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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (2000-05): Behind the Mask

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David Appleford itcherOnce the new millennium arrived, for whatever reason, Hollywood appeared to turn to the theatre for yet even more of its subjects to film. You can see the trend. There’s a period during the latter half of the new decade where musicals based on shows took over. But that’s not the whole story. Check the recommendation list below, including ‘Lakeboat’ and ‘Alfie’, and find out why. ~ David Appleford

Musicals as a Way of Telling Stories

Because of ‘Evita,’ the studios maintained an interest in musicals as a way of telling stories, but it was a slow start. Hollywood loves a sure thing and box-office wise, musicals are anything but. So, what to do next? The answer was obvious. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ was a theatrical phenomenon in the eighties, then the nineties. In fact, there was no stopping it. Maybe the time was right for a big screen adaptation of that man behind the mask.

However, not everything adapted from the stage in the new decade was musically based. That came later, but for the first five years, the area of movie adaptations from the theatre ran the gamut of genres. The following five films are the best examples of movies adapted from the theatre in the first half of the new millennium and each one has something positive to offer the movie buff.


Symphonic Theatre Movie Recommendations

‘Lakeboat’ (Joe Mantegna, 2000)

I knew a guy who ate a chair, just because nobody stopped him.

Again, writer David Mamet continued to be a force when it came to theatre adaptations into movies. As a play, ‘Lakeboat’ was an early work. It was written in 1970 but didn’t hit the stage until a decade later, and that was in a revised form, and it took two decades after that for the story to eventually become a film.

Like much of his work, ‘Lakeboat’ was loosely based on Mamet’s early life. He was once as a cook on a cargo ship, and it was from this basis that ‘Lakeboat’ grew. Young Dale Katzman (Tony Mamet, the author’s half brother) takes a summer job as a cook on a freighter. He’s a student from a privileged Ivy League school and it’s while at sea he sees life as revealed in earthy conversations with his lesser privileged crew members. 

The best thing about the film is the dialog. The David Mamet style, known as Mametspeak, is difficult to write and difficult to speak, but there’s a raw rhythm to it that’s both fascinating and exhausting. It takes a certain talent to get that across on film, and even though Mamet often directs his own material, in this case he simply wrote the screenplay; it was actor Joe Mantegna, well acquainted with Mametspeak, who got to call the shots.

‘Chicago’ (Rob Marshall, 2002)

Pop. Six. Squish. Unh-uh. Cicero. Lipschitz.

What’s really interesting here is that the stage musical itself was adapted from a play called ‘Chicago,’ written in the twenties by Maurine Dallas Watkins. She was a journalist who based her play on a Chicago murder trial. Celebrated Broadway choreographer and director Bob Fosse took that material and added his own special flavor. He made a theatre musical, and even though reviews were mixed, audiences flocked.  

The film was directed by Rob Marshall who, like Fosse, came from the theatre. Even though his screen credits were only a handful of television films, he was awarded the plumb task of directing the big-budgeted musical on film, and it paid off handsomely. Everything about the film was aggressive – the singing, the dancing, the women and the editing. Marshall cut the film so that no shot lasts longer than a few seconds at the most; it’s edited to the beat.

Perhaps you’ve seen it, but see it again and keep the following in mind. England knows Catherine Zeta-Jones from both television and film, but most never realized she was actually a song and dance showgirl in the West End chorus lines. Her break came when she went on stage one night during a performance of ‘42nd Street’ filling in not for the ailing star but for the understudy of the star who was also off sick. In ‘Chicago’ she’s never been better, and her talent as a triple threat – actor, singer, dancer – is right there on the screen. You can’t take your eyes off her.

‘The Laramie Project’ ( Moises Kaufman, 2002)

‘Live and let live’ is, at best, a load of crap. It basically boils down to: ‘If I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you won’t beat the crap out of me’.

The play of ‘The Laramie Project’ was written by Moises Kaufman and it dealt with the true story of a 1998 murder of a young student in Laramie, Wyoming. Because the student was gay, the murder was declared as a hate crime. The play wanted to do two things; 1) it wanted to tell the story of the student’s murder, and 2) it wanted to highlight the lack of hate crime laws in states across America, including Wyoming.

