A common complaint in modern-day Hollywood is that there’s no original material being produced: everything is either a remake or sequel or adaptation. But that’s hardly a new phenomenon, and one of the most popular sources for material has always been the Broadway stage. Since the earliest days of film, cinema and theater have gone hand in hand. Some Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers have disappeared without much impact, while others have gone on to acquire legendary status. But which are the very best?
Maybe you’re a sucker for the bells and whistles of a major musical flown directly to Los Angeles from the Great White Way? Productions like “West Side Story,” “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” and “Fiddler on the Roof” are all key examples of this. Singing, dancing, and a certain heightened reality define even the films that attempt to break away from traditional musical style.
But there aren’t just musical adaptations that come from Broadway. A surprising number of hit films got their start as stage plays. Many are staged and acted very theatrically, and it’s easy to remember that what you’re watching began in play form. “Inherit the Wind,” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” both have the sort of no-nonsense, straightforward style that puts the acting on display above everything else. Classically trained performers are given room to monologue unimpeded by cinematic flourishes.
Some even transfer the majority of their original Broadway cast over to the film version, as we see in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where three of the four leads reprised their role on screen and only Jessica Tandy as Blanche was replaced by Vivien Leigh.
Then there are the rare instances where a film adaptation of a play has such a unique quality that it outstrips its source material entirely, and many people don’t even realize it began as a stage production. Audiences remember, “You can’t handle the truth!” from “A Few Good Men,” but not that the famed military court drama got its start several years earlier as a play on Broadway. Ditto to “Amadeus,” which premiered in London and later on Broadway before Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, and the incomparable Falco got their hands on it.
So many Broadway adaptations, so little time!