NEW YORK — Not to put too much pressure on Bill Condon, but “Dreamgirls” had better be good.
In 2002, Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning “Chicago” (written by Condon) and, to a lesser extent, Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” the previous year dragged the long-unfashionable movie-musical genre out of mothballs and back to commercial viability.
But the major screen adaptations of hit musicals that have come along since — Warner’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Sony’s “Rent” and U’s “The Producers” — have gone oh-for-three, encountering lukewarm critical response and underperforming at the domestic box office, the latter two pics in particular.
One more misfire and the genre risks being declared officially dead in Hollywood. That makes it vital for “Dreamgirls” — the next screen musical out of the gate, due in December — to get it right, and to learn from the mistakes of the recent crop.
Cross-fertilization between Broadway and Hollywood has seen highs and lows in the past century as screen musicals shifted in and out of vogue. When synchronicity is achieved, as it was with “Chicago,” a long-running stage show can create enough anticipation for a movie release to kickstart its life in the multiplex.
Vice versa, a hit movie can pump legit B.O. receipts for a show, significantly extending its life on Broadway, not to mention putting fuel in the tank of touring and offshore productions.
But while even a commercial flop like the “Rent” movie can goose ticket sales for the stage show that spawned it, screen adaptations need fresh artistic reasons to exist, something the “Phantom,” “Rent” and “Producers” pics all lacked.
When the creative planets are aligned, stage musicals can be a unique experience — dynamic, visceral, capable of transporting the audience emotionally to highs that mere spoken words can’t reach. But unless the vehicles are reconceptualized to fit the screen, they can lose that sizzle and become pallid transplants.
The wisdom behind “Phantom” seemed to be about making a bigger, lusher, more ornate replica of the original show. But magnification simply made its Gothic melodrama seem a turgidly overripe waxworks. And scenic coups that have an impact on stage — a chandelier plummeting, a gondola navigating a misty catacomb canal — can look pretty ho-hum onscreen, where digital wizardry has made anything possible.
Likewise, a comedy such as “The Producers” needs to rethink its mechanics for the screen. Mel Brooks’ stage hit ratcheted the interplay between title duo Bialystock and Bloom up a few notches from the 1967 film that inspired it. The new film attempts to maintain that level of theatrical hysteria, resulting in a quaint, uneven comedy, often simultaneously shrill and flat.
Scenes that were comic gems onstage — the geriatric tap routine with walkers, the outrageous Teutonic showgirl costumes in “Springtime for Hitler,” Nathan Lane’s dizzy four-minute plot recap in “Betrayed” — felt tired in the film. Susan Stroman’s inexperience as a filmmaker certainly didn’t help, largely duplicating the stage experience and sticking to legit tropes where reinvention was required.
“Rent” suffered in translation for different reasons. The notion of casting original stage leads was commendable and no doubt thrilled fans nostalgic for those faces in those roles. But the effect was one of grown-ups trapped in their early 20s. The show’s romanticized depiction of boho life on the fringes has lost much of its urgency in the decade since it debuted, and while the raw emotions to an extent masked the narrative’s chaotic jumble onstage, onscreen it was rambling and messy.
Despite the recent dismal track record, audiences who care about movie musicals have reason to be optimistic about Condon’s “Dreamgirls” and the writer-director’s ability to reimagine a property that already was highly cinematic in Michael Bennett’s knockout 1981 production.
Regardless of where anyone (this critic included) stands on the overall merits of the wildly successful “Chicago,” most people agree that the key to unlocking the challenges of that long-gestating project as a film was Condon’s screenplay. In projecting the musical numbers as products of the mind of Death Row murderess Roxie Hart, the writer gave the film a clear-cut perspective that had not been in place onstage. At the same time, he overcame the resistance of a public no longer accustomed to screen characters launching into song by making them fantasy numbers in Roxie’s starstruck head.
With its Motown girl-group story and recording industry setting, “Dreamgirls” seems ideal for tailoring less as a bursting-into-song tuner — a device that seems only to work now in heavily stylized contexts like “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” — than as a drama that incorporates musical performances, like “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” “Dreamgirls” is a show that has worked both in its elaborately designed-and-lit original staging and in subsequent pared-down concert versions.
Where Condon will take the show as it transfers to film remains to be seen, and the DreamWorks-Paramount advance marketing gives few clues beyond the expected dazzle of the spotlight and powerhouse vocalizing. But in the interests of keeping the movie musical alive and giving Broadway tuners a second wind as screen properties, break a leg, Bill.