About five years ago, I was visiting friends in Michigan for Thanksgiving. Afterwards, as a surprise, they drove me and another friend into town to see the new stage production of "White Christmas," the 1954 Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye musical. This one was retitled "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," because it mercilessly padded out the running time with other Irving Berlin songs, including a "I Love a Piano" and "Love and the Weather." I loved Danny Kaye musicals as a kid, but "White Christmas" was never one of my favorites. There was too much schmaltz in it, which the stage version turned up to eleven. The only part I really liked was the "Sisters" number, where Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen vamped around with big ostrich-feather fans.
I sat through the two-and-a-half hour show, wondering if the movie was quite as aggressively sentimental and cloying as I remembered. And it wasn't. The stage musical tries to be far more family friendly, and doesn't have the benefit of Crosby and Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, probably why it swapped out some of their showcase numbers, like Kaye's "Choreography," with more generic ones like a full version of "Blue Skies," which was only briefly heard in the film. It also saw fit to beef up the role of the nosy housekeeper Ellen by replacing her with Martha Watson, a former showbiz star who gets her own solo, "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." I didn't even remember little Susan Waverly in the film, but there she was in the musical, being cute and precocious and stealing practically every Vermont scene.
I don't count myself as much of a theater fan, but I have seen my share of Broadway shows – "Phantom," "Cats," "Showboat," "Les Misérables," "Miss Saigon," "Sweeney Todd, " "Wicked," and "The Lion King" off the top of my head. As the daughter of a music teacher, show tunes were inescapable, so I knew a lot of the music from various shows that were off my radar otherwise. And of course, the stage musicals were the origin of a lot of the movie musicals I grew up watching. But lately, the adaptations have been going in the opposite direction. More and more movies are being turned into musicals, trying to follow in the footsteps of big successes like "The Producers," "The Lion King" and "Hairspray."
The quality of these adaptations varies – "Spider-Man," "Young Frankenstein," and "The Addams Family" have had fairly disastrous receptions in recent years. But on the other hand, I think it is an interesting way for older films that have quietly slipped out of the public consciousness to be reborn. "Hairspray" went from a campy cult film to a more cheerful musical, that was received so well, they sent it back to the big screen again with its song numbers in tow. Ditto "The Producers." The theater is so different from film, musical adaptations have to make massive changes and introduce a lot of new elements by necessity, and there's a lot of room for good creativity there.
"Once," based on the 2007 Irish film, is among the latest projects getting prepped for Broadway, and it's going to need more than a few verses of "Falling Slowly" to fill a whole stage show. It'll also have to trade in a lot of its subtlety and nuance for more externalized emotional displays. It'll be different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Another one that I'm curious about is the announced musical version of "Rocky." It's not exactly the most obvious choice for a musical adaptation – but then, remember the training montages and Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now"? I can see how that could be expanded for the stage.
Even a pretty crummy adaptation like "White Christmas" had its moments. The performers couldn't hope to match up to Crosby and Kaye, but they were enthusiastic and it was nice to hear some of the songs performed live. The relentless Christmas cheer and old fashioned idealism were really not to my taste, but some of the older viewers and families around me were clearly getting a kick out of the whole thing. So I wasn't surprised to discover that the show is still going. A few nights ago, after coming home to California for the holidays, my mother announced that she had gotten us tickets to a show as a surprise, and it turned out to be "White Christmas."
I liked it better this time around. I think it helped that I knew what to expect - and knew it wasn't going to be the movie.