The 2002 film version was also directed by Kaufman who adapted his own script. The film’s style is to use the same approach of telling its tale on screen as it did in the theatre. It accumulated hundreds of real life interviews with the local community by recording everyone’s thoughts and feelings.  

While the play used eight actors to play all the roles, the film has individual performers including Chritina Ricci, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda and Amy Madigan among many others. It’s harrowing stuff, but it’s also compulsive viewing. Not many are familiar with ‘The Laramie Project.’ It’s not the kind of play that’s continually revived, and the film might be hard to find, but it’s a must-see. Before reading this it’s possible that ‘The Laramie Project’ was not on your radar, but once you’ve seen it, like anything of quality, you’ll never forget it.

‘Alfie’ (Charles Shyer, 2004)

If you ooze masculinity, like some of us do, you have no reason to fear pink.

By now, everyone either knows or has heard of the 1966 version of ‘Alfie’ with Michael Caine along with the famous Burt Bacharach song that went with it. In fact, the sixties feature is so famous you have to wonder why there was ever a remake. What you probably didn’t know was while the remake was based on that earlier film, that sixties movie was based on a play.

The author was Bill Naughton and he wrote the screenplay for the sixties feature based on his own theatrical script. The 2004 remake was updated by writers Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer and it was Shyer who both produced and directed the film, so if there’s anything about the update you don’t like, it’s all Shyer’s fault.

Instead of Michael Caine it’s Jude Law with the cockney accent, only this time around Alfie lives not in London but in New York (even though areas of Manchester, Liverpool and Tilbury in Essex doubled for NYC) and all the women he’s seducing are Americans. It didn’t work as well, but there’s a reason why it should be reconsidered, particularly for movie buffs. For one thing, the film disappeared from screens quickly.

Even if you had intended to see it, the movie was gone long before you had a chance to check the performance schedule. Jude Law makes a perfectly fine Alfie, and both Marisa Tomei and Jane Krakowski are terrific. Plus, credit for the music was given to both Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger. If you keep all that in mind, ‘Alfie’ the remake is a solid curiosity well worth revisiting, even if you never knew it existed in the first place.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Joel Schumacher, 2004)

Flattering child, you shall know me, see why in shadow I hide!

The show opened in 1986 and from day one there was talk of a film. In fact, as early as 1989 the studios declared the beginning of production, yet it wasn’t until 2002 that director Joel Schumacher first yelled action.

Its popularity on stage has lasted beyond the dreams of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the names that collaborated on the lyrics, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. While the show by default was always going to overshadow the film – it’s just too big – despite the things that are wrong with the movie there’s still a lot to admire. If you were among those who ignored its initial release, now’s the time to reconsider.

For one thing, it looks great. Schumacher has a knack for design. In fact, he was a costume designer before he was a film director and it’s his keen eye for what looks good and what doesn’t that hallmarks all of his films. If there’s one thing the film version of ‘Phantom’ can boast is that its widescreen cinematography and overall design is exquisite. Plus, for the most part, the score is intact and occasionally soars. Actors Patrick Wilson, Minnie Driver and Emmy Rossum all had singing on their resume and all were good, particularly Rossum, but the problem was the phantom himself. Why non-singer Gerard Butler was ever given the role is one of those things we’ll never understand. Frankly, he’s awful. But don’t let that stop you. Rent the movie, enjoy the visuals, savor the moments with Emmy Rossum and fast forward all the Butler bits.


Life Is A Cabaret

Hollywood may have considered ‘Phantom’ a financial bomb that still needs to recoup its losses, but initial audience interest in seeing the musical was high. Given that kind of following, backed with the relative success of ‘Evita’ and the huge popularity of ‘Chicago,’ the studios knew where to go for their future theatre adaptations, at least while there was still an audience – musicals. 

While the latter half of the new millennium adapted a couple of straight plays into movies, most were all singing and all dancing. Keep it here to find out what was best, what you might have missed and what tanked but is still worth a second shot.

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