Legit stages a big-screen comeback

'Rent,' 'Producers,' 'Proof' come to bigscreen with Tony-winning pedigrees

Nowadays Broadway musicals are based on movies. The pecking order, of course, used to be reversed. There was even a period when the plays of Tennessee Williams provided a string of Oscar noms, if not the award itself, for anyone lucky enough to star in the screen adaptations of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Summer and Smoke” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

If legit isn’t back with a vengeance, there is something of a trend afoot with the release of “Rent,” “The Producers” and “Proof,” all of which come to the bigscreen with Tony-winning, even Pulitzer Prize-certified pedigrees.

“Rent” has certainly had the longest, rockiest road from stage to screen. Jonathan Larson, the show’s composer-lyricist and creator, died suddenly the night before his tuner went into Off Broadway previews –and just 10 days before his 36th birthday. Larson’s promising career and tragically premature demise have become part of the show’s mystique.

Al Larson and Julie Larson, Jonathan’s father and sister, fielded several film offers before settling on Tribeca Films and Miramax, which put Spike Lee in the director’s chair, only to see their attempt capsized by budget issues.

Budget was only part of the “Rent” stumbling block when it came to bringing the “La Boheme” update to the screen: Many of its money-challenged bohemians are gay and lesbian, and two of its characters are suffering from AIDS in a 1989 pre-medical-cocktail era when the disease often came with a death sentence. “We heard ‘Nobody cares about AIDS anymore,’ ” says Al Larson.

And then there was the tuner genre itself. By the late 1990s, it seemed as if musicals were so yesterday, a long-gone era during which “My Fair Lady,” “Oliver!” “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story” could routinely win the picture Oscar.

What finally made the difference was 2003’s Oscar winner. As “Rent” producer Michael Barnathan notes, “Not until ‘Chicago’ did the movie industry look and say, ‘Oh, musicals work.’ ”

“I owe a great debt to ‘Chicago’ and probably ‘Moulin Rouge,’ ” says Chris Columbus, who waited nine years to direct Larson’s East Village update on the Puccini opera.

“Rent” finally arrives onscreen with Larson’s themes intact, but will audiences and Oscar voters buy them? “People do care about AIDS and same-sex partnerships and our whole political structure,” says Al Larson. “What’s going on, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes ‘Rent’ more relevant today than it was 10 years ago.”

“I think we need to see a film about acceptance and tolerance and particularly diversity,” adds Columbus. “That’s why I think the time is right.”

“The Producers” has enjoyed a much quicker transition to the screen, having opened on Broadway less than four years ago. Again, timing is everything.

“This was a gorilla of a film because it was a gorilla of a musical,” says director Susan Stroman, who also helmed the stage version. “I was very lucky that I was familiar with the material and able to reinvent it rather than recreate it.”

She firmly places the Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick starrer in the musical tradition of Hollywood’s best examples of tuners. “Like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘The Band Wagon,’ it is about people putting on a show,” says Stroman, citing two films that were not based on stage properties.

This “Producers” boasts what Broadway could never match: Genuine movie stars, Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman, in essentially supporting roles. “Both have that all-important element of a musical-comedy star in that they are fearless,” offers Stroman.

Prior to her film assignment, Gwyneth Paltrow had previously essayed the lead role in “Proof” — she made her London theatrical debut in the David Auburn play about the daughter of a recently deceased math genius.

“When we did the play, my father was alive,” the actress says of director-producer Bruce Paltrow, “and I was a single woman. When we did the film, I had lost my father and there were wonderful things in my personal life (marriage and a pregnancy), so I feel I was a much different person by the time we made the movie. Obviously I learned a great deal about loss when my father died, and it gave me an insight into the finality of death and grief, the ongoing process of it. That helped me really understand this woman and get inside her head.”

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