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Stage to Screen, New York to London (or Vice Versa)

Does the story of a disaster-prone theatrical tour of the British provinces pack the same farcical punch when transposed to the States? Are the nuances of a right-to-die-fueled narrative lost during a similar crossing of the pond? Can Johnny Depp really sing Sondheim?

Noises Off
These and other questions may arise when viewing some of the entries in the Library for the Performing Arts' Cinema Series 40 Years of London and New York Theatre on Film. The series is held in conjunction with the Library for the Performing Arts' ongoing exhibition Curtain Up: Celebrating the Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London, which takes a close look at productions that have achieved success both on Broadway and the West End, scoring Tony and Olivier Awards in the process. The related film series features movie versions of some of these shows, which are faithful to their source material to widely varying degrees.

Peter Bogdanovich’s rarely seen 1992 film version of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, screening Monday, Dec. 19, follows the play’s narrative contours fairly closely. The crucial difference is that the bickering, bedraggled theatrical troupe attempting to stage a door-slamming British farce is Broadway bound, with Des Moines, Miami Beach, and Cleveland taking the place of Weston-Super-Mare, Goole, and Stockton-on-Tees on the itinerary. It’s open to debate whether the ensuing theatrical shenanigans (viewed from both out front and backstage) register as well when staged, timed, and edited for the screen. A first-rate cast of troupers, including Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, and Nicollette Sheridan, are certainly in there giving their comic all.

Whose LifeAnother relative rarity, screening Thursday, Jan. 5, is John Badham’s Americanized 1981 movie version of Brian Clark’s play Whose Life Is It, Anyway?  Richard Dreyfuss plays a sculptor, paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident, who fights a medical establishment determined to keep him alive. The role brought stage originator Tom Conti both Olivier and Tony Awards, but the MGM production opted for a change of setting from England to Boston. John Cassavetes is cast as his chief adversary, and in one of her first movie roles, Christine Lahti plays a sympathetic doctor.

SweeneyOther films later in the series retain their original settings but sport cross-pollinated creative teams. Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winning 1988 movie Dangerous Liaisons, an adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play that screens Mar. 20, features an all-American cast, including John Malkovich and Glenn Close as the scheming French aristocrats Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, and Michelle Pfeiffer as one of their victims. British director John Madden’s 2005 film of the Tony-winning American play Proof (showing Apr. 17) stars Gwyneth Paltrow, who was nominated for an Olivier Award when she played the role in the West End. Tim Burton’s distinctive cinematic take on the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd (screening May 4) was shot in England with American Johnny Depp in the title role standing out amongst an otherwise all-British cast.

The series closes out in June with two films that reversed the usual trajectory and became the basis for award-winning stage musicals. John Carney’s lovely 2007 Irish film Once, showing June 1, was developed as a theatre piece stateside by a largely British team, and earned eight Tonys on Broadway before transferring to the West End. Composer Cyndi Lauper and librettist Harvey Fierstein took the storyline of the 2005 British comedy Kinky Boots in hand and created a smash Tony and Olivier-winning hit. The movie, which screens June 19, doesn’t have the Lauper songs, but it does have a fierce performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the drag queen footwear designer Lola.

Kinky Boots

Other offerings in the 40 Years of London and New York Theatre on Film series are Evita (1996), screening Feb. 2; Bent (1997), on Mar. 2; Closer (2004), on Apr. 6, and Frost/Nixon (2007), screening May 15. All screenings are held at 6:00 PM in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Library for the Performing Arts. Find an event for you.

All photos: Photofest


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