A moment I barely noticed in the 2019 Broadway production of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” jumped at me with new resonance in Spike Lee’s film of the show for HBO.
At this point, Byrne described in his introduction to the song “Everybody’s Coming to My House” as it was performed by students at the Detroit School of Arts. Without changing a word or a note, the high schoolers had turned what Byrne’s original version came out as a fearful monologue about the deluge of otherness into a joyful choir invitation.
“I kind of liked their version better,” says Byrne, apparently amazed at the variability of the material: the song was the same but had “a completely different meaning.”
I knew what he meant; After all, I looked at an even more elaborate translation that turned a concert like a Broadway musical into a live television film for cable. And although Lee’s sophisticated and exuberant adaptation contains many recordings of the audience in the Hudson Theater jumping to the beat and dancing in the aisles, it was now, as with “Everybody’s Coming to My House”, the same and yet completely different.
Theater lovers get to know this feeling. Nowadays everyone seems to come to our house – and leave with the furniture. We haven’t seen so many Broadway shows in decades, whether it’s musicals (“Hamilton”, “The Prom”) or plays (“What the Constitution Means to Me”, “The Boys in the Band”). “Outside Mullingar”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) or unclassifiable offers like “American Utopia”, shot by Hollywood, pushed through the camera lens and turned into film.
The squeeze is certainly more subtle now than it used to be. Texts are seldom slaughtered to avoid insults as they once were; I expect Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story,” slated for release in December 2021, will restore Stephen Sondheim’s original rhyme for “Buck,” which had to be changed for the 1961 film.
Also, innumerable songs will no longer escape from fire like dead plants. (The 1966 film version of “A Funny Event on the Way to the Forum” dropped at least half of Sondheim’s 14 numbers.) Musicals – and in a way also plays – are now shot for their music, not anyway.
Of course you expect a hands-off treatment from the Disney Plus live recording of “Hamilton”, the content, if not effective, of which was almost a replica of the celebrated stage version. But even “The Prom”, although not a blockbuster on Broadway, emerged from Ryan Murphy’s Netflix translation with all of its songs and a few more.
That is not to say that these works are unchanged. Compared to the stage version, Lee’s “American Utopia” feels bigger and loftier – sometimes literally with its shots from above.
“Hamilton” on the other hand, with its frequent close-ups, especially of the female characters, is a much more human story on screen than it appeared to be on Broadway. Swirling handheld cameras suggest the intimate chaos of lived experience in a way that no choreography for a proscenium could. Whether this is an improvement may depend on whether you prefer your personal or formal history. I like both and refuse to choose.
The film of “The Prom” was definitely personal – also because of Murphy’s biographical connection to the book of the stage musical by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. Like the character of Emma, Murphy grew up in Indiana, had an unfortunate coming out, and couldn’t take the date he wanted to his prom.
The stage show seemed to alternate between telling this story and satirizing four narcissistic Broadway performers who choose to do good publicity and want to help Emma whether she likes it or not. In the film, three of these four intruders feel they are minor characters, despite being played by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells.
The fourth, played by James Corden, is so much more emotional – not to mention an on-screen mother who is only briefly referred to on stage – that the film is as much about healing his own gay scars as it is to Emma’s dance with her friend.
I understand and was even moved by this choice, but it takes a lot of soda out of the material and replaces it with syrup. And the cast, as clear as the stars, cannot compensate for that. I had always hoped that the superior original Broadway cast members – fellows like Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Sieber, and Angie Schworer – would descend the film just like the Broadway characters in the story on Indiana to show the rubles how it is done.
It used to be the rule to redesign a game with stars for the screen. I just have to say the words “Lucille Ball is Mame” to make music theater fans’ teeth chatter. The excuse is always money: it takes big names to sell enough tickets to balance the movie’s huge budget. I’m not sure if Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan are such names, but their appearance in the adaptation of “Outside Mullingar” dubbed “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the least of the problems with this film.
Most of all is John Patrick Shanley, who wrote both versions and catastrophically directed the film. (His directing the film version of his play “Doubt” was better, but so was the raw material.) He exaggerates everything bad in “Outside Mullingar” – its bizarre plot, its encyclopedia of Irish stereotypes – and stifles the little spark of What Was Good About It: the story of a man so ashamed that love can almost find no way to enter.
Under the earlier stage-to-screen protocol, Shanley also made the mistake of “opening” a story that could be better turned off. Placing Blunt and Dornan in tourist shots of the Irish countryside doesn’t make the material any more cinematic than adding an unnecessary character from Jon Hamm coupled with an even more unnecessary one makes it richer. This is one case where the filmmaker doesn’t respect the playmaker’s footage, which is especially weird since Shanley is both.
Today’s best adjustments don’t feel like rescue missions or charitable remodeling. They enjoy the theatrics of their sources and try to improve on them, not to obscure them. Joe Mantello’s powerful Netflix rendition of “The Boys in the Band,” based on the 2018 Broadway production, makes some poetic forays into the backstory, but mostly, like the piece, stays in one place for one evening. The compression makes the whole thing tick like a time bomb.
This is how I felt about Viola Davis’ huge and under high pressure performance as blues singer Ma Rainey in the otherwise inconsistent Netflix adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Her expressionist makeup is cautious compared to her emotional makeup: she is a woman who knows that her voice is the only asset she has in a racist world.
Whenever director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson stay close to August Wilson’s original story and its claustrophobic setting – a Chicago studio where Ma will be recording with her band – the film maintains the tension of the play at. But that power dissolves the moment it steps outside for context, as if context were necessary in an act whose themes of appropriation and resistance are just as relevant now as they were in 1982, when the play was written – or 1927 as it stands.
The best scenes in the film – like the one where Ma insists her nephew be allowed to introduce a song even though he stutters – use the camera as a highlighter, emphasizing the structure of the argument. These moments do not attempt to oversimplify or, worse, exaggerate this argument, but rather trust that this film, contrary to its reputation as the more flashy but less intellectual sibling of theater, can deliver complex verbal ideas like Wilson’s.
But is it a movie? Most of these recent adjustments were made for streaming services, with economics and aesthetics completely different from the studios where the classic studios were made. People who saw the film “Cabaret” in 1972, to name an almost universally admired film broadcast of a musical, saw it on a screen even larger than the proscenium at the Broadhurst Theater, where it originally ran on Broadway. But most of the people who watch “The Prom” today will see it on devices that fit in their cave or the palm of their hand. No wonder his story has been pumped up.
The best recent adjustments seem more subtle. Instead of enlarging the action, they bring it closer, pull us to the edge of the cauldron, and then throw us in.
For me, this was particularly true for “What the Constitution Means for Me”, Heidi Schreck’s play about life that has been lost in the shadow of our fundamental legal document. Marielle Heller’s gripping live recording for Amazon doesn’t change the subject at all, but in a certain way reverses the perspective. We are asked to position ourselves in Schreck consciousness rather than our own – just as Viola Davis demands that we understand what it means to be Ma Rainey, and when Spike Lee in American Utopia forces us to see the world through David Byrnes saw nervous eyes.
In the theater we are our own cameras and editors. We see what we choose, design it however we want and enjoy the right to keep the long shot. The paradox of the best film adaptations is that we love them because they do the opposite: They put us on stage with the story and don’t give us a say.