Idina Menzel and company in Rent
(Photo © Sony Pictures)
Idina Menzel and company in Rent
(Photo © Sony Pictures)
We've been hearing a great deal about how many theaters have had their box-office records broken recently. Sure! As long as management keeps raising prices, that'll keep happening. But this season, Broadway saw another record broken -- twice. As of November 11, when the Rent film opened, three currently running Broadway shows -- Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, and Chicago -- had had movie versions released. That record lasted all of 34 days, until December 16, when the film of The Producers was released and upped the total to four.

Some may say, "It was actually six, with Sweet Charity and Fiddler on the Roof." But I don't mean movies that were filmed before stage revivals, I mean Broadway productions that spurred movie versions while they were still running. Yes, the current Chicago is a revival, but there would never have been a 2002 film version had this smash hit 1996 production not opened.

Once upon a time, when a still-running Broadway musical had a movie released, it was more difficult for the show to keep running at a profit. Hello, Dolly! lasted at the St. James about a year after the movie debuted in December 1969; Fiddler on the Roof ran eight more months after the semi-acclaimed film version opened in November 1971. Grease did them both better: It didn't close until two years and 10 months after the movie's June 1977 premiere. But all those shows were hankering to break some Broadway mark: Dolly wanted to be the longest-running musical, and made it, while Fiddler and Grease each wanted to be the longest-running show (musical or non-musical) of all time. Both achieved those goals. Yet none of the three were experiencing profitable weeks while they were record-chasing; the producers kept the shows around for glory, not money.

On the other hand, A Chorus Line was still profitable on Broadway when its (God-awful) movie version was released in 1985. The stage production would last four years and four months after the film's release, still the record for a show outlasting its film version. But will that hold now and forever? The Chicago film opened in December 2002, so if the Broadway revival runs until May 2007, it will break the record. Don't look for me to doubt Chicago's staying power; I once did, in a conversation with my buddy Scott Cain before the film's premiere. "Well, that's it for the stage show," I confidently said -- to which he immediately rebutted, "No, the show will profit from the movie." He was right, though why the stage show survived is still a mystery to me. If this Chicago revival were an ornate production with realistic sets and costumes, I could understand why people who had seen the glitzy movie would want to see the glitzy stage show. But I'd have thought that anyone who sees the film and then the current Broadway production would spread poisonous word-of-mouth about the latter, saying that it's unspectacular in comparison.

If Chicago can't break the record, will Phantom? Its film version was released in December, 2004, so the stage production -- which, on Monday, will become the longest-running show in Broadway history -- will have to stay around until April 2009. (Members of Phantom's management have told me that they think there's still five years of life in the Broadway production.)

What are my opinions of these films? I wrote about Chicago in a January 1, 2003 column. Phantom? I love that they saved the chandelier coming down for near the end of the picture. Rent? There's no question that the story is easier to follow in the film. For years now, the stage show's Playbill has offered a two-page "Rent Who's Who" that shows the faces of the main characters and gives information on them -- e.g., "Mark and Roger are friends with ex-roommate Collins." That page is followed by another headed "A Note about the Plot of Rent," with a four-paragraph description. All of this is necessary because Jonathan Larson packed a peck of information into the long opening scene of his musical, during which the band is playing loudly and the lyrics are hard to hear and understand. Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky wisely changed some of the musical segments into dialogue, and that gives audiences time to take a breath and comprehend what's going on and what's at stake. Notice that when you buy a ticket for the Rent movie, you don't get -- or need -- a piece of paper that explains the characters and plot.

As for the much-discussed question of whether the original casters were too old to reprise their roles on film, I can say that it bothered me in the most oblique way. Each time the answering machine clicked on with the doleful "Speak," and nothing else, I thought: "That's the type of greeting employed by only the very young. This Mark and Roger are too long in the tooth for such a puerile action."

On the other hand, the old ladies in The Producers movie are too short in the tooth. Listen, I love Andrea Martin and Debra Monk, but septuagenarians and octogenarians should have been in the film -- just as they were in the 1968 original non-musical. I understand why the stage show must use a young corps; those ladies have to double in other scenes and must perform their numbers in real time. But director Susan Stroman should have taken a trip to the Actors' Home in Englewood, New Jersey to cast these roles in the film. Nevertheless, Nathan Lane is sensational and deserves an Oscar nod. Maybe he'd even get one if "The King of Broadway" number had been retained; the picture needs it, too, because so much time elapses between "Opening Night" and "We Can Do It" that the movie stops feeling like a musical.

Will the Broadway productions of Rent and/or The Producers break A Chorus Line's record? I suspect not. But isn't it fascinating that in a few months, all four will undoubtedly still be playing live, while all four movie versions will be living in our homes, too?

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]