Banner year still may not light Oscar's torch

Once upon a time, Oscars were routinely given to music directors who supervised the transition of musicals from Broadway to the movies (think “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) or for the use of existing musical material as a score (the 1920s tunes of “The Great Gatsby,” the classical excerpts in “Barry Lyndon”).

No more. That category is, uhm, gone with the wind. Nowadays Oscars are given only for the creation of original material, either songs or scores, which leaves movies like this year’s “Sweeney Todd,” with its classy treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway score, and Marc Shaiman’s witty “Hairspray” — not to mention two of the most treasured catalogs in popular music, that of the Beatles (“Across the Universe”) and Bob Dylan (“I’m Not There”) — out in the cold.

The same was true with last year’s “Dreamgirls,” 2004’s “Phantom of the Opera” and 2002’s “Chicago,” although in each case the producers went back to the original songwriters and asked for new songs to be written, specifically to make them eligible for a song nomination (which worked in each case; “Dreamgirls” wound up with three of the five slots). “Hairspray” has new songs that make it eligible for a song nod; not so with “Sweeney” or the others.

“We certainly hope people will continue to make musicals, and having so many great musicals this year is a good sign,” says Suzanne Todd, one of the producers of “Across the Universe,” which featured all or part of 33 classic Beatles tunes. “It would be nice if that (adaptation) category was available.”

It’s not that simple, say Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences execs. First, there aren’t enough movies released to qualify even if the adapted-score category was revived. Second, Academy music-branch committee members feel that original scores written for the screen are a priority, not music that originated — and has already been celebrated — in other media.

“The board (of governors) worries about watering down what a nomination means,” says Acad exec director Bruce Davis, “and if you’ve got a field of only three or four contenders, and you’re going to give them all nominations, it erodes the concept. They’re never going to set up a category where there are five or fewer contenders.”

Adds Charles Bernstein, senior governor of the Acad music branch: “There were never enough submissions in that category to make a horse race. We tried, for a period of time when the third category (original song score or adaptation score) was active, to incorporate those kinds of achievements.

“There simply aren’t enough that meet the (criteria) to consider for awards. And they can’t compete on a level playing field with original scores and original songs.”

Studio music execs are pressing for reconsideration. “The reason to have a separate category is if it has become a consistent, relevant, recurring genre,” says Mitchell Leib, Walt Disney Pictures president of music and soundtracks. “These are huge musical movies. They contribute to the art form. Maybe we should expand a category to consider adapted work.”

Paramount Motion Pictures music president Randy Spendlove admits that there may not be enough entries to fill a category every year, but cites “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and “Sweeney Todd” as exemplary work. “There should be a way to honor these movies, and maybe a way to allow the reinterpretation of those songs in some way that qualifies,” he says.

In the case of “Sweeney,” music producer Mike Higham spent a year and a half on the transfer of Sondheim’s complex, Tony-winning Broadway score to Tim Burton’s blood-spattered movie with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter.

In addition to working with the actors, who were not trained singers, Higham collaborated with longtime Sondheim colleagues Jonathan Tunick (orchestrator) and Paul Gemignani (conductor) to make the score “really big and cinematic.” That meant expanding the original orchestrations from the 26-musician Broadway pit orchestra to an ensemble of 78 for the London recording. Higham also penned the underscore that connected many songs throughout.

According to Spendlove, there was no thought of asking Sondheim for a new song for “Sweeney” just for awards consideration. “Creating a new song may have been a disservice to that classic material. It’s more respectful to leave it as it is.”

“Hairspray” composer Shaiman has reason to mourn the loss of the adaptation category more than most: His song arrangements for “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sister Act” and “Sleepless in Seattle” would probably have resulted in a nod or two, maybe a win. “It’s a craft that has existed since movies began,” he says. “Silent movie scores were so often adaptations of existing music.”

On a Broadway show, he points out, “you have to orchestrate to make sure the musicians can actually play the show in one sitting. On the movie, I had the luxury of both a film budget and the fact that the orchestrations did not have to take stamina or the size of a pit orchestra into account. In musically logistical terms, you’re freed. Every song could have exactly what it needed.”

For “Across the Universe,” Oscar-winner Elliot Goldenthal (“Frida”) had — along with collaborators T Bone Burnett and Teese Gohl — the daunting task of taking classic Beatles songs and rethinking them for a ’60s scenario that encompassed Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and the psychedelic era.

“I treated John, Paul and George as if they were Irving Berlin or Sammy Cahn,” says Goldenthal. “The rut people get into is, they think of the Beatles as a band. Once you separate the performance aspect from the song, you have many clues from which to produce.”

In addition, Goldenthal composed over 20 minutes of original music (also not eligible, violating the Oscar rule of “scores diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs”) that set up many of the song performances.

Asked if he was bothered by the fact that there is no Oscar category to cover his work on the film, Goldenthal replied: “If I go down that route of being bothered, it does. I don’t go there.”

“Sweeney Todd’s” Higham understands that there will be no Oscar nomination for his accomplishments. After a private screening of the finished film, the universally revered Sondheim came up to him, shook his hand and told him he was a genius. Says Higham: “Just for him to say that is good enough for me.”

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