As much as I love movies, I savor any chance to experience live theater. This season’s delightful revival of On the 20th Century, now at the American Airlines Theater on Broadway, celebrates how musical comedy can cure any heartache and elevate any mood. From its wonderous opening with tap-dancing porters on a spectactular art-deco train, the show offers 2-1/2 hours of nonstop entertainment. Yes, film can inform, inspire and enlighten. But seeing a musical on stage can make me tap my toes.
Like many Broadway shows, this one comes from the movies. Back in 1934, when the story first appeared as the comedy Twentieth Century starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, audiences adored its story of a desperate theatrical producer, a self-absorbed movie actress and a lovable eccentric with too much money for her own good. When the film became a Broadway musical in 1978, starring Madeline Kahn and John Cullum, the plot inspired composer Cy Coleman to pay homage to the world of operetta with his wonderful score and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to reach for biting satire with their book and lyrics. The show also introduced a new talent named Kevin Kline who stole his scenes and won a Tony.
As spectacular as that original production, the new incarnation does a better job highlighting what’s special about this musical. The passage of the years helps us appreciate the richness of Coleman’s score and the wit of Comden and Green’s book. They reach beyond adding songs to a film to create a fresh entertainment that thrives on its momentum. This time around, Scott Ellis’ light-as-a-feather direction — which seems more appropriate to the material than Harold Prince’s epic approach to the original — grounds the characters in a solid foundation while exaggerating the antics they pursue. And Kristin Chenowith was born to play the larger-than-life diva that was originally conceived for the comic genius of the late Madeline Kahn.
For Chenowith, a unique performer with incredible musical gifts, the role of Lilly Garland inspires a dynamic tour-de-force of high comedy and rich vocals. Not always a subtle actress, Chenowith’s natural intensity is just right to create an oversized portrayal of a star who wants to believe she is magical. Chenowith makes singing the Coleman melodies seem effortless as she surprises with the range of her comic abilities. Audiences who loved her in the original cast of Wicked, or her underrated work in the revival of Promises, Promises, will cherish how the actress works the audience with her engaging charm and spectacular voice.
While Chenowith shines, the show also spotlights Peter Gallagher as the determined hero, Mary Louise Wilson as the hysterical eccentric, Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as hilarious sidekicks, and Jim Walton as the reliable conductor. And, in the role that made Kevin Kline a star, Tony nominee Andy Karl, who played Rocky on Broadway last season, brings delightful physical comedy to his role as a lovelorn actor.
Yes, I love movies. But, no matter how good a film may be, the magic of live theater is hard to beat, especially when a show is this good. We’re lucky to be so close to Broadway.
On the 20th Century
* Content: High. The story from the 1934 comedy becomes the ideal foundation for the musical genius of Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
* Entertainment: High. Director Scott Ellis perfectly captures the magic of a musical that deserved more success when it first opened in 1978.
* Message: High. Anyone who loves to go to the theater to savor musical comedy will savor this show.
* Relevance: High. The opportunity to share the magic of live theater — especially with a musical — is always relevant.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. There will be a lot to talk about as you remember how fun this show can be.
(On the 20th Century opened March 15, 2015 and plays at the American Airlines Theater. For details, go to 20thcenturyonbroadway.com. or roundabouttheatre.org.)
5 Standing Ovations
Reel Movies Inspire Broadway
On the 20th Century is one of many Broadway musicals adapted from a movie.
Over the past 80 years, more than 150 shows on stage began as movies on screen. And while some work better than others, movies remain popular sources for Broadway musicals.
Among the most successful is Mel Brooks’ The Producers that won an Oscar for its screenplay in 1968 and a record 12 Tonys as a Broadway musical in 2001. For its stage adaptation, Brooks sticks close to the narrative of the film while finding just the right moments for the cast to break into song. The music enhances the story because Brooks gives his characters real reasons to sing. More important, he creates a magical world on stage that makes it easy to forget the film. Brooks’ imagination give the stage version all the right reasons to be performed. And the show offers wonderful roles for Broadway performers to shine.
Unfortunately, Brooks could not repeat this magic when he turned Young Frankenstein into a Broadway musical in 2007. Despite standout performances from Megan Mullally and Andrea Martin (in roles originated by Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman) the memories of the film haunt the stage show, especially the choices Brooks makes to position and introduce the songs. Likewise, the musical version of Catch Me if You Can, that opened on Broadway in 2011, simply could not duplicate the magic of the Steven Spielberg film despite a Tony-winning performance by Norbert Leo Butz. The creative decision to position the story as a television variety show of the 1960s dilutes the humanity of the narrative and the layer of the characters while slowing the action. Worse, the show seems to forget that, for musicals to work, we need to care about why people need to sing.
Audiences cheered when Julie Andrews returned to Broadway in 1995 in the stage version of Victor/Victoria based on the Oscar-winning movie of 1982. Director Blake Edwards wisely created new sequences for the stage to make the show more than a stagebound repeat of a film. And, by focusing on farce in the show’s second act, he creates a laugh-filled show that gave Andrews return Broadway. In 2002, Andrews’ Thoroughly Modern Millie was rethought for the stage with Sutton Foster winning her first Tony for playing the lead. Without being trapped by its film origins, the stage show brings the story to life with new songs and characters inspired by the original. And, later that year, Hairspray found new life on stage by enhancing the substance of John Waters’ film with Marc Shaiman’s delightful score that brought the early 1960s to life.
But succeeding on screen doesn’t gaurantee Broadway success. This season, Honeymoon in Vegas and Doctor Zhivago failed to attract audiences to journey from stage to screen, while last year’s magical musical of The Bridges of Madison County closed too early despite a Tony-winning score by Jason Robert Brown and a luminous performance from Kelli O’Hara. Woody Allen tried to recreate the movie magic of Bullets Over Broadway without success while the characters of Rocky had too few reasons to sing to fill a musical. These disappointments joined other popular films – including The Goodbye Girl, My Favorite Year, Xanadu, Big Fish and Nine to Five – that failed on stage when they were trapped by memories of the originals.
The great movie writer and director Billy Wider found new followers when three of his classic films became Broadway musicals. His Oscar-winning The Apartment became the Tony-winning Promises, Promises in 1969 thanks to a sharp book by Neil Simon – who did not let memories of the film limit the stage musical – and a bright score by Burt Bacharach. When his comedy Some Like it Hot became the musical Sugar in 1973, it offered great roles to Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as the musicians who pose as women to avoid the mob. And Wilder’s classic drama Sunset Boulevard was beautifully musicalized in 1994 by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a show that retains what works for the film while adding a strong score and a lovely production.
As long as performers sing and dance on Broadway, they will look to the movies for ideas. And, when the results are as satisfying as the new production of On the 20th Century, the journey can be quite fun.