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Stage Musicals by Film Composers

By Scott Bettencourt

Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Columbia CK 33581
11 cues, 48:34

With 6137 performances, A Chorus Line was for many years the longest running Broadway musical of all time (until the dire Cats topped it, ending up with a whopping 7485 performances), and a surprising choice for that achievement as it was a far from traditional stage musical. Along with its memorable choreography and catchy, classic score, it was an unusually authentic behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the Broadway theater, and for once the focus was on the rank-and-file, not on stars. Even more shockingly, it was not about the understudy who pulls through at the last minute to take the lead role, but about the unemployed dancers striving just to get a slot in the chorus. None of the show's original cast have gone on to become major stars, though a few are steadily employed players like Donna McKechnie (whose own personal history was part of the show's inspiration), and the terrifically reptilian character actor Robert LuPone (brother of Patti). A handful of the 15 years worth of replacement actors have become familiar faces, such as Broadway performers Ann Reinking, Scott Wise and Karen Ziemba, as well as Jack Noseworthy (who later showed up Hamlisch's Sweet Smell of Success), Lauren Tom, and the great Bebe Neuwirth. The book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante was based on interviews with real Broadway dancers (two books have been published about the show's history -- On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line by Robert Viagas, Baavork Lee and Thommie Walsh, and The Longest Line by Gary Stevens and Alan George), and despite the Broadway gloss the show feels unusually truthful (apart from the dramatically necessary but improbable gimmick of the "director" having the dancers tell their personal histories). In one especially nice touch, there are actually two gay characters among the principals instead of the inevitable single token, with one given the showy monologue about his troubled childhood (unlike in, say, Fame, where we're supposed to believe that New York's High School for the Performing Arts has only one gay student).

But even without the Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line must be considered the crowning achievement of Marvin Hamlisch's career, though certainly Edward Kleban's clever and fresh lyrics are a pivotal element of the show's success. Unlike Hamlisch, who has had an impressively varied and successful career, Chorus Line was Kleban's only hit (film music fans probably know him best for his lyrics to "There's a Lot to Be Said for the Fuhrer" from The Hindenburg), though after his death Lonny Price created a biographical musical based on Kleban's songs entitled A Class Act which became a hit. Hamlisch has always been hard to get a handle on as a composer, as there's very little stylistic continuity between his works -- the Bernstein-ish warmth of The Swimmer, the forthright zaniness of Bananas, the Golden Age gloss of The Way We Were, the disco-tinged pastiche of The Spy Who Loved Me, the sweeping romanticism of Sophie's Choice -- but this chameleon quality serves him exceptionally well in A Chorus Line, where he's able to both evoke the popular Broadway style (as in the Jerry Herman-esque, show-within-a-show song "One," one of the score's most familiar pieces) and write numbers that deftly delineate the personalities of the individual dancers, such as "Nothing," in which a Hispanic female dancer reminisces about an especially unsympathetic drama teacher. (If the show has any serious flaw, it's the undertone of adolescent griping/whining -- many of the characters' problems can be summed up as "My parents didn't love me enough" or "My directors/teachers didn't respect me enough," and "Nothing" was cleverly parodied in the terrific Off-Broadway revue Upstairs at O'Neill's, in which the maligned drama teacher gets to tell his side of the story in the song "Something," written by Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, performed by Bernstein)

While "What I Did For Love" is the show's memorable ballad, "At the Ballet" is an especially lovely and lilting number, "The Music and the Mirror" features a dazzling dance solo, and "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" (generally referred to as "Tits and Ass") is an energetic showstopper, though it does feature perhaps the show's most nonsensical lyric: "Tits and ass/Won't get you jobs/Unless they're yours."

