Critic's Notebook: Why 'Les Miserables' Became a Hit Movie But 'Jersey Boys' Did Not

Laurie Sparham
'Les Miserables'

THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy explains why film adaptations of Broadway plays — once a sure thing — are now a risky venture

This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Why can the same material that's smashingly successful in one medium prove an utter flop in another? That's the perennially vexing question at the core of the sometimes thriving, other times strained relationship between Broadway and Hollywood.

Some of the most beloved and frequently revisited movies of all time have their origins on the stage, and there have been times when plays, and particularly musicals, were the source of many of the most popular and prestigious films; fully half of the winners of the best picture Oscar during the 1960s came from the theater — West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, A Man for All Seasons and Oliver!

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In the 45 years since then, however, only three stage adaptations have won the top award — Amadeus, Driving Miss Daisy and the last one, Chicago, in 2002 — and while film adaptations of plays and musicals continue to be made, both the frequency and box office batting averages of such undertakings have declined significantly; a rarely lifting cloud seems to have hung over such enterprises for some time, instilling increased caution in Hollywood about pursuing them.

All the same, expectations are high for two big Hollywood musicals based on older shows that are due in theaters in December, Into the Woods and the second screen version of Annie.  Both of these beloved properties appear to have been retooled with particular demographics in mind — the new wave of fairy tale fans (who tune in weekly for TV series like Grimm and Once Upon a Time), underserved African-American audiences for the latter— but with possible breakout potential in both cases.

And the bottom line is: you never know. Why, for instance, do the ongoing Broadway, Las Vegas and international renditions of Jersey Boys continue to nightly rouse mostly middle-age and older audiences to their feet when Clint Eastwood's perfectly good screen version (with the original Frankie Valli actor heading the cast) came and went so quietly early this year? Why did the screen version of the most popular (and still running) musical of all time, The Phantom of the Opera, crash like a weighty chandelier a decade ago?

On the other hand, the most financially successful (in absolute dollars) film musical of all time is of recent vintage; Mamma Mia!, which continues to play on stages around the world, grossed an exceptional $605 million. But the key detail in this case is that a whopping 76 percent of this total was generated overseas, a fact obviously attributable to the universally popular ABBA soundtrack. It might come as a surprise that the number two big screen musical was released just two years ago; Les Miserables generated $442 million across the globe, 66 percent of which came from outside the United States.

Is there a parallel, then, between the international appeal of certain musicals — ones with catchy, widely known songs that don't, shall we say, hinge upon the linguistic niceties of a Lerner and Loewe — and the global success of sensation-dominated effects and superhero action films that are not heavily reliant upon dialogue? Again, the answer can only be yes and no. Recent history would show that, to maximize returns on a musical, it needs to appeal to an international audience and not be U.S.-set to achieve significant global success. Of the musicals that have grossed more than $140 million worldwide over the past 20 years, all but two have had non-American settings, were based on internationally successful shows and did the decisive majority of their business outside the U.S., where the box-office partially compensated for the lackluster domestic performance; The Phantom of the Opera generated 67 percent of its business internationally, Sweeney Todd and Evita 65 percent and Nine 64 percent.

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The only relatively recent film musicals to buck this trend and earn more in the United States than they did overseas were Hairspray and Dreamgirls, which generated 41 and 33 percent of their box office offshore. Rock of Ages, which didn't fare well domestically, was an even bigger bust internationally. As bad as the grosses were in the U.S. for Rent, they were virtually non-existent in the rest of the world, where only eight percent of its business was generated. For the film version of the madly successful Broadway musical The Producers (itself based on a Mel Brooks film), resistance was equal throughout the world; this film, which featured some of the original cast, is a contender for the most strictly faithful screen version of a stage piece ever made, but its effect was of a pale and strained imitation of something that was once quite wonderful. 

Exempting Shakespeare adaptations, of which there have been considerably more over the past 30 years or so than there were in the old Hollywood days, straight plays have come upon harder times of late, although there is a certain silver lining. Once upon a time, successful Broadway dramas and comedies almost automatically got made into films and adaptations of works by major playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and William Inge figured regularly among the most popular and prestigious releases of their years. From the 1960s through the 1980s and even beyond, a year was scarcely complete without a Neil Simon play being put on the screen and occasionally there were special cases, such as Steel Magnolias and A Few Good Men, in which ideal big-star casting made play adaptations into major hits.

Nowadays, it seems like, if Harvey can get Meryl Streep and the Oscar nomination that will come with her, fine; if not, forget about it. The most remunerative dramatic play adaptation of recent times was War Horse, which had Steven Spielberg and an epic scope but was still perceived as a disappointment compared to the theatrical experience. The Streep specials August: Osage County and Doubt performed adequately, but even something as heavily promoted and well-received as Frost/Nixon did meager business (and less than that overseas), putting a further chill in the air for other potential stage transfers.

One after the other, dramatic stage adaptations, some of them very good indeed, have hit the wall of public indifference: A Dangerous Method, Carnage, The History Boys, Bug, Rabbit Hole, For Colored Girls, Death and the Maiden, The Women. Volker Schlondorff's very fine adaptation of a French play about the last days of the Nazis' occupation of Paris, Diplomacy, has been a hit locally and will open in the United States soon.

Still, the weight of evidence forces one to at least consider that there is something about traditional theatrical conventions — the constant talk, the frequently confined settings, certain kinds of elevated or stylized language and even obvious measures taken to “open things up" — that is off-putting, perhaps just subliminally, to modern audiences. 

Then there is the occasional snobbery of critics that cuts in two directions. Some theatrical purists possess a reflex muscle that makes them automatically object to any liberties taken with stage material; these are the people who will say, “Oh, but you should have seen it on Broadway” (or in London). Then there are cinephiles quick to object if something seems too stagebound, uncinematic or actory.

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The two big musical films that seemed to most please their core constituencies, Mamma Mia! and Les Miserables, featured generally fine actor-singers delivering the goods in strong fashion against lushly presented backgrounds. Ultra-faithful adaptations of popular musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers, felt constrained and hemmed in; the former also had less than an ideal cast, while the latter was so clunky it actually felt like it was made in the '60s.

Where there is hope is, of course, on television. Mike Nichols' 2003 HBO miniseries version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is one of the greatest adaptations of any play in any era and, at full length, would have been inconceivable as a theatrical film. Related by subject matter if not entirely by quality, this year's big HBO theater transfer, The Norman Heart, enjoyed solid rating, strong reviews and considerably Emmy attention. And the great success this past season of a live broadcast of The Sound of Music has paved the way for NBC's upcoming Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams of HBO's Girls. As attractive as good plays always are to top actors, there's no evident reason that television shouldn't begin to accommodate more interesting and challenging theatrical pieces in the near future. And then, is it too much to imagine that, as film does, television will begin supplying the theater with ideas for shows? Surely dramatic musicals — or, better yet, operas — of House of Cards or Game of Thrones can't be far off.

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