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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 03:16 pm

Broadway’s best and worst

Few musicals make a graceful transition to the big screen

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars in Chicago
Untitled Document What has happened to the musical genre? We used to get peppy children singing and dancing on mountains, or women trying to wash men out of their hair. Now it’s all about sex, murder, and madness. Achieving adulthood is a plus for this somewhat dubious genre, but it doesn’t solve all the problems. Storyline still takes a back seat to the music, and characters remain superficial. Dreamgirls is a case in point. Diana Ross and the Supremes, one of the best and most successful singing groups of the ’60s, is the basis for this fictional story of the rise of a female trio from Detroit. All of the expected negative elements, from backstabbing to jealousy, are included, but each conflict seems programmed to appear at a designated moment. Nothing flows naturally, as life does. The songs should have made the film bearable, but they pale next to the classics of Motown. The buzz is for Dreamgirls to win the Best Picture Oscar. I hope that doesn’t happen. For all its faults, though, Dreamgirls is still superior to the dreadful Rent (2005), a feeble attempt at a ’90s bohemian version of Hair. Whoever told the late Jonathan Larson he could write music should be strapped down and forced to listen to Britney Spears records until his ears bleed. The cast just warbles out what sounds like random notes in search of an actual song. Did the filmmakers deliberately search for the two blandest and least charismatic actors for the lead roles? The Phantom of the Opera (2004) is not quite as annoying as one might expect, although the classic story of a madman terrorizing a Paris opera house is lost in the inconsistent score. Some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs are good, particularly the title tune, but others are conversations sung rather than spoken. Do they really qualify as songs? Are they actually entertaining? Brian De Palma’s rock-music version, Phantom of the Paradise (1974), is much better. The one saving grace in my week of musical torture was Chicago (2002), adapted from the Bob Fosse stage production. Unfortunately, Fosse didn’t live to direct the film version, but director Rob Marshall does a pitch-perfect imitation of the master. The music, by Fred Ebb and John Kander, puts that of most other musicals to shame, and the musical numbers are cleverly integrated into this comedy/drama about a would-be entertainer who goes on trial for murdering her lover. Chicago is the only recent Broadway adaptation to succeed on all levels.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Jan. 16): The Gridiron Gang and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.
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