A film version was planned for years and finally emerged in 1985, with Richard Attenborough directing Michael Douglas as the show's director and a cast of relative unknowns who have largely remained unknowns in the 19 years since, though one actor, Michael Blevins, went on to play the tiny role of David Raksin in Attenborough's Chaplin biopic. The film was a slick, enjoyable and faithful adaptation but ultimately uninspired, with Attenborough's direction at times evoking a TV variety show. The film received Oscar nominations for its editing, sound, and for one of the two Kleban-Hamlisch songs written for the film, "Surprise, Surprise" but it was ultimately a boxoffice flop and reinforced all the common wisdom about musicals being boxoffice poison, a sentiment that the huge success of Chicago may have only temporarily changed. Sadly, Kleban, Dante, Kirkwood and director Michael Bennett all passed on many years ago.

Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Casablanca 826 240-2 M-1
13 cues, 39:30

Marvin Hamlisch's romantic and creative partnership with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager ("Nobody Does It Better") inspired this musical romantic comedy about a pair of songwriters, featuring a book by the most popular Broadway playwright of the 70s (and the 60s, and the 80s), Neil Simon. The show's success proved that Hamlisch was no Broadway flash-in-the-pan, running two and a half years.

Unfortunately, it is also the weakest of Hamlisch's major stage scores, and the forgettable quality of the songs is an unfortunate and clearly unintentional analogue to the offstage Hamlisch-Sager relationship -- in 1982 she married Burt Bacharach, the pair's musical collaborations including the songs from Night Shift and the Oscar winning "Arthur's Theme," and after their 1990 divorce she married Warner Bros. exec Robert Daly.

Your enjoyment of the score may depend on your appreciation of the instantly dated disco sound (the songs were orchestrated by Ralph Burns, Richard Hazard, and Blacula composer Gene Page) and your tolerance of Robert Klein's singing voice. Klein was one of the funniest comedians of the early 70s and has evolved into a worthy character actor, but his songs were always the weakest part of his comedy albums and his vocal stylings on this album are not easy on the ear. Shockingly, he was nominated for a Tony while his more vocally pleasing co-star Lucie Arnaz wasn't (though in all fairness, his acting may have trumped hers). Tom Conti starred in the London production, which also resulted in a cast album, and among the replacements in the Broadway production were Tony Roberts, Ted Wass, Victor Garber, Stockard Channing and Anita Gillette.

Fans of Hamlisch's film scores may appreciate that all four of his cast CDs feature a fair amount of instrumental dance music. Some of the songs here have a mild charm and the title tune is fairly catchy, but however the show plays on the stage, as a cast album it comes across as neither especially romantic nor funny, and ultimately oddly abrasive (Klein's singing voice doesn't help).

In 1986, Hamlisch returned to the Broadway musical with an adaptation of the Michael Ritchie film Smile, a satirical comedy about beauty pageants. The original Hamlisch score featured lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (How Now Dow Jones), but Hamlisch ended up writing a new score with lyrics by Howard Ashman (of Ashman & Menken fame). The show ended up lasting only 48 performances on Broadway, but Ken Mandelbaum writes favorably of the musical in his invaluable book Not Since Carrie, and the Bruce Kimmel produced CD series Unsung Musicals, released by Varese Sarabande in the mid-1990s, featured four Smile songs -- Unsung Musicals (1994) featured "Smile," "In Our Hands," and "Disneyland," and Unsung Musicals III (1997) featured "Maria's Song."

Lyrics by David Zippel
Columbia CK 53761
18 cues, 63:06

The musical adaptation of Neil Simon's 1977 Oscar-winning romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl seemed a surefire hit -- the source material was popular, charming and weightless as well as small-scaled enough to fit snugly on a Broadway stage, the combination of TV-and-movie comedy actor Martin Short and Broadway darling Bernadette Peters provided unusual star power, and Neil Simon himself wrote the book. But, surprisingly, the show lasted for only five months and 188 performances.

