Most people do not go to the theatre often, even once a year is a stretch for those not active fans of the theatre experience. On the other hand most people visit the cinema multiple times a year, maybe even a month. What accounts for this? Well, the obvious answer that springs to my mind seems to be cost and availability. If I wanted to see a movie this week I could go to the Reel cinema and see a movie for about £5. The minimum price for a general ticket to see Wonderland at The Grand Opera House this week is £21.40. There are multiple cinemas and theatres in York but each of the cinemas offers a larger selection of content at a fraction of the price than their theatrical counterparts.
But the cost of going to theatre is not necessarily unjustified for the experience you receive. If you go and see a musical you’ll get a (mostly) live orchestra, live performers and a theatre to watch them in. But what the cost difference does do is it makes audiences much more careful about what they see on stage. For instance, if there’s a film you’re unsure about, you’re much more likely to gamble a fiver on seeing it then seeing a mystery show for upwards of twenty quid per person. Because of this people are far more likely to see something they either are already familiar with (such as an adaptation) or something they know will guarantee a spectacular night of entertainment (for example a West End show).
This is where the movie musical is an interesting intersection. (Here, I’m particularly referring to musicals that are adaptations of theatre shows.) Most West End musicals do not release performance rights while they’re on in London, this means that the only legal production of the show is the official one and you must travel to London and see it at the prices set by the theatre (or production company). So when a movie comes out, you can experience a version of that text at a fraction of the price. See Les Miserables in London for £50 in a decent seat (with impressive travel expenses if you don’t live in London), or in your local multiplex for less than a tenner.
On paper this sounds like a good compromise, you get to see a professionally made version of something you may not get to see otherwise. The flaw in this formula, however, is that this transposition from theatre to film is never made in the interest of the story being told. When a movie musical is made the thinking is to transfer the stage version of a story onto the screen, very rarely will the producers of a movie musical ask what the best way to put the pure story on screen is. The plot has to follow that of the theatrical piece, the songs should be largely the same; the ultimate goal is to replicate the feeling of watching the show on stage in your local cinema.
But the problem is you’ll never achieve this. As the makers of the Rent movie discovered, once you remove the energetic charge of live performance, you often don’t have a story which is designed to be consumed on screen (a largely realistic medium) rather than stage (a largely metaphorical one). The toolkit offered to playwrights and screenwriters are very different and without serious consideration into how the story is going to work on film you’ll get a poor man’s version of a theatre experience- you may as well watch a live broadcast from the National. Often, but not always, fans of the source material will stand by the film adaptation and then can even be well reviewed but, unless there’s a rethink of how to tell the story of the musical for cinema, movie musicals will always be at a disadvantage.