This Christmas, acclaimed director Tim Burton is unleashing his theatrical adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical thriller Sweeney Todd. The film stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sasha Baron Cohen. It promises to deliver Burton's unique style while showcasing a story that has long captivated live audiences worldwide. I've always been fascinated by the idea of Sweeney Todd. Yet, I have never seen the stage play in its entirety.
I must confess. I have theatrophoboia. That is the fear of live theater. It steams from a few childhood episodes that scared me for life. First, there was the Winnie the Pooh incident. At the impressionable age of six, my mom drove me down to a shady little bookstore where a group of forty and fifty-year-old socially disabled men were putting on a live performance of "The Hundred Acre Woods."
This red-faced man in a moth-chewed piglet outfit lumbered on stage, throwing as much enthusiasm into the role as he could. He stuttered the intended lines on a continual loop for five minutes, spraying the audience with drool. His mouth was Gallagher's watermelon. His words the sledge hammer. That bookstore needed to hand out rain slickers. But they didn't.
Some of the kids started to cry. I was mortified, my mind not yet finely tuned to the PC oeuvre that has recently swept the nation. This was scary to a six year old. I didn't know it was meant as relaxation therapy for the mentally challenged. About seven minutes into the play, Piglet forgot one of his lines. Winnie the Pooh, this six-foot tall black man with an overbite, slapped the stuttering fool upside the head. And then grabbed his ears and starting yelling in a high-pitched squeal. Piglet wandered around the stage muttering to himself while Winnie the Pooh stomped his feet in place. I think that's about the time I blacked out.
I had absolutely no interest in live theater after that. My mom tried in vein to get me to go to a play here or there, but I refused. I wouldn't even participate in them at school. They scared me. And it had nothing to do with stage freight. Live theater is a musty, dead place to me. It smells like dust and rotting crabs. I can't conceptually buy any of the emotions I might find there. I basically hate the thought of musicals and one-act comedies. But it wasn't just Piglet that sealed my fate.
One blustery Saturday afternoon, my mom convinced me that giving live theater a second shot would cure the midday boredoms. Barry Mahon and K. Gordon Murray were in town with their traveling road show. I don't necessarily want to get into their claim to fame with an overwhelming clarity of detail. You should probably know that they were known in the late 60s and early 70s for trafficking in smut. They made a lot of sleazy nudie pictures that were churned out like hamburger for a quick buck. They also cornered the market on stomachache inducing kiddy matinee fare. Shoddy production values and scratchy red hues made the films indelibly creepy. Heck, they were scarier than anything our contemporary horror directors could possibly conceive, and that includes the stuff that leaks out of Takashi Miike's tormented mind.
Murray and Mahon were bringing their version of Jack and the Beanstalk to our small town of Corvallis, Oregon. The production was being supervised by Herschel Gordon Lewis, a man also known for smut and kiddy exploitation flicks. Of course my mom didn't know this. She scooped me up with a smile and plunked me down in that seat next to the Magee children, a rambunctious bunch that picked at my allotted ice cream dish with booger-incrusted fingers. First, there was that. Then the pre-show entertainment began. An old drunk came out with a scabby ventriloquist dummy and proceeded to do a burlesque bit toned down slightly for the children in attendance. This would have been scary enough on its own, but this was around the time Magic came out. Every time I went to the movie theater, I would see the trailer for this Anthony Hopkins film. And it crippled me, throwing me underneath the seat. That dummy was scary, and seeing a live version just a few feet in front of me was making me quiver in my tough skins.
We got through the show without the dummy murdering anyone. I exhaled a sigh of relief. But that didn't last long. What came on stage next was probably the most horrifying thing I've ever seen in my life. It was like watching a staged version of a snuff film. Here were these middle-aged men and women, doped up on pills, engaging in a porno of live action kiddy smut. The psychogenic light show made everything look exotic. It was like being tortured in the basement of a Korean brothel by a fat Mexican wearing a barbed strap-on and a Raggedy Ann mask.
The actors all had cobwebs growing out of their eyeballs. Their performance was the equivalent of being rolled in disregarded thrift store clothing. The whole enterprise smelt stale. It was sickening. Opaque. An acid trip happening in the mind of a mentally insane clown hoped up on Angel Dust. Jack and the Beanstalk, as put on by Murray, Mahon, and Lewis, was gag inducing. It was like a year long bout of epididmides. (For those not in the know, that's like being continually kicked in the balls. It's a seasick sensation that will give you sea legs.)
It nearly threw me into a violent coma. Then came the giant. After the horrors I'd witnessed, I thought they were actually going to bring this lumbering beanpole monstrosity out on stage. I was petrified. I closed my eyes and hit the floor. Attempting to soak up the spilt soda and drift into a quick death. Alas, the giant was just a shadow and light effect. But that moment in history is lodged in my brain, and I've been scared of live theater ever since.
