TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Lost in Translation?

MGM's greatest movie musicals, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Gigi, have had uneasy journeys from screen to stage. logo
Bonnie Fraser in
Meet Me In St. Louis
(© Carol Rosegg)
So, for the fourth decade in a row, New York theater audiences are going to see an MGM movie musical on stage. Meet Me in St. Louis, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is actually a revised version of the 1989 Broadway musical based on the 1944 film. Despite people's happy memories of Judy Garland singing "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the film, the Broadway show racked up only a 252-performance run at the Gershwin Theatre.

That Meet Me In St. Louis has shown up at the Irish Rep on West 22nd Street isn't so much of a surprise; after all, the show's director and the theater's artistic director, Charlotte Moore, appeared as Mrs. Smith in the Broadway production. She smartly realized that the barn-like Gershwin was much too large for the modest story of the Smiths, who lived peacefully at 5135 Kensington Avenue, St. Louis at the turn-of-the-(last)-century -- specifically, from summer 1903 to the spring 1904, when the long-awaited Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened. The original author, Sally Benson, wrote a small story. So Mrs. and Mrs Alonzo Smith, their children Esther, Rose, Agnes, and Tootie, and Grandpa are all better served on Irish Rep's modest stage.

Indeed, the history of MGM screen-to-stage transfers hasn't been particularly fortuitous. The 1939 blockbuster The Wizard of Oz has fared best, with a national tour in 1997 -- not to mention the all-Black Broadway adaptation The Wiz, which may make a return visit next year. But, for the most part, MGM's films have found the Great White Way to be far less hospitable than the movie screen:

(Film: 1958. Broadway: 1973, 103 performances)
The Uris Theater -- now known as the Gershwin, home of the Oz spinoff Wicked -- proved to be too big a venue for this modest story about (let's put it nicely) a girl's coming of age and the man who loves her. Granted, replacing Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Louis Jourdan, and Leslie Caron wasn't easy. Still, in retrospect, Broadway sported an excellent cast, with Alfred Drake, Maria Karnilova, Daniel Massey and Karin Wolfe in the movie stars' respective roles -- and, to be sure, Agnes Moorehead in place of Isabel Jeans was a coup for the stage version. Book writer-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe set the tone of all future MGM film-to-stage-shows by adding some songs (five) and dropping others (two). The best of the new crop was "The Contract," a nine-minute stunner in which Gigi's marital fate is measured down to the last possible franc. Alas, it was all to no avail: The property that began as a nine-time Oscar-winner finished its short Broadway run as a certified flop.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(Film: 1954. Broadway: 1982, 5 performances)
Original lyricist Johnny Mercer had already died, so original composer Gene DePaul allowed the songwriting team of Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn to write nine new songs and drop six of the Mercer-DePaul numbers for the stage adaptation of the Howard Keel-Jane Powell tuner. While some may grouse that the score is why the show succumbed so quickly, the story in London was quite different. Last year, when the BBC Radio asked its listeners to name their favorite musicals, this version finished third -- right behind Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera. In addition, the show has been frequently produced in regional theater and is due at the Paper Mill Playhouse in the spring.

Singin' in the Rain
(Film: 1952. Broadway: 1985, 387 performances)
One of Francois Truffaut's favorite movies didn't become one of his favorite Broadway musicals. In fact, he might very well have said what Lina Lamont often shrieked: "I can't stand it." Lina's struggle from silent movies to talkies had certainly been well served by the movie's script writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. But even with eight songs added from the Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed catalogue, and Twyla Tharp's choreography, the show didn't really connect with audiences and lost virtually its entire investment.

(Film: 1985. Broadway: 1995, 734 performances)
MGM was one of four production companies for the film and its distributor, hence this property's inclusion on our list. The story, as you might recall, is about a woman who falls in love with a man who thinks she's a man but wishes she were a woman. Original composer Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse retained four of the film's six songs and wrote six more for the stage version; then, after Mancini's death in 1994, Bricusse brought on his Jekyll & Hyde composer Frank Wildhorn, with whom he wrote three more tunes. Despite a nearly two-year run, the show didn't pay back its investment, and everyone except star Julie Andrews was "egregiously overlooked" by the Tony Award nominators. Andrews made a grand gesture by declining her nomination, and the voters obeyed, giving the trophy to Donna Murphy instead.

High Society
(Film: 1956. Broadway: 1998, 144 performances)
Cole Porter's take on The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, was the fourth-highest-grossing film of its year -- but the Broadway effort wasn't remotely the fourth-highest-grosser of its season. Maybe adding all those other Cole Porter songs from various shows didn't help audiences enjoy the show as much as its creators intended. Certainly, the opener didn't: Melissa Errico, in the role of heiress Tracy Lord, came out and sang that she was "Ridin' High." This was a big mistake, since an enormous part of the plot involved Tracy's being an ice queen. Then why was she exuberantly singing, "So ring bells! Sing songs!"?

Tagged in this Story