The cast album, though no classic, is a big improvement on They're Playing Our Song, helped by David Zippel(City of Angels, Mulan)'s genuinely clever lyrics (though the line about a "Sondheimlich maneuver" in "Paula (An Improvised Love Song)" is an inexcusable groaner). The dance class number "A Beat Behind" charmingly evokes Hamlisch's masterpiece A Chorus Line, and the number "Elliot Garfield Grant," where Short lays down the law to his unwitting tenants, is cleverly conceived and an energetic highlight. Short's unceasing energy is perfectly suited to the Broadway stage and this show in particular, and Peters, one of the most talented stars of the musical theater, is much more appealing than Marsha Mason, her movie predecessor (though the role inherently borders on the grating), and gives an especially impassioned and satisfying rendition of her emotional climactic song, "What a Guy." As with They're Playing Our Song, there is an unusual amount of incidental music on the CD, including the overture, entracte and even the final bows.

Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Sony Classical SK89922
18 cues, 60:28

This musical version of the classic 1957 film, which starred Burt Lancaster as Winchell-esque gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis in his finest performance as weaselly press agent Sidney Falco, was the most hyped production of its Broadway season. From the advertising you might have thought the producers had a Producers-sized hit on their hands, but the acclaimed original film, with its dazzling script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, sharp direction by Alexander Mackendrick and memorable black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe, was a commercial failure on its release and the kind of dark, cynical plot that can be an awkward fit for the popular musical theater. (It was probably the success of Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard that convinced backers that Success could live up to its title.)

The show was a big money loser, running only 108 performances and winning just one Tony, for John Lithgow's performance as Hunsecker -- ironically, the show lost Best Musical to Thoroughly Modern Millie, another stage version of an Elmer Bernstein-scored film. But despite the mixed reviews, poor boxoffice and big financial loss, the cast album is terrific, a moody and dazzling musicalization of an unusually grim Hollywood film. Hamlisch's music and Craig Carnelia's lyrics are frequently reminiscent of Sondheim (and from me there's no greater compliment) but not excessively derivative of the master, and the unsympathetic protagonists are given numbers (Hunsecker sings "For Susan" to his beloved sister, for whom he holds unacknowledged incestuous feelings, and Falco sings of his dreams of glory in "At the Fountain") in which they express their deepest feelings without overly softening their characters. This is the strongest new Broadway score I've heard in years and one of Hamlisch's finest works, and is highly recommended for both Broadway fans and Hamlisch devotees.

