Studios, filmmakers on shaky ground with movie musical

Hollywood is worried it can’t carry a tune.As a slew of musical adaptations move into, or closer to, production — including DreamWorks and Paramount’s “Dreamgirls”; New Line’s “Hairspray”; and producer Jonathan Sanger’s “Jekyll and Hyde” — studios and filmmakers can’t help but feel they’re on shaky ground, considering the recent fates of Revolution Studios’ “Rent” and Universal/Sony’s “The Producers.” Those pics have grossed $29 million and $18 million, respectively. Between them, they’ve lost about $100 million.

“I’m optimistic about future musicals, but I think we’re now in treacherous territory,” says Craig Zadan, who, along with his producing partner Neil Meron, produced “Chicago” — the pic that in 2002 made Hollywood go gaga over musical adaptations when it grossed $306 million worldwide. The pair are now at work on “Hairspray.”

“I think inevitably there will be a backlash,” Zadan says. “It rests in the hands of ‘Dreamgirls’ and ‘Hairspray.’ If they’re successful, we’ll be back on track — people will continue to greenlight musicals. If they don’t work, then you’re going to see everyone go back to the way it was before ‘Chicago.’ ”

This anxiety is inevitably causing a kind of detailed post-mortem on “Rent” and “The Producers.”

One issue is casting. In an effort to be loyal to the stage shows, both “Rent” and “The Producers” relied on the shows’ original casts as opposed to hiring stars with proven track records opening movies. Although Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are well-respected thesps on stage and screen, neither has recently carried a major pic. Ditto for the “Rent” ensemble led by Rosario Dawson.

“The Producers” producer Sanger says that when Lane, who originated his role as Max Bialystock on Broadway, heard a movie was going to be made of “The Producers” — itself an adaptation of the 1968 Mel Brooks film — he joked: “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be Ben Stiller playing my role.”

In hindsight, the comment isn’t entirely comical if one thinks in cynical box office terms — something studios tend to do. Universal pushed to have Will Ferrell — who plays a supporting role in “The Producers” — displayed more prominently in the U.S. marketing materials for the film, but was rebuked by Ferrell’s agents and managers, who closely monitor how Ferrell is branded.

Having now turned his attention to “Jekyll and Hyde,” for which Sanger is looking for financing, the producer says he is thinking along the lines of toplining Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson — thesps who “would make a big difference to an audience.”

In the case of “Dreamgirls,” which is being directed by “Chicago” scribe Bill Condon, the film has a dream cast when it comes to bigscreen names: Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx.

DreamWorks is already making the most of this. Although the pic just started shooting and won’t be released for 11 months, it’s already getting tentpole treatment in the form of teaser trailers and double-truck ads.

Zadan says “Hairspray,” which is being directed by Adam Shankman, will have “stars in all of the major roles” — there have reportedly been talks with John Travolta, Queen Latifah and Billy Crystal — though the lead, Tracy, will be an unknown, tapped via an “American Idol”-like search.

“It’s a girl who’s 17 or 18, she’s overweight, pretty, a great singer, a great dancer and a great actress. I don’t know anyone who fits that description — do you?” Zadan jokes. (Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Tracy on Broadway, is now in her 30s.)

The filmmakers behind “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray” are also insisting they’re trying to re-imagine the Broadway shows, not re-create them — the major criticism lobbed at “Rent” and “The Producers.” To that end, both pics will have new songs (Beyonce is writing a few for “Dreamgirls”) and additional scenes written with the screen, not stage, in mind.

“What one always hopes is that one is appropriately faithful and deviates appropriately at the same time,” says “Dreamgirls” producer LaurenceMark. “With a piece like ‘Dreamgirls,’ you have to kind of take into account both then and now, since it’s a period piece set in the 1960s. Yet you want it to feel both of the ’60s and of this moment. That’s often the challenge.”

Says Zadan: “Our design concept and tone could not be further from the show. It’s going to be a heightened reality. The show is this big, colorful experience that you have when you go into (Broadway) theaters. If you did that (in the movie), it would look gaudy onscreen. It wouldn’t look real.”

Zadan adds that the new “Hairspray” will also deviate from John Waters’ 1988 film version, on which the Broadway show was based.

Zadan notes that when director Shankman spent a day with Waters, he came back with a valuable — and freeing — insight. “John Waters said, ‘When they did the Broadway musical of my movie, they basically ignored my movie and did what was right for the show. I urge you to ignore my movie and their Broadway show and make something that is new and fresh.’ ”

Revolution partner Tom Sherak insists that in hindsight he wouldn’t have done “Rent” any differently, though he’d have preferred to have made it a decade ago, when its themes of urban bohemia and AIDS were more resonant. (“Rent” had a tortuous development process ever since it was optioned in 1996.)

“I think it was just 10 years too late in the making,” Sherak says. “The things that were important back then, I just think they’re not important to today’s culture.”

Sherak denies that the latest musical disappointments have spoiled the genre in Hollywood, and exudes enthusiasm about Revolution’s next musical endeavor: an original love story directed by Julie Taymor and set to Beatles’ tunes.

“The musical is not dead by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “It just has to be something that the public wants to see. Each movie is different. There will be another ‘Chicago.’ “

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