Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From the Mouth of Harvey Fierstein

I love being a genius. It’s hard going undiscovered for so long and all, but I’ll take that over never having been a genius any day.

How can you tell if you’re a genius? If smart people say things you have been holding firmly to for some time or have put into words that which you’ve already written, then you are a certifiable genius without ever having to take an IQ test. Trust me. Being an undiscovered genius, I’m an expert on these things.

Barbara Hoffman’s interview with Harvey Fierstein in The New York Post contains just one of those genius-inducing quotes:

Why turn a creaky flick like A Catered Affair into a musical?

That's why. I don't believe that you take something incredibly great and finished and then make something else out of it. I'm always asked to write a new version of Stage Door. But that film is genius. You can't do better than that cast—Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller. Leave it alone! I saw Catered Affair and I loved how human it was. Paddy Chayefsky's like that. Think of Marty. But Marty is perfect - a dance number isn't going to make it better. A Catered Affair had all this humanity and didn't quite go as far. I thought I could take it to the next level. Debbie Reynolds [one of the film's stars] came to our opening in San Diego and said, "Honey, it's a much better musical than it ever was a movie!"

To steal Hal Prince’s phrasing, there are some exceptions—big ones, like Mame and Les Miserables—but Fierstein has spoken something I have felt for a long time. It’s difficult for me to pull many concrete examples from big musicals simply because I don’t usually bother with the source material, which is often hard-to-find or just not of interest, but I have often contemplated this when thinking of source material to adapt. If you’re just going to plug in songs, then it’s kind of a why-bother proposition. If the adaptation is super faithful, I earnestly wonder where’s the fun in it for the writer, though I’m sure cashing big royalty checks is delightful.

A case in point: I loved The Wedding Singer, but even though I had never seen the film, the second act didn’t feel much like a stage musical. It felt like an after-school special plotted on a stage. I then acquired a copy of the movie and was surprised how literal the musical’s book was, including the whole “Julia thinks Robbie’s slept with Linda” drama which, in part, prevented the second act from lifting from the stage.

Of course, you don’t want to take a beloved work and screw it up either. Mame, Les Miserables, and Jane Eyre are all examples of shows that remained faithful to their source works that not only worked well but would have been doomed had any other direction been taken. I admired the creators of Little Women for attempting some of their own touches, but with a work so beloved, you risk the “Jo never took Beth to the sea!” reaction or the “I want to see Beth die on stage in song!” cliché they worked so hard to avoid but for which the audience, at least I, was craving.

Perhaps it’s like on American Idol. You have to not only follow what the judges tell you but also understand how to apply it. Many a singer has taken a risk at the behest of the judges, only to fail because they took the wrong risk or didn’t have enough of a mastery of their talents to fully grasp how to change. You have to be able to inherently know when and when not to change.

Let’s also address the idea of change. Changes should not be made for the sake of making changes. I always admired Thoroughly Modern Millie for not simply duplicating the movie, but the changes from it are, at times, perfunctory. The fact that Dorothy doesn’t choose Trevor Graydon in the end or that Jimmy starts out a rude jerk isn’t necessary, but giving Mrs. Meers a clear motivation for her dirty deeds or Graydon’s delightful typing test for Millie are. There are changes that are required for the sake of structure, to adjust for the medium of the stage, to flesh out the work, to incorporate musical moments, or to develop or change theme—those are the important ones. Tacking on alterations for the sake of making an interpretation your own isn’t enough.

Even in a strong source work, I would say that it’s important to have some sort of interpretation, something to focus on or add. I recently wrote about this in an entry quoting Arthur Miller.

So, in the end, I guess the best that can be said is that musical theatre is an art, not a formula. Master your art, and you have a better chance of making the choices that lead you to success. Master your art, and you also know when to break the “rules.” Perhaps that the best kind of genius of all.

the Broadway Mouth
March 26, 2008

(Note: Interestingly and contradictorily enough, I think film versions of books and plays must fight to be faithful in order to be great. I won’t go into detail on theories why except to say that the best movie adaptations of books and plays are almost always the ones that are the most faithful.)


Cara said...

Just wanted to let you know I think your blog is fabulous. I've been thinking about starting a Broadway-related blog and was doing some Googling to find other Broadway bloggers and stumbled upon you, and I'm so glad I did!

Director said...

You know, Mouth, earlier I was working on a play I'm writing, and the thought occurred to me that it might make a good musical. I'm not really sure, though, since I'm musically retarded (is that politically incorrect? sorry).

I have a long way to go before that story will be finished anyway, so.. it's kind of a moot point at this moment in time.