FROM: "WhiteSheik"
It is hard, I know, to review these musicals without actually having seen them, but one thing you must understand is that a show like Promises, Promises is an ADAPTATION of The Apartment, it is not The Apartment. The book is by Neil Simon, not Billy Wilder. The score works perfectly in the musical, whether one thinks it's a great score or not (I happen to adore it). And there is plenty of melancholy feeling in I'll Never Fall in Love Again and it's quite touching in the context of the show. The album is a mixed bag for Promises fans -- it is produced (not sung) very much like a Bacharach pop album -- song endings have been truncated, dance music has been left off of A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing, etc. Had those things not been changed or had a bit of dialogue here and there been used (as on most cast albums) you would understand better how good the score works.
The most interesting thing about the show, however, is the Fran character who, in Mr. Simon's hands and Miss O'Hara's person is not nearly as nuanced or adorable as she was in the film. That is the show's biggest problem -- it's ALL skewed to the Jack Lemmon character.
FROM: "John Archibald"
As an addendum to your article:
I saw "How Now Dow Jones" three times (!), twice during its Boston tryout, and later in New York, and enjoyed it very much. I must have, or I wouldn't have seen it three times. I especially remember the ballads, such as "Walk Away," or that marvelous madrigal at the beginning of Act II, with the chorus all in white, "Rich is Better." It was a very enjoyable show, funny, tuneful, lots of bright colors, and dance numbers. Exactly what the term "Broadway musical comedy" refers to.
I also saw "Merlin," which seemed to be merely a string of Doug Henning magic acts, with musical numbers as filler between them, and Chita Rivera sweeping around, like Maleficent in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." Unfortunately, none of the music was particularly memorable, though I do remember considerable use of the ondes martinot, which Bernstein seemed to be using a lot in those days.
I went to "Promises Promises" twice as well, in both Boston and New York. Since all we have to remember it now is the cast album, this gives very little of what the show was like. It was bright, sassy, funny, and even romantic, with lots bright costumes, and lots, repeat, lots of dancing. It was one of the three musicals choreographed by Michael Bennett, before he hit his stride in 1971, with "Follies," and it just bristled with movement. The number, "Turkey Lurkey Time," lambasted in your review, was a whirlwind of dancers, all moving on tables and chairs, with one soloist, a certain Donna McKechnie, standing out. She and Bennett went on to create the historical "A Chorus Line" only a few years later.
It's unfortunate that all we have left of these creations is their cast albums, and sometimes we don't even have those. But, speaking as someone who actually saw some of them, the theatrical experience was a more multi-dimensional experience. The score is only a part, though an integral one, of the whole presentation. There are still shows, flops when they originally opened, whose reputation is founded on their cast albums, such as Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," or even the aforementioned "Follies," which has taken on legendary status since I saw its original cast, back in 1971.
What's most fascinating about the efforts of film composers to do Broadway is to try to recognize their film style in its translation to the medium of the Broadway score. I think the most musically recognizable is Victor Young's score for "Seventh Heaven," recently made available on CD, which decidedly sounds like his film music, particularly the ballets. It's easily as enjoyable as any of his film scores in my collection. On the other hand, I'd never have guessed that Laurence Rosenthal wrote "Sherry!" from merely listening to the recording. (I saw that show, too, when it tried out in Boston, with its original star, George Sanders. I've always liked the score, but if I hadn't known it was Rosenthal, I'd never have guessed.)
Thanks for the article. Very enjoyable. Looking forward to more.
I hadn't realize Victor Young had done Seventh Heaven (I saw the movie recently but didn't even know there was a stage musical version until I spotted the cast CD); I'll have to pick that one up to review for a later entry in the series.

FROM: "Mark R. Young"

I have heard live tapes of both THE LITTLE PRINCE AND THE AVIATOR and MERLIN. The visual appeal of Doug Henning's illusions in MERLIN was obviously the main attraction. Elmer Bernstein's score is just OK, featuring one outstanding catchy song, "It's About Magic" which opens the show and is reprised several times. Along with Chita Rivera, a young Nathan Lane as "Prince Fergus" can be heard. He was eliciting big laughs from the audience even then.

LITTLE PRINCE/AVIATOR contains an overall excellent score. It is best in the more meditative numbers such as "Wind, Sand and Stars" and "Sunset Song". The convoluted book makes the plot difficult to follow on tape, though. It would be nice if at least some of the best of Barry's songs were formally recorded. (Maybe an enterprising singer could record a John Barry "songbook" containing both stage and movie songs.)

When I wrote the first column, I'd forgotten that Bruce Kimmel's Varese Sarabande disc Unsung Musicals II (1995) featured Michele Nicastro singing "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" from Merlin, which I also neglected to include in my Bernstein film/discography.

FROM: "James Phillips"

I hope you can add Billy Goldenberg's Broadway musical BALLROOM with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman based on the TV movie QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM. Billy told me he's working on a revival with Chita Rivera.

Another Goldenberg Broadway/Film connection: I read a review of the DVD release of THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973; d. Herbert Ross) in SCARLET STREET (No. 51), the convoluted, fun mystery by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. There was a Sondheim song "Anyone Can Whistle" in the beginning of the film, played by Sheila (Yvonne Romaine), and the DVD edition replaced this with Goldenberg's original film music.

This is a Warner's Home Video release, so maybe you can speak to Lukas Kendall about a possible FSM release since it is over 25 years old.

Thank you for reminding me of Ballroom; I'd completely forgotten it, even though I have the cast album. And believe me, I also wish Lukas would do Last of Sheila -- it's one of my all-time favorite movies.

Part One of this series, covering the stage musicals of Burt Bacharach, John Barry and Elmer Bernstein, can be accessed on the website.

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