VSChoosing a live musical to watch right now can feel like you’re browsing movie listings from the ’80s and’ 90s. Pretty Woman and Back to the Future are playing opposite each other in West End. London, with The Lion King, Matilda and Heathers nearby. The indecent proposal opens next month.
The speed of traffic flowing in the opposite direction from stage to screen, however, tends to be a bit faster. A Dear Evan Hansen movie, the Broadway hit about an anxious and alienated college student who claims to have been friends with a suicide victim, arrived just five years after it opened, with Julianne Moore and Amy Adams among the cast. Everyone’s talking about Jamie, who follows a 16-year-old budding drag queen from Sheffield, only took four years, picking up Richard E Grant and Sharon Horgan along the way.
The producers of Sheffield-based Warp Films pounced on Jamie with all the excitement of the teenager putting his hands on shiny new heels. “They were there for the 10th performance,” recalls Jonathan Butterell, who developed the show, based on a 2011 documentary, and then directed it at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield in 2017. “They loved it and asked meet me. I thought someone was going to say, “Obviously we’re going to get a director for this” because I’ve never made a movie before. But that conversation just never happened.
An on-screen version, adapted by series writers Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells, was already on the cards by the time the musical became a West End hit later that year. Butterell claims to have never been pressured by financiers to launch, for example, Timothée Chalamet with a Sheffield accent. Instead, he made social media calls for newcomers and found the dynamic Max Harwood, 21. But why not bring back John McCrea, who originally played the role in Sheffield and London but who only has one place in the film? “At that time, John was 27 years old,” he explains. “And on camera you look 27 years old. John knew it. We all knew it. I didn’t want to do a Grease, where you have 30-year-olds playing 16. ”
This is precisely the criticism Dear Evan Hansen sparked by retaining original Broadway star Ben Platt, who is 27 but is playing a decade younger. “Honestly, I didn’t anticipate this reaction,” says filmmaker Stephen Chbosky. “But if people see the movie and they’re still talking about his age, then it probably wasn’t for them anyway.”
Unlike Butterell, Chbosky has a filmmaker form: he directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted from his own YA novel, as well as the script for the movie version of Rent, and co-wrote Disney’s live-action The Beauty and the Beast. Dear Evan Hansen is his first shot at directing a musical, and although he admired the show on Broadway, he knew he needed a different texture on the screen.
“I kept saying we were making a musical with a little ‘m’,” he tells me. “I thought of it as a drama with songs. I love big, popping musicals, but this one takes place in dining rooms and bedrooms, so this approach wouldn’t have worked. I wanted to treat it sonically, as if the dialogue and the lyrics were interchangeable. The mixture is so subtle that you don’t realize that a song is about to happen, whereas in most musicals it’s like, “Here is the band!” “
A few songs were dropped, including the opening number, Anybody Have a Map ?, which featured the characters in a way that felt inherently theatrical. Two songs were written especially for the film, including A Little Closer, which is sung by the dead boy, Connor, and gives the ending a different emphasis. On stage, Evan is in agony over the lies he has told, but there is little sense in the wider impact of his actions. Chbosky knew this would not be suitable for a movie. “Evan confessed to everyone on stage but there are only eight characters in the play. Once you get into the real world on film, there are dozens of people who know him. He owes them too. be frank. “
He worked with the show’s writers, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, to find solutions. “I told them that I wanted Evan to confess to the community. I couldn’t stop thinking about him at his 10-year-old high school reunion. Like: does he always pretend to be Connor’s friend? I didn’t want him to have that burden.
Audiences in theater and cinema experience the material differently, he notes. “When you see a show it comes over you, and maybe later you think, ‘Wait, why doesn’t he…? But it’s a live experience. So that the movie can be watched as many times as you want. It’s that permanent record, so he needs to be more responsible. This is the version that a youngster, who might need this movie, will eventually have on their phone. I wanted them to have another example of the play’s theme – that you have to be yourself, not lying or hiding.
Everybody’s Talking Jamie has also suffered a few nips and kinks. On stage, Jamie’s mentor, Hugo, performs The Legend of Loco Chanelle, a campy and fiery act on her days as a drag queen. “That’s the pace you hit at that point on the show,” Butterell says, “but I knew it wasn’t cinematic.” What cinema audiences get instead is a home movie flashback montage that encompasses the decimating AIDS sweep and section 28 protest marches, all on a new song, This Was. Me, performed by Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “I participated in these marches,” says Butterell. “And I lost 22 or 23 year old young friends to AIDS. They were the Jamies of their day. I wanted their stories to be revealed.
Not all changes are so beneficial. It seems perverse, for example, to cut the thread of Act Two, He’s My Boy, when it’s barely started. What should have been Jamie’s mother’s big figure (played in the Sarah Lancashire film) is reduced to the level of musical accompaniment as we instead watch Jamie wander the streets, steal into a store and run on the pitch during a game football match to get the attention of his disapproving father. Divorcing your singer’s song may temporarily turn the movie from a musical into a pop video.
Why didn’t Butterell just leave the camera in Lancashire? “Sarah is more than capable of holding these four and a half minutes on her own,” he insists. “But I wanted to layer the scene and juxtapose different things. This is what cinema can do so well. I tried to show how his mom was sort of guilty of Jamie’s feelings of self-harm, and for us to actually see him pushing that self-destruct button.
He happily responds to my other nagging criticisms – of why Jamie is so chaste and sexless, and whether the central struggle of the drama has been overtaken by the general acceptance of RuPaul’s Drag Race – with all the confidence of a man. which supports the film he made. “I understand what you are saying,” he said. “People have visceral reactions to material, and that includes thinking, ‘Oh, I wish they’d done it like this … ‘”
Jamie and Evan represent just the first of this fall’s crop of new stage-to-screen musicals. In the coming months, fans of Matilda (the stage version, ie with songs by Tim Minchin), Tick, Tick… Boom! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) and West Side Story (the Steven Spielberg remake) will also have the opportunity to say, “Oh, I wish they had done it like this. “And there’s more to come. A Wicked movie, the Wizard of Oz prequel that has been in the works since 2003, has been in the works for longer than it would take to build the Yellow Brick Road, but is expected to hitting theaters next year A film version of the brash teen musical Be More Chill is also in development, just four years after it aired on Broadway.
Everything would seem fast next to Richard Linklater’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which tells the counter-chronological story of three friends in their forties to twenties. The Linklater adaptation is currently in production – and will be until the late 2030s. Rather than resorting to wigs and makeup to show young, middle-aged actors, Linklater (also responsible for Boyhood of 12 years) shoot scenes every year so that the actors are the same age as their characters. The movie star? Ben Platt. Perhaps by the time the film opens, around 2040, the criticism of his age in Dear Evan Hansen will finally have vanished.