- The Oxford Handbook of Musical Theatre Screen Adaptations ed. by Dominic McHugh
Although the film version of Cats arrived too late for consideration in The Oxford Handbook of Musical Theatre Screen Adaptations, the questions and issues surrounding the reasons for its failure loom large throughout the book. Edited by Dominic McHugh, professor of musicology and curator of concert versions of Broadway musicals at the University of Sheffield, this massive collection of twenty-seven essays brings together leading scholars to consider the qualities that make a successful cinematic adaptation of a successful stage musical. McHugh, while referring specifically to “success” in the introduction, does not define it, and the essays vary widely in their determinations of how to measure it. Some of the writers focus on commercial success while others concentrate on artistic merit or critical achievement. Still others consider the effectiveness of specific aspects of a film. While the broad array of areas in which success is considered—critical, commercial, artistic, technical, and so on—and the consequent diverging methodologies and viewpoints provide critical insights and a multiplicity of starting points for future research, they also give the book a sprawling effect and leave the reader without a central theoretical underpinning. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The ultimate value of this book is that it creates a critical survey of topics in a subfield that has rarely been studied as such. [End Page 121]
The book comprises six sections: the nature of adaptation; politics; identity; stars; multiple adaptations of single works; and production, commerce, and technology. As one might expect, the reasons for any single work’s failure span multiple categories, so the groupings are more suggestive than prescriptive, but this only underscores the complicated issues surrounding the subject. Such a taxonomy does not hamper the usefulness and enjoyability of the book for musical theatre scholars and theatre and film historians as well as popular readers with similar interests. It may be less useful for craftsmen who want to know how to make better films, as these essays rarely stray from theatrical and literary criticism into film theory or discussions of the technical elements of film from the point of view of filmmakers. Likewise, only a handful consider music theory, although it does make a refreshing appearance in a few of the essays.
In addition to McHugh, who contributes two pieces himself, twenty-five essayists examine musical stage-to-screen adaptations from the earliest days of talking cinema (The Desert Song, Rio Rita) to twenty-first-century film (The Producers, Hairspray). Perhaps the best known of these writers is Geoffrey Block, author of Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from “Show Boat” to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber (1997). Here, Block examines the extent to which a screen adaptation “should” emulate its stage source via the 1935 film version of Roberta, which he sees as superior to the original 1933 stage version. The key to the film’s success, he concludes, is that the creative team made changes to the original material to suit the new medium while allowing the original songwriters to be part of the refitting. This arrangement was generally not in place for other musical films in the 1930s.
The writers here chiefly give the reader close readings of primary sources and other archival materials and then argue their own theories regarding the success or failure of the films under study. Each essay historicizes its subject, and there is some terrific archival work in the volume. Most take a comparative approach in analyzing the film(s). Hannah Robbins acknowledges the critical acclaim received by the film version of Kiss Me, Kate (1953) but critiques its erasure of African American characters and the limitations it places on female agency, both of which had been important components of the 1948 stage musical. Amanda McQueen argues for the success of Half a Sixpence (1967) at bringing the film techniques of the Hollywood Renaissance to the musical comedy form, and consequently bringing the genre up to date while noting its critical and financial failure, at least in...