10 Reasons Why Film Adaptations of Musicals Tend to Fail


Anthony J. Piccione 

Movie musicals: They have been around for nearly as long as sound has been a part of film. Naturally, many of the most notable of them have been adapted from Broadway musicals, and a good portion of them tend to be commercially successful. However, those of us who are used to seeing the real thing – and even some who aren’t – tend to be disappointed once we see these musicals come to the silver screen.

Why is this?

There are plenty of ways to answer this question, and today, I present to you a list of 10 of the most likely reasons why film adaptations of Broadway musicals often don’t live up to the original production. Perhaps the people who make these movies will read this list, and be able to learn from these frequent mistakes when they’re making the next adaptation of a big Broadway musical. (Or am I being a little too optimistic?)

10.    Differences in audiences – This might be a reason that people who are traditionally non-theatre goers might bring up: That the audiences who tend to enjoy Broadway musicals aren’t necessarily the same as those who enjoy big Hollywood blockbusters, generally speaking. There might be some truth to this, as not all the people who go to the local movie theater in your area may have had the chance to catch the latest Tony-award winning musical in NYC, and thus may not share an appreciation for Broadway theatre in general. However, it’s more likely that there are other explanations for why this is the case.

9.    Bad choice of director –Sometimes, the director of a movie musical might seem to be the perfect choice, such as in the case of Tim Burton directing Sweeney Todd. But more often, it seems to be an imperfect match at best, as was the case when Clint Eastwood directed Jersey Boys, and when the director and the musical don’t mix well together, it is not hard to see how it can be a recipe for disaster.

8.    Expectations are high – When someone who loves theatre goes to see the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables, they can be forgiven for leaving the movie theater being more than a little disappointed. If a musical proves to be one of the most grand, thrilling and spectacular shows that they have ever seen in their life, should they not expect to have a similar experience when watching the film adaptation of that same musical? Since the musicals that are adapted into films often are long-running, Tony-award winning classics, it is only logical that people would expect the film versions to be just as worth watching as the live Broadway versions. But in most cases, they often do not live up to such expectations.

7.    Dumbing down – In an attempt to appeal to the previously mentioned movie goers who might not normally appreciate Broadway musicals, they might dumb down – or as more polite people would put it, “tone” down – certain musicals that might otherwise have been less accessible in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. When this happens, the result is never pretty.

6.    Not as visually stunning – When watching a live theatrical production, one of the things that can make or break a show is the quality of the scenic and costume designs, which help to draw in an audience early on in a production. Often, the musicals that are adapted into Hollywood films are visually outstanding on Broadway, but that is not often how it seems in the film version, when the visual appearance of the cinematic adaptation does not live up to its theatrical counterpart.

5.    Sometimes it just doesn’t translate well – There are times when a musical works just as much for the screen as it does for the stage, and times when it’s a thrilling spectacle worth watching on Broadway but not something that would be a great idea for Hollywood to be working on. It is for this reason why certain musicals are remembered for many years, but their film counterparts are quickly forgotten. The Phantom of the Opera has been running on Broadway ever since the 1980s, but does anyone even remember the film adaptation of that same musical released in 2004?

4.    Too many songs are cut – Or even just trimmed, really. When audiences go to see a musical, they obviously are doing so because they expect there to be some actual MUSIC in these stories. Why remove something that could be one of the biggest highlights of a movie for audiences, just as it might have been a highlight for theatre audiences?

3.    Bad casting – There are many possible examples that could be highlighted to show this, but I’d say the best example of this might be in the film adaptation of The Wiz, starring big names such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor, among others. While each of them may have been talented in other areas, none of them did a particularly convincing job at playing the characters they were cast in. This mistake of picking famous names who aren’t necessarily the best suited to act in the film is one that Hollywood seems to have yet to learn from. Perhaps they do this under the assumption that it will make them more money, but when the result is more and more critical failures that only serve as an insult to movie musicals, and arguably do long-term damage to the overall genre, is it really worth it?

2.    Generally deviates from the original material – Perhaps the best example of this would be Annie, when the 1982 film adaptation included several changes from the original Broadway musical. (Don’t even get me started on the abomination that is the more recent 2014 adaptation.) When these changes were made, the film was largely criticized not just by fans of the original musical, but by film critics and audiences in general. When a musical is already beloved and considered a classic, why make any changes to it that would potentially damage its reputation?

1.    Nothing beats the real thing – Perhaps we should all just face the fact that, overall, seeing it all happen live on a Broadway stage is always going to be better than seeing a watered down version of it on the silver screen, and there isn’t much that can be done about that. 

So what do you think? Why do you believe that film adaptations of musicals don’t live up to expectations? Any reasons we may have left off the list? Or do you believe we’re all wrong, and that they’re not all that bad? Be sure to let us know in the comments!