Scene stealers

'The Full Monty': now a musical! 'Moulin Rouge': coming soon! But why bother, asks Ryan Gilbey, when we've already seen the film?
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When the musical version of The Full Monty opens in the West End this week, it will mark the latest stage in a tug-of-war match between theatre and cinema – a match that theatre, for all its grandeur, looks destined to lose.

When the musical version of The Full Monty opens in the West End this week, it will mark the latest stage in a tug-of-war match between theatre and cinema – a match that theatre, for all its grandeur, looks destined to lose.

The relationship between the two art forms used to be a straightforward one, characterised at its most fraught by healthy sibling rivalry. Movies have always represented populism and youth, while theatre, at least until the late 1960s, still clung to those high-culture, elitist ideals that take more than the odd Rocky Horror Show, or Jamie Theakston joining the cast of Art, to dispel. Any crossovers typically followed the same pattern. If a Broadway show was deemed sufficiently mainstream, it would inevitably transfer to film, having proved its viability. Journeys in the opposite direction have always been much rarer – though there were significant exceptions, such as Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which opened on Broadway in 1966 as Sweet Charity, only to ping-pong back into cinemas in its new, sugar-toothed incarnation in 1969.

But theatrical musicals have never before been as dependent on cinema as they are today. "I think it can be attributed to a pathetic dearth of talent in the writing of new musicals," says the theatre critic Robert Gore-Langton. "No one seems to be able to write musicals that people want to see." The logical response for many producers has been to take films that have already proved popular, throw in a handful of songs, a decent choreographer, and pray that the millions who loved the movie will queue up again for the musical.

The result is that many current theatrical experiences have in some way been refracted through cinema; even Andrew Lloyd Webber's forthcoming musical, Bombay Dreams, is a tribute to the films of Bollywood. "I think we might have run out of plays," says Jeremy Sams, who has adapted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the stage. But Lindsay Law, the producer of The Full Monty (last year's Broadway hit) sees the trend as mere coincidence. "The year before us, Footloose and Saturday Night Fever had opened on Broadway and they were not successful." As demonstrated by Singin' in the Rain and The Graduate, familiarity is the most obvious advantage of adapting a movie for the stage. "Everybody's trying to find a way to be safe in a business you can't be safe in," observed Marty Bell, co-producer of the musical version of Sweet Smell of Success, which recently began previewing on Broadway with John Lithgow in the old Burt Lancaster role of gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker.

"A famous title is extremely helpful," agrees Sams. "One theatre in St Louis actually gave its audience a list of film titles and got them to vote on the one they'd most like to see as a musical. They chose White Christmas, and when Cameron Mackintosh did the same thing with his writers, the result was The Witches of Eastwick. " This cautious approach has also given rise to the "greatest hits" shows, whether good ( Mamma Mia), bad ( All You Need is Love) or yet-to-be-judged (the upcoming and, let's face it, dreaded Queen/Ben Elton collaboration We Will Rock You). But the trend for playing it safe found its apotheosis some time ago in the cynical Walt Disney show, Beauty and the Beast, which epitomised the worst tendencies of theatre's dependency on cinema. That production relied for its popularity on an intimate proximity to the film on which it was based, whereas The Lion King at least redefines the images of its source material.

Jeremy Sams points out that you can't depart too radically from your inspiration. "Certain things you know have to happen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For example, a car's going to fly." But in Beauty and the Beast, any deviation from, or improvement upon, the celluloid original would have been heresy, like serving Chateaubriand when Sir expressly requested a Whopper.

If movie adaptations represent a safe bet for producers, then the same can be said of the audience's motives. Just as compilation albums accommodate our unwillingness to take risks, so a stage musical modelled on last year's multiplex hit makes the £30 price-tag on a decent stalls seat less of a gamble. Theatre cannot compete with cinema's effortless ability to shift between locations, eras and special effects. But for the theatre-goer who craves only entertainment, or who has to placate visiting relatives, this genre promises a safe haven from disappointment – and from a new Mark Ravenhill.

The current plethora of screen-to-stage adaptations has thrown up its fair share of popular and critical successes. Almost a year after opening, tickets are still scarce for The Producers, based on Mel Brooks's benignly taboo 1968 comedy. This Tony-winning Broadway hit doesn't promise a facsimile of the movie. Its chorus line of decrepit grandmothers with Zimmer frames, for example, didn't feature in the original film but is recognisably consistent with the irreverent spirit of Brooks's work. Audiences at The Full Monty will also be confronted with the cosmetic nips and tucks necessary for international appeal, such as the story's relocation from Sheffield to Buffalo.

Lindsay Law maintains that only the superficial details have been altered. "The same heart beats in both the movie and the musical. It's a universal story and these are recognisable characters in any nationality. Certain things have to change. In the film, the characters just snapped a CD into a stereo when they were rehearsing. If you're going to do a musical, that would be boring, so it has to become a much bigger number." Law describes another scene from the film, in which a woman assures her insecure husband that she does want to see his dance routine. "We've got the same moment," he says, "except that now she pushes on and sings a glorious song." That's something I can't get to grips with. Why go on about it for endless verses and choruses when you can say it in a few well-crafted words?

Life for us sceptics is only going to get harder. A glance at recent US stage shows reads like the contents of the bargain bin at Blockbuster – Summer of '42, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor/Victoria and Sunset Boulevard have all been reborn as musicals, while it is possible to experience a tinge of appalled curiosity at the news that Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart have signed up to write a musical of Barbarella that will premiere in Vienna, where Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers has already become a stage hit of Rocky Horror proportions.

It doesn't matter how many of these productions fail: the possibility of chancing upon a Producers or a Full Monty is enough to keep impresarios hunting for the next big movie adaptation. Opening shortly on Broadway are stage versions of An American in Paris and, less predictably, John Waters' 1987 film Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein in the Divine role (we can only dream of the producer bold enough to take on Waters' less palatable works – imagine the heart-rending solo that could accompany the excrement-eating scene in Pink Flamingos). Chazz Palminteri has returned to his play A Bronx Tale, already filmed by Robert De Niro, and is refashioning it as a musical with songs by Jimmy Webb. One of the more heartening bulletins comes from Baz Luhrmann, a director who, along with Robert Lepage and Atom Egoyan, is one of the few cinematic visionaries comfortable with theatrical work. Luhrmann plans to transfer two of his films, Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, to the stage, and has even expressed hopes that the stars of the latter picture – Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor – will reprise their roles. Meanwhile, Jeremy Sams is preparing to adapt for theatre The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's 1983 satire on celebrity.

Ultimately, the source material is irrelevant in everything except soliciting an audience's curiosity. " The Producers looks stunning, it's got sensational performances and it's clearly had millions thrown at it," says Robert Gore-Langton. "It all comes down to the talent. People will see through the packaging very quickly." It would be altogether more productive if theatre ceased competing with cinema; once producers turn creativity into a contest, they've already lost. A musical might be adapted from a book, a movie or a series of text messages, but once the curtain falls on opening night, no amount of inherited lustre can hope to insulate it against the critics' ink, or the public's indifference.

'The Full Monty': Prince of Wales, London W1 (020 7839 5972), previewing, opens Tuesday; a Channel 4 documentary on the making of the film 'The Bottom Line – Revealing The Full Monty' is showing on 17 March at 9pm, followed by the film; 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang': London Palladium, W1 (020 7494 5572), previews from 19 March, opens 16 April; 'We Will Rock You': Dominion, London W1 (020 7413 1713), previews from 24 April, opens 14 May; 'Bombay Dreams': Apollo Victoria, London SW1 (020 7494 5386), previews from 31 May, opens 19 June