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Along Came Bill

Bill Condon, director/screenwriter of Dreamgirls, speaks candidly about the tricky process of adapting stage musicals to film. logo
Bill Condon
(© Michael Muller)
For more than a quarter-century, from roughly the mid 1970s into the early years of the 2000s, Hollywood virtually turned its back on the once-popular practice of adapting Broadway musicals to film. Then came Chicago, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and made a ton of money. Its great success spawned a new wave of movie musicals based on Broadway source material, the most popular of which has been Dreamgirls.

One of the major things that Chicago and Dreamgirls have in common is Bill Condon, who crafted the ingenious screenplay for the former (which was directed and choreographed by Broadway's own Rob Marshall) and both wrote and directed the latter. TheaterMania recently spoke with Condon, a Best Screenplay Oscar-winner for Gods and Monsters, about the joys and the potential pitfalls in bringing musical theater to the big screen.


TM: How hard do you have to work to get people to accept musicals on film?

BILL CONDON: It's such a controversial subject. As a filmmaker, you find yourself caught between two camps: people who read websites like yours and go to theater chat sites, who complain about every note of music that we cut, and people on the IMDB boards, who post about the torture of listening to "all that music." When you make a movie that costs over $70 million, you have a responsibility to reach a wide audience, and the truth is that we have generations who've grown up without these conventions.

TM: Yet many of those same people seem to enjoy old musicals, like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Is it just that the convention of people singing on film is thought to be of another time?

BC: I believe that's true. My favorite example was at a test screening of Dreamgirls. Some people were so upset about the characters breaking into song. One of them, who was really irate, said: "How do they know how to rhyme?" I thought that clearly defined the line between those who understand the convention and those who don't. My theory on Dreamgirls had always been that, since it's both a performance musical and a book musical, you could relax the audience into the singing -- as in the scene where Jimmy teaches the girls the beginning of "Fake Your Way to the Top." There's realism there, but it's also a musical comedy moment.

TM: I was surprised that you cut Curtis Taylor's lines "Big, as in huge..." at the beginning of Cadillac Car. Wouldn't that have helped you ease into the song-as-speech convention?

BC: My original intention was to include it. If you notice, that scene takes place at a club, and there's a jazz combo playing. It would have been an easy transition from dialogue into speak-singing, because you'd know where the music was coming from. Then we were going to go into a massive street scene where Jamie is driving his gold Cadillac down the streets of Detroit with Jimmy, C.C., and Marty. After that, we were going to go back to the garage with a piano set up there, and C.C. was going to start playing "Cadillac Car." But we had to pull back on all of that because of the budget, more than anything else.

TM: Do you find that the public accepts singing from certain types of characters more readily than others?

BC: Absolutely. We do a lot of testing on these movies, and there was no question that a large group of younger people rebelled against the idea of Jamie Foxx's character, Curtis, being the first to sing in a non-performance situation -- but they didn't have the same problem with Effie singing "What about how I feel?" Everyone understood that Effie was larger than life, so it was easier to accept. The version of the movie that's going to come out on DVD sometime next year will be much more musicalized, with some footage that we dropped. All of that footage is on the current DVD as extras, but some of it will be cut back into the film for the Christmas release.

Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose,
and Keith Robinson in Dreamgirls
(© Paramount Pictures)
TM: You seemed to go out of your way to have most of the songs, even the non-performance numbers, happen on a stage. For example, you moved the leads onto the stage to sing "Family" rather than having them stay in the dressing room.

BC: The most famous song in Dreamgirls is a book song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Several of the other big numbers are book songs as well, so I wanted to embrace rather than disguise the theatrical roots of the piece. In the Broadway version of Dreamgirls, "And I Am Telling You" took place in a dressing room -- but it really took place on the stage of the Imperial Theatre. It was all about the connection between the women who played Effie and the audience.

TM: For those who don't appreciate musicals, is the biggest problem the singing itself or the transition from speech to song?

BC: It's the singing -- the amount of singing. The issue is not so much how we get into the songs, it's the fact that the music has more of a theater sound than a pop sound. Also, telling the emotional beats of the story through music is something that many people rebel against. That's why, in making the film, we had to walk a fine line. When people complained about "Family," they complained about the sweetness of the song. I had a talk with Stephen Sondheim about this after Chicago opened, and he felt that show worked on film because it doesn't have any love songs. It doesn't ask the audience to sit through musical moments full of honest sentiment.

TM: Speaking of Chicago, I could never understand why "My Own Best Friend" was cut.

BC: It was in the first draft of the script; it was going to be a fun number, with Roxie and Velma in two separate jail cells on a stage. But it fell out pretty quickly, and I honestly don't remember why.

TM: Would you care to comment on why you think the movies of Rent and The Producers didn't go over very well?

BC: First of all, I'm such an aficionado of musical films that, even when they aren't ultimately successful, I feel they all have wonderful things in them. Even in Mame, that scene with Lucy backstage in the "Man in the Moon" costume is funny. I do think you have to be careful about which shows you adapt, which ones are going to be enhanced on film in some way.

TM: Are there any recent stage musicals that you think would work well as movies?

BC: I could see Grey Gardens being filmed in a way that incorporated the original documentary. That could be fascinating. Spring Awakening is another show that breaks open the musical theater form, so it might also be very interesting on film.

TM: I know that you had hoped to make a movie of Follies.

BC: I think there's a great way to do it. For me, the model is sort of what Topsy-Turvy was to The Mikado. I wanted to use Ted Chapin's book, Everything Was Possible, as a springboard to tell the story of that extraordinary collaboration [of Sondheim, Harold Prince, Michael Bennett, etc.] and let the score reflect as much on those people as it does on the characters. The movie would not only be about the lost world of the Follies but also about the lost era when Broadway was culturally central, when the musical Follies could be on the cover of Newsweek. Imagine, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Yvonne DeCarlo singing "I'm Still Here." The whole thing would have had one more level to it.

TM: So, why did the project fizzle?

BC: [In a tense voice] Let's just say that I hit a snag with one of the rights holders.

TM: Are you working on anything at the moment?

BC: There are a few new musicals that I'd love to film, but nothing I can talk about yet. I know I want to do more movie musicals, whether originals or adaptations.

TM: What are your personal favorite film musicals of all time?

BC: Cabaret is still number one on the list. To me, it has never been surpassed, but I think each period has its own gems. From the '50s, I love Funny Face and The Band Wagon. And I love the road show movies of the '60s; I know people criticize them for being so gargantuan, but they appeal to me in their own way.

TM: To recap, is it clear to you that movie musicals simply don't appeal to a certain percentage of the audience?

BC: Yes. Even some of the smartest critics don't get it. Pauline Kael wondered why the guys in West Side Story were doing ballet moves on the streets of New York City. Some people really hate musicals -- and I think it's a larger group than you'd imagine. Movies in general have become more relentlessly realistic over the years, and that's part of the challenge. In Dreamgirls, we at least were able to get back to having some book songs. I'm hoping the fact that Dreamgirls drew a large audience will make it easier for the next one.

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