'Chicago,' 'Greek,' Guys' make the jump from stage to screen

Legit has been a source of material as well as talent since cinema’s inception. And for a couple decades back then, one medium was considered so much more disreputable than the other that stage thesps often used pseudonyms whilst jobbing in those dreadful “flickers.”

Those days may be long gone, but the difficulties in adapting theatrical material for the screen are pretty much the same.

Several such transfers have ascended to Oscar-laureled success; among them best pictures Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” “West Side Story,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Oliver!,” “Amadeus” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Yet many acclaimed dramas and musicals have stiffed on the bigscreen (think “A Chorus Line”). Others stymied translation entirely; the Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America” is purportedly greenlit again, but don’t hold your breath.

The challenges of moving properties from boards to screen were met triumphantly in three of 2002’s most award-shortlisted titles. They provide wildly diverse illustrations of how that process can work just as the films themselves share almost nothing but connection to the stage.

Alongside “Angels,” “Chicago” has been one of the most famously on and off, it’s happening/no it’s not film projects. Numerous directors, plus stars including Madonna and Goldie Hawn, have been associated with it at various times.

When Miramax finally gave stage vet but bigscreen neophyte Rob Marshall the go-ahead, he and scenarist Bill Condon (1998 Oscar winner for adapted screenplay “Gods and Monsters”) faced some tough choices. How to retain the Roaring ’20s-set Kander and Ebb’s sharp-clawed satire, yet lend the characters enough dimension to transcend caricature? How to make full-blown song ‘n’ dance palatable to auds for whom the term “movie musical” is as archaic as “23-skidoo”?

Death row flapper

“I felt the big job of the adaptation was to walk that fine line,” Condon says, “keeping it as funny as it’s been but also filling out the reality. Making the characters, especially Roxie (a death row flapper played by Renee Zellweger), people with whom you could identify. Of course, any traditional Hollywood attempt to sentimentalize this story would have been a disaster, ‘Chicago’ has always been a satire of our celebrity culture.”

Indeed, the 1975 stage musical (not to mention two prior nonsinging film incarnations, and the original 1926 Broadway comedy) were based on Chicago journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins’ reportage of real-life fame-crazed jazz babes who turned homicide into headline-grabbing celebrity.

An admitted “huge fan of musical theater” and “Chicago” in particular, Condon went back to all those earlier incarnations, taking inspiration here and there while retaining about 50% of the tuner’s dialogue.

The biggest creative change he and Marshall made was designed precisely to ease contempo auds’ potential resistance to musical conventions: They turned the song interludes into fantasies taking place in the lead characters’ minds.

In extreme contrast to “Chicago’s” tortured path to the screen, “The Guys” has been marked by speed and gravity from its earliest gestation.

In the wake of 9/11, respected journo and academic Anne Nelson volunteered to help a NYC Fire Dept. captain (who prefers to remain anonymous) pen eulogies for eight men in his crew who were lost in the World Trade Center wreckage. Sans any stage credits, she accepted an offer to turn that experience into a play for artistic director Jim Simpson’s Flea Theater.

“I was prepared for a two-week run last December (2001),” she notes. But “The Guys,” initially starring Sigourney Weaver (Simpson’s spouse) and Bill Murray, turned into a long-running, far-traveling entity involving such talents as Helen Hunt, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Momentum to create a movie version came just as quickly. “Everyone agreed the film would be better produced sooner than later,” she adds. “It’s coming out at a time when people are still processing the experience of 9/11. As someone with a background in journalism, that’s a good thing. Of course I (would) have done things differently if I’d had more time.”

That caveat notwithstanding, co-adapter Simpson’s screen directorial bow is drumming up Oscar talk for Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia. Nelson, who says the pic retains “over 95%” of the original dialogue — itself derived from her copious notes taken during a month-long series of conversations with the fire captain — is satisfied that this latest “Guys” honors her original intent.

“The bottom line is it’s about an emotional moment in New York, and a very specific community: the firefighters,” she says.

In the Cinderella story of the year, Nia Vardalos is riding high on what, to date — $228 million box office U.S. — is the most succcessful indie film of all time, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Screen transfer

The project underwent a most unusual stage-to-screen transfer. It began, in fact, as a screenplay she shopped around to no avail.

“I couldn’t even get an agent to represent it,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘There’s no market for Greek characters. Would you consider making it Italian or Hispanic?’ When I said, ‘No, because I want to play the (leading) role,’ they laughed even harder.”

Frustrated, and hoping to attract representation, she turned the script into a one-woman show she performed to acclaim at L.A.’s tiny Globe Theater in early 1998. “The agents didn’t come. But Rita Wilson did! I handed her the screenplay that night.”

The not-inconsiderable muscle of Wilson spouse Tom Hanks was thus brought to bear on Vardalos’ behalf, setting up “Wedding” as a relatively low-budget ($5 million) project under their production shingle with co-producer Gary Goetzman.

“The best thing about my entrance (into the major industry leagues) is that I didn’t know the rules,” she laughs. “Maybe that’s the best way to break in.”

The miles Vardalos logged as a legit thesp and sketch comic (she was a six-year member of Chicago’s Second City troupe) served her well in “Wedding’s” stage and screen incarnations.

“When Tom and Gary sat down with me for pre-production, they said, ‘The script is 30 pages too long, and we don’t have the luxury of shooting, then cutting back later,’ ” Vardalos says. She was able to look back on her live performances and determine “this passage did very well, I’m keeping that. These weren’t so important, so I’ll cut that. It was like I used the stage play as research and development for the (final screenplay version of) the movie.”

That theatrical know-how paid off. Not only are Vardalos and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” headed to the small screen as a sitcom (for a possible spring network bow), but her next bigscreen project is a mash note to the stage itself. “Connie and Carla,” she says, is a female buddy pic about “two dinner theater broads.”

“The immediacy of being onstage and feeling that connection to an audience is beyond compare. But if you want to reach the masses, it’s film,” she says.

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