I turn to my readers for other examples of successes that led to their creators’ regret. I thank them in advance.