Shakespeare. What a dick.
It's best not get into my deal with Urotheatrophobia. Which is the fear of having to go to the bathroom during the middle of a movie. That has no place in this particular column. But you can read more on it, just CLICK HERE
Many years passed. I refused to go to the various school plays that came my way, or participate in them in any way, shape, or form. I got a big D+ in High School Drama and Theatrics. Everything was swimming around nicely. I was okay with it. I'd accepted my fate. Until we went over to my aunt's house late one evening. She'd had Showtime for a while. I'd snuck a look at everything. Alien. The original Motel Hell. Debbie Does Dallas. The Happy Hooker Trilogy. I even watched this bizarre film on Afterhours called Sex Machine. It was about this futuristic community that outlawed sex because a mad scientist developed a new way to make electricity. Yup: Intercourse. Talk about your "green" biofilms. This little chugger was way ahead of its time.
None of this stuff fazed me, though. Then I walked into the living room one evening to find my Aunt, Mom, and Dad all transfixed on the television. They were watching 1983's Showtime premier of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This musical starred George Hearn and Murder, She Wrote's Angela Lansbury. I was a fan of horror films at the time, so I thought it would be neat. The premise seemed cool. So, I flopped myself on the floor and started watching this videotaped stage production. Its bony hand reached out of the TV and grabbed my heart, squeezing tight. I clutched at my ribs. A heartburn sensation eased itself throughout my entire body. The dust from the theater floor had somehow seeped out of the TV and blinded me. I was chocking on the splinters in the wood beams of the stage. The props were like fiberglass being sanded into my skin. I wanted to watch it, so desperately. But I couldn't. I made it through about five minutes before running out of the room, screaming.
I couldn't even watch a taped version of a stage play. Pity me.
Something about the material intrigued me, though. Sadly, I just couldn't look at it. And those few fleeting moments have stuck with me ever since. I've always hoped a version of this harrowing story would come to the screen. Now, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is finally making his first appearance at my local multiplex. And I couldn't be more excited. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are a perfect fit for this dark, gothic material. And since its in film form, I'll be able to watch it!
It's always been this way for me. Whenever I've come across a stage play that looks intriguing, I've had to wait for the big screen adaptation. And sometimes, the wait is hard. I've heard a ton about Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. My brother and his wife went, and they had a wonderful time. I said, "No way! Uh-uh!" Especially since they incorporate you into the affair. I have a hard enough time with the plays when they are going on in front of me. I don't need them in my peripheral, consuming me. That seems like a quaint version of Hell. This past week saw a filmed version into theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Now I can finally see what all the fuss is about. Hopefully, Queen's We Will Rock You will make its way into my DVD collection soon enough. Too bad they've already cast Sasha Baron Cohen in a more straightforward Freddy Mercury biopic. He would have been perfect for this musical.
Over the years, I have enjoyed quite a few stage-to-screen productions. Though, I know they would have been torturous death in person. The disconnect between the screen and the audience that a live production doesn't allow gives me the courage to enjoy these playhouse endeavors. My personal favorite is still Li'l Abner. In fifth grade, my middle school scheduled this as their yearly play. I was familiar with the comic strip, and thought it was a cool idea. I've always had a thing for hillbilly culture. I toyed with the idea of acting in it, but stepping on that stage for the first time was more devastating than the actual act of watching the play from the audience. I opted out for the VHS tape of the movie instead. And watched it in my bedroom.
Here are my favorite stage plays that have been turned into films in the order of their release. These cinematic versions made it possible for me to appreciate live theater at least on a thematic level. To some extent, they have kept me alive and made me a more culturally rich person:
10) Li'l Abner. This musical adaptation of the Al Capp comic strip opened on Broadway in 1956. In 1959, the production was turned into a musical comedy starring Peter Palmer, Leslie Parrish, Julie Newmar, Stella Stevens, and Donna Douglas with a cameo by Jerry Lewis. The story centers on the fictional town of Dogpatch, which is being targeted by the US government as the test site for a nuclear bomb. The townsfolk take their Yokumberry Tonic to Washington, claiming it will give young men super human strength. The only place to get Yokumberries is in Dogpatch, thus making the town indispensable. Only later does the government find out that the tonic also makes men sterile. Released on December 11th and running 114 minutes, this hilarious take on the cornpone subculture was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy for best Musical presentation.
9) The Sound of Music. This Broadway production opened in November of 1959. It wasn't until 1965 that Roger Wise turned the musical into a much-loved theatrical endeavor. Filmed on location in Austria, it starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The plot revolves around a wannabe nun that takes on the role of governess to the seven von Trapp children. Released March 2nd and running 174 minutes, the film won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. It also won two Golden Globe Awards and the Directors Guild of America Award.
8) The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This long running stage musical opened in London on June 19th, 1973. Creators Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman turned it into a feature film in 1975. It was the first Midnight Movie ever released by a major film company, and has been playing to a ravenous cult audience ever since. Tim Curry and Meat Loaf reprised their original stage roles for the film, with Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick also joining the cast. The plot finds newlywed couple Brad and Janet trapped in the compound of sweet transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Released on September 26th in the US and running 98 minutes, the film was recognized by the National Film Preservation Board in 2005 and has been properly preserved for generations to come.
7) Grease. Originally conceived in 1971 as a play with incidental music, Grease shot onto Broadway in June of 1972, where it became the longest running production of its time. The musical was turned into a film in 1978 that starred John Travolta as Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsson. The film revolves around the aftermath of a summer romance between a rebel greaser and a hometown honey from Australia. A twist of fate puts them in the same high school senior year, and they must come to terms with their opposing cliques before they can have a relationship with one another. Released on June 16th and running 110 minutes, this audience favorite was nominated for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe in all musical categories. It won the People's Choice Award for best film of 1978.
6) Annie. This musical stage play based on Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie made it's world premier at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut in 1976. Gaining popularity, it quickly found itself on Broadway the very next year. In 1982, the hard drinking John Huston turned this rousing tale about a little orphaned girl and her well-to-do billionaire adoptive father Daddy Warbucks into a Technicolor dream. It was released too much fanfare on May 17th and runs 127 minutes long. It was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for its music. It must be noted that the film was also nominated for five Razzie Awards. Annie herself, Aileen Quinn, won for Worst Supporting Actress. Still, it is fondly remembered as a cheerful comic strip come to life and is adored by millions.
5) Little Shop of Horrors. This, like many stage to film adaptations, first started out as a horrible little B movie best known for its cameo appearance by Jack Nicholson. Alan Menken turned the low-budget 1960s sci-fi comedy into an Off-Broadway stage production in 1982. In 1986, Frank Oz took the musical and turned it into a big screen production starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin. The film centers around a nerdy florist that takes in a man-eating plant from outer space. Bill Murray took over the cameo role originated by Jack Nicholson in the original film. Released on December 19th and running 94 minutes, this rock and roll fever dream was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for its music.
4) Glengarry Glen Ross. This is the only non-musical on this list. Though, it should be noted that a musical stage adaptation has been tempted. The original David Mamet play debuted in 1984 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. In 1992, James Foley turned the original stage play into a drama starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Alec Baldwin. This two-day look at real estate agents is notorious for using the word fuck one hundred and thirty-eight times. Released on September 30th and running 110 minutes, the film saw Al Pacino being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award by both the Academy of Motion Pictures and the Golden Globes.
3) Chicago. Bob Fosse choreographed this original Broadway production, which bowed in 1975. It ran for 936 performances, and saw a revival in 1996. In 2002, director Rob Marshall brought this prohibition era musical to the big screen with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger in the lead roles. Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly also appeared in the film to much adoration. The story chronicled the adventures of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two murderesses who found themselves on death row together in 1920s Chicago. Opening on December 27th and running 113 minutes, the film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture. It was also nominated for eight Golden Globes, winning three including Best Film: Musical or Comedy.
2) Dreamgirls. This Broadway Musical opened December 20th, 1981 at the Imperial Theater in midtown Manhattan. The stage production followed a young female singing trio named the Dreams, and it was based on the success of other R&B acts such as The Supremes. Bill Condon turned the popular production into a lavish 2006 film. It starred Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson. Released on December 15th and running 131 minutes, the musical was nominated for eight Academy Awards winning two. It was also nominated for five Golden Globes and seven Image Awards.
1) Hairspray. Like Li'l Abner, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Producers, Hairspray first started out as a low budget film. Originally released in 1988 and directed by John Waters, this non-musical comedy went on to obtain a ravenous cult audience. In 2002, Marc Shaiman turned the wacky little B movie into a Broadway hit. A few years later, Adam Shankman took elements from both the original film and the stage musical for his 2007 Adaptation, which premiered this summer. Released on July 20th of this year, Hairspray has garnered much attention and has already seen a re-release which incorporated onscreen sing-along-lyrics. This new version of the Baltimore race riot is being touted as an Academy Award forerunner. It had the largest opening weekend grosses of any musical in film history, and is the third biggest moneymaking musical of all time. It was just released on DVD a couple of weeks ago and is currently sitting pretty at the top of the charts.
We will surely be able to add Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd to this list when it is released December 21st, 2007. It is being touted as a classic even before it's release. Finally, I will be able to see it away from the glare of that splintery theater building where it has been playing on Broadway since 1979.
Hopefully, sometime in the near future, I can seek psychological help for my theatrophoboia and finally be able to enjoy some of these stage productions from the comfort of my local playhouse.
Until then: Viva La